The messages that teachers and school leaders give students about the value of GCSEs does have an impact, says David Putwain – although it may not be the impact intended
For the past decade I have been researching how students interpret and respond to messages about the value of GCSEs; what sense they make of such messages and, importantly, whether these messages have any impact on motivation, engagement, and achievement.
Many teachers and school leaders communicate to students the value of GCSEs for their future life trajectories. This could be about realising aspirations, getting the right grades for entry into a sixth form or apprenticeship or simply about performing to their potential. The motivation behind these kinds of messages is not under question. Students will be entering a competitive job market; educational failure is associated with poor physical and mental health in adulthood and increased likelihood of crime and substance dependence.
However, two factors are key to understanding how students interpret messages.
Students who interpret messages positively are more motivated
First is the personal importance a student attaches to GCSEs. Although students may understand, in a superficial sense, why GCSEs are important, it is only when they have a personal connection that they pay attention to value messages.
Students who do not see any personal significance to their GCSEs tend to ignore and disregard these messages; they fall on deaf ears.
Second are student beliefs about ability and expectations for success. If a student believes they have the ability to succeed, they respond to messages positively (achievement-focused). If, however, a student is not confident about their ability, they respond to messages negatively (failure-focused).
It is important to remember here that we are referring to beliefs about ability rather than actual ability. Many students in high-ability sets will be low in confidence about their ability to succeed.
The research also asked whether value messages impact student motivation, engagement, and achievement. Here, the answer depends on how students interpret messages.
Put simply, students who interpret messages positively are more motivated, engaged, and achieve higher grades; those who interpret messages negatively are less motivated, engaged, and achieve lower grades.
It is important to highlight that the statistical modelling used to establish these points does control for prior achievement. These findings are not simply an artefact of student ability (or ability grouping).
What are the key points for school leaders and managers?
First, what teachers and school leaders say to students does have an impact, at least for the majority. It will not, however, necessarily be the impact intended. Students will differ in how they interpret and respond.
Messages to whole-year cohorts, or even whole classes, about the value and importance of their GCSEs will lower the motivation, engagement, and achievement of those who react negatively.
However, it may be impractical to advise against using whole-cohort or whole-class messages. It is therefore important that supportive messages are also conveyed to students about how the strategies the school will be using in years 10 and 11 will help them to achieve their best. The low-confidence students, in particular, must know they will be supported.
Second, the pressures put on teachers to raise attainment, as well as other accountability incentives such as performance-related pay, should not filter down to students. There is a danger that such pressures can creep into the language that teachers use around exams, as well as the general class and school environment. Students can, and do, pick up on these pressures and respond to them in a similar way as they would to a value message from a teacher or school leader.
Managing these pressures effectively to avoid impacting negatively on students, is partly about creating effective staff support mechanisms, and partly about the ways in which a strong school ethos is enacted through all levels of the organisation. Staff, as well as students, must know they are supported.
David Putwain is professor of education at Liverpool John Moores University