When Gary Vessey attended Castleford Academy as a student in the 70s, the pass rate for English was 14%. He became a teacher and went back to the school to help drive progress. Last year, 76% of students passed their English GCSE. Gary thinks the school’s decision to teach with English Mastery has led to profound changes.
Fifty percent of students attending Castleford are eligible for free school meals. It’s also oversubscribed – during the 20 years that Gary has been teaching there he’s seen the yearly intake rise from 200 to 300. ‘The kids were coming through from our feeder schools with very low reading ages. An average reading age of 8 when they arrived in Year 7, so we wanted to put a massive amount of work into literacy across the curriculum.’ The school chose to start teaching with English Mastery three years ago with the aim of increasing standards in English. Gary describes the process as a ‘massively positive experience.’
A major difference in the Mastery approach was the choice of text. ‘We wouldn’t have taught Oliver Twist to year 7 or Jane Eyre to year 9. We would have thought they would be too hard for our kids to grasp.’ But the hard-hitting, more difficult books selected by English Mastery are being embraced by students. Gary finds all of his students can access them and benefit from the richness of the content. He asked the current year 9s, who have been learning with Mastery since they were in Year 7, how they were finding the experience. ‘They’ve said it’s massively intense, there’s lots of reading but we’re loving it.’
In previous years teachers had focused on small chunks of text and combined it with something creative. This was a way to work around the difficulty of the language. ‘Rather than concentrating on the language we glossed over it because we knew it was really difficult to teach. Whereas with Mastery it’s head on. We have to teach it. It’s opened our eyes up to yes our kids can cope with this.’ Gary finds the students are now more confident in answering questions, their vocabulary has increased and their writing styles have totally changed. The focus on vocabulary is seen as a strength of the programme. ‘Not many of the students have books at home. We’re finding their vocabulary and knowledge has widened massively.’
Gary finds the lessons are more interactive with English Mastery. Students have become more confident expressing themselves, there’s more discussion and opportunities to read aloud. Some students don’t get to speak to an adult in the evening so hearing rich language aloud is important. ‘The planning has vastly reduced, so we focus on what the students need to know and much more interaction. It’s not just asking them if something is true or false. Let’s talk about it. Why is it true? I’m finding I’m addressing a lot more misconceptions as well.’ The best part is that students now want to read aloud. ‘I offer out parts of the book to the class to read. The first week was no hands up whatsoever – and now I’ve got hands going up saying ‘Yes, I’d like to read’.
Gary’s found he’s able to use his time differently. Now in his third year teaching Mastery, the lessons he’s using require only a few tweaks before they’re ready to use. ‘The amount of time I’ve spent planning with Mastery has massively reduced.’ How he plans for a lesson has changed, focusing instead on what questions to ask the class to check their understanding and what the most important priorities for the lesson should be. ‘It’s freed me up. I think my feedback to them has become more meaningful. I’m honing down into that individual’s needs.’
Gary Vessey is an English teacher at Castleford Academy, Wakefield. He spoke to us about his experience in October 2021.
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