How to ask for more challenging work?

(84 Posts)
dalziel1 Sun 23-Feb-14 08:00:54

DS is in year 7 at an outstanding comprehensive. He says he isn't really being challenged in any of subjects like English, maths, science, MFL, geography, history, ICT etc but the ones which are streamed (or is it setted?) are better than those where he's in a mixed ability class.

The teachers do differentiate but DS rarely has to put much effort in even for the most challenging objectives.

Other parents tell me that their children are averaging three hours homework per night, whereas DS maybe does an hour per week (but he still does everything - I check).

The problem is that he's getting bored in class and it makes him feel frustrated when things get repeated over and over. Out of school, he's not bothered at all if there is no challenging work for him as it just means more time doing the things he enjoys. So, the answer is not to leave him to decide whether he fancies doing a bit of extra work at home on one of the websites for which the school has bought licences.

I know I should bring this up with the school, but my question is how do I do this without sounding a) critical that they aren't challenging him and b) like the pushy mother from hell.

Have you had any reports from the school yet?

Are his current levels exceeding his targets for the summer? (by last November, DS2 was already exceeding his end of year targets in several subjects, so I have experience of this).

In English, History, MFL & Geography, it should be possible for him to take the task that's been given and just do it in greater depth. Look up the level descriptors for the level above the one he is currently on and give him those to be going on with.

In Maths & Science, the textbook should have 'stretch' or 'extended' questions in each topic, so he can do those. If he isn't provided with a textbook, then find level 7/8 questions online (there's a Maths set called Sumbooks that you can download for free).

If he is already level 7a / level 8 in most subjects, then you will need to approach the school and ask for some extension work for him.

dalziel1 Sun 23-Feb-14 09:43:37

We just had parent's night. He's more or less at his target for each subject but some subjects say they only go up to a 5 (French) or a 6 (Geography) this year.

He gets the extension work but he just breezes through it. I think there have been 2 or 3 exceptions all year and on those occasions he coped with it fine but the homework took a few hours.

I tried to raise the subject at parents night with the English (mixed ability class) and Maths (top set) teachers. Maths just waffled on about how he could log on to the websites to get himself extra work, if he felt so inclined and the English teacher just said that DS will be in the top set next year - and could we move on now as he had people waiting?!

I'm always nervous of going in and saying my son needs to be challenged more because it implies things about his intelligence and the teacher's ability to meet the individual needs of all the children. I don't want to get their backs up and I do worry that one day DS will suddenly hit a brick wall. However, at the moment, it seems like even though the work has definitely gone up a gear from primary school, DS has gone up several gears and he is still coasting.

lljkk Sun 23-Feb-14 10:20:59

Is he unchallenged in absolutely everything, OP? Including PE, drama, RE-PSHE, DT & music?
Since maths is set, what is his maths target?
Does he have a social life that he enjoys?

dalziel1 Sun 23-Feb-14 10:32:35

Maths target 7b but it looks like he is going to exceed it.

All the subjects have targets and current , I just can't remember them all as they were verbally told to us on parent's night but I didn't try to memorise as I thought there would be a written report which has not materialised so far! Generally I recall hearing lots of 6s and 7s and only a 5 in French, which stood out. So I queried it and the teacher said it was the top level for the year.

He thought music was hard and he wasn't doing well there, but the teacher was surprised when i mentioned that at parents evening as he had just attained the highest level in the class. She said it was due to his academic ability.

RE - yes, easy (forgot to put it in my earlier list)
Drama - loves it. Top of the class (only a level 4 or 5 though)
DT - not interested at all so just does the work set and forgets about it as he leaves the classroom.
Art - not good at all and does not enjoy it (he is dyspraxic)
PE - likes it but only average ability - dyspraxia.

It is really the academic subjects that my OP was about - the ones where you learn facts and develop thinking.

dalziel1 Sun 23-Feb-14 10:36:01

Social life - has found it difficult making friends due to self consciousness around his dyspraxia. Football is important at this age and DS's ability is on the low side. However, has been making some progress with friendships recently and he loves being with other children.

lljkk Sun 23-Feb-14 10:45:16

I think school is about a huge lot more than academics. There is plenty there for him to find challenging if he wanted. It just seems a bit odd that he should want to push much harder at stuff he already excels at rather than trying to catch up on areas he's weak at. If he were brilliant at art & PE you wouldn't be worried that he needed to be pushed harder at them while ignoring his weaknesses at English & math.

With stuff like history or English there is usually huge opportunity for them to extend themselves. Math or science are harder but not impossible; does he want to take initiative in extending himself in those areas?

17leftfeet Sun 23-Feb-14 10:54:24

I had this issue last year with dd and maths

She coasted along but was already at her year end target of 7b this time last year

I spoke to school and they suggested maths club at lunch time and log on to the website at home for which she would get extra behaviour credits

Her take on it was she has 4.5 hours of lessons a week where she sits there twiddling her thumbs so why should she give up her free time?
Lunch time maths club would also mean missing the music clubs which she adores

It's got much better in yr8, new teacher has made all the difference but I do think yr 7 was wasted

notnowImreading Sun 23-Feb-14 11:05:34

I'm a secondary English teacher. My advice is to find out as much as possible about what is expected of pupils at KS3. You can look at the KS3 APP guidelines - although levels are on their way out, they still give good guidance on how work can be improved against key skills.
webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110809101133/http://nsonline.org.uk/node/47536
If you search online, you can find examples of level 6 and level 7 (and level 8, although these are more rare) writing so these will help you to see what work at the higher levels look like.

When you look at your DS's work, you should have a bit of a better idea about whether he really is working/capable of working above the expectations the teacher is setting. It's also a useful conversation to have with your DS.

It sounds as though the teacher may have been fobbing you off a bit, although I expect he/she was rushing on a busy parents' evening. It's probably better to phone or email the teacher again in a couple of weeks. Be prepared to be told that your DS might be bright but isn't working hard enough and that his written work isn't actually that impressive (I have no idea whether this is the case but if the teacher hasn't already given him some tougher work it might be because what he is producing is within the normal range for the class and doesn't appear to show that he needs to do more). If that's the response you get, you need to push a bit harder and get DS onside to produce some really strong 'display' work that will show what he is really capable of producing.

Good luck. Be persistent and be prepared to deal with any objections put up by the teacher - they won't be obstructive just for the sake of it but may be sceptical at first if they aren't already seeing the quality of work that would set their 'push this kid' antennae quivering.

CecilyP Sun 23-Feb-14 11:28:42

While I don't want to comment on what your DS is or isn't doing in school, I would say that 3 hours of homework a night in Y7 would be very unusual to the point of downright unlikely - from any school. If your friend's DCs are doing that, either the work set is way too hard or the teachers have unrealistic expectations of what can be done in the time allocated.

HmmAnOxfordComma Sun 23-Feb-14 14:00:03

I do think it's nearly impossible not to be challenged in English at school, and to a lesser degree, in subjects like RE and History.

The differentiation is by outcome.

Say, they are studying The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas and the teacher sets an essay on comparing the two main characters. You can respond to that at a level 3-4, or you can respond to it at a degree level of answer. Same with creative writing, or persuasive writing or report writing. Same with a history or RE essay. Answer them at a higher level, with evidence and reasoning.

Science can be harder to find challenging, if the teacher is pitching at a level 5 and ds has higher order skills, but I don't get it in English and the like.

dalziel1 Sun 23-Feb-14 14:58:07

The school is good in that when it sets work it gives guidance like level 4 will do the work to this basic level, level 5 will be level 4 but with more depth and level 6 is these things on top. DS always goes for the top level and gets it.

I don't really buy it about not minding about being bored in the academic subjects until he is excelling in art and DT too. He's dyspraxic so he's never going to excel in those and he's just not interested either. However, he still has several hours a day feeling frustrated with the pace.

I think the only subject where the problem is severe is English. He says they read a page and just as he's getting into the story, they stop an analyse it over and over. Sometimes, they just run out of time and don't even finish the book.

dalziel1 Sun 23-Feb-14 15:01:07

English homework this half term was to correct spellings in a pre-written passage. So fixing things like no/ know and they're/ their. He did it in under a minute but there was nothing that would challenge any one who can spell (and DS has a spelling age of 18+ according to the school's own testing).

Lottiedoubtie Sun 23-Feb-14 15:06:27

Stopping to analyse is a feature of English all the way up to degree level though, as such he is going to have to get used to that style.

If the actual analysis isn't challenging him, then he needs to approach the teacher about what else he could be investigating.

In a mixed ability 30 in a class year 7 set, he is unlikely to get the kind of stretching he needs or you would want for him in the lesson. I think though that that is one of the compromises of universal state education... Encouraging reading and writing outside of school is a good thing to do.

dalziel1 Sun 23-Feb-14 16:16:19

I don't know if the homework stories are true, but so many mothers have said to me things about how much homework there is, how it takes hours every day etc etc. I never know how to reply since DS is in the same class as their children.

I asked DS how come he has so little and he says the other children are probably just pretending to have lots of work but really they are playing on their phones, laptops etc!

Who knows... maybe he is right!

noblegiraffe Sun 23-Feb-14 16:35:43

Three hours of homework per night in Y7 would be ridiculous, kids would be burned out before GCSE. My school recommends that each piece takes a maximum of half an hour with a maximum of three pieces in an evening, so way less than that and we get fab results.

The point of English is to analyse the book, not finish it as quickly as possible so he needs to change his mindset there.

With maths, it can be hard to give extension work that is genuinely challenging to able students that doesn't require extra teaching. He needs to look at the nrich website for problem solving. But do check his normal work, it is quite common for very bright students to skimp on things and just write an answer instead of a fully worked solution. If this is the case he needs to get into better habits.

Ilovegeorgeclooney Sun 23-Feb-14 19:29:30

Analysing text is really stretching, indeed just enjoying the narrative is the simplistic response. As an English teacher I would say the sign of the gifted student is an enthusiasm for such analysis. Most able pupils have read the complete text at home within a week of starting it in class and use their knowledge of the plot to develop their responses. Why don't you get a copy of novels being studied and encourage DS to read?

dalziel1 Sun 23-Feb-14 20:08:42

When he first complained about the speed, I did buy him the book and he read it at home. If I said that the teacher said there would be two books in the first term but it took so long to work through the first one that he ran out of time to even start the second, would it sound like the class was moving at a reasonable pace with appropriate differentiation for all?

Its other stuff too... DS says they did a short test recently. The teacher described what everyone needed to do, and Ds says he got it. Then they did a sample question (which never hurts, I suppose). Then he explained it again. Then twice more. Then, finally, they did the test.

Presumably the whole class repeated explanations are for the benefit of a few children who either weren't listening or who didn't understand. But is it fair, or appropriate for everyone, every day to have to sit through the same thing again and again, even though they got it the first time around??

lottysmum Sun 23-Feb-14 20:16:07

I would have thought that they could have stretched your son in Maths ...I know my daughter's Maths teacher (yr7 too) seems to be very good at this ....the able children do allot of work out of the GCSE books when they have finished whatever they are covering...I know quite a few of the children in her class are extremely bright and achieving level 7A and above already and the teacher;s attitude in that they will do Yr 9 work and tests now...

I did get the impression like someone else has already stated that some children have the grasp and answers to questions but dont document there findings to the level that is required so whilst it is boring its something that they need to do... My daughter is extremely good at ICT but she's been told that she now needs to concentrate on more detail and not to rush ...

lljkk Sun 23-Feb-14 20:27:40

Maybe the school is a bad fit & you need to look elsewhere if your DS really is that unhappy.

DD spends entirety of some classes drawing funny faces on her finger tips.
(Why doesn't this bother me...?) because she's not bothered. She's still high achieving. She loves school. She even loves the dossy boring bits. Maybe she even loves them best.

She shares the funny finger faces with her friends later. So it's not really wasted time.

dalziel1 Sun 23-Feb-14 20:32:19

maths is one of the two subjects for which they do have a top set, so DS's experience is a lot better than some of the other subjects.

I can only go on what DS is telling me. He's not a show-off and he doesn't lie (much) but I have nothing to check what he says against, apart from the odd marked test paper.

DS says he understands everything in maths and he can do it. He doesn't feel like he is coasting and he's not bored, but he also feels that it could be more challenging (and he says that like it would be a good thing!).
Typically he gets in the high 90s for the maths tests. I think 91% was the lowest he got but I am not really sure where he was dropping the marks on that one as usually its higher.

dalziel1 Sun 23-Feb-14 20:36:00

lljkk - you may be right that we've chosen badly. But if we have, then he shouldn't be in a comprehensive school because this is one of the best.

Unhappy is too strong a word, even for the English lessons. He's just feeling frustrated and bored (and, unfortunately, he's begun to look around the class to see who it is that needs to have things explained so slowly and repeated so often).

ravenAK Sun 23-Feb-14 20:36:58

I'd expect to take a term over a book, tbh, to study it in depth (I'm a secondary English teacher).

Mixed ability teaching in year 7 is always going to involve some compromises. I'd be asking the teacher for an extension reading list (what are they reading atm?).

The work is likely to be quite a bit more challenging once he's set in year 8.

we have the same problem: year 7 are streamed based on KS2 results, which is a woefully inaccurate way of doing it, but necessitated by timetabling restrictions.

Once they get into year 8 we set, rather than stream, based on a more accurate idea of their abilities.

AhBut Sun 23-Feb-14 21:06:55

I understand your frustration OP, but I also agree with others that it's about so much more than ticking boxes to get to a certain level, and much more about broadening depth and understanding of subjects.
DS entered year 7 already at level 8 in maths, and high achieving in literacy too. But tbh he still finds some new things in maths lessons/ new ways of approaching problems and is fortunate to have a maths teacher who he really respects and engages with. His target, rather than being a purely academic one, is to work better with his peers ... A skill he'll only benefit from developing.
Interestingly his maths teacher doesn't recommend the online sites you mention for children of this level, as he reckons they're not going to stimulate them. It requires a bit of lateral thinking but there's loads of interesting stuff on sites like the maths challenge website, or you can do mad things like work out the algebraic equations for each menu in the local cafe (I jest not!)
I've also found that the added interest of delving deeper and properly into subjects like history/geography, and extending himself as far as he wants to go, even if that means a ridiculously long essay, is also keeping DS really well engaged in school (so far!)

dalziel1 Sun 23-Feb-14 21:33:19

As far as I know they are not reading anything at the moment. Last half-term, they studied a Shakespearean play, without actually reading a word of it (obviously).

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