What exactly does Quality First Teaching mean and how should we implement it in our classrooms, adapting it for different learners? Zoe Enser explains…

Quality First Teaching is how we make learning accessible and effective for all. Put more simply, Great Teaching is a phrase I often encounter when discussing SEND pupils or when reading pupil premium strategy documents for schools.

It is also a phrase which has come in for some criticism recently online; Quality First Teaching is often talked about but what does it actually mean? Why wouldnt this be our aim? And who on earth doesnt want to do this? It can easily become an oft-repeated mantra without a clear shared meaning it may bring little impact for those who need it the most.

The evidence suggests that pupils from backgrounds of socio-economic deprivation benefit most from this, with the 2014 Sutton Trust review on Improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement in the UKfinding for poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole years learning.

This builds on Slater, Davies and Burgesss 2011 research which found highly effectiveas opposed to averageteaching could raise pupil outcomes by as much as 10%.  It isnt new information. It stands to reason that having access to great teaching day in, day out is going to make a difference to all. But this returns us again to the possible redundancy of the phrase “Quality First Teaching”. The phrase Quality First Teaching is pointless unless we pause to consider what it means and how we channel our efforts to benefit pupils from different backgrounds or with different needs.

Professor Robert Coe, in The Great Teaching Toolkit refers to the best betswhich evidence provides us with in the classroom.  Core elements such as creating a focused and purposeful environment, activating thinking hard and maximising the opportunities for learning are elements rooted in evidence. Having the time to get these things right, reflect on them and refine are shown to make a difference to the outcomes of our most vulnerable learners.

There is also a wealth of evidence in the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit which we can focus upon when considering what great teaching looks like and how we can tailor it to the needs of all. However, in order to do that we need to take the most forensic approach possible to understand what this means and what our pupils need.

That means starting with some detective work.

We need to understand what the barriers to learning are for those pupils within YOUR context before we make decisions around how our approach to teaching and learning might overcome them. It can be easy to assume pupils experiencing deprivation will have poorer language skills, a less-developed vocabulary or will struggle to self-regulate.

There is evidence this can be true of pupils from these backgrounds, but without exploring what our pupils can and cant do we could end up setting the bar too low or focusing our energies on something they just dont need as a priority.

For example, in a group of 10 pupils I mentored, all of whom were identified as being higher prior attainers, six were also identified as pupil premium. These pupils were articulate, had high aspirations and goals for post-16, engaged with a range of learning activities outside of school and, on the whole, enjoyed being in school and learning.

What this group needed most were practical ways to access materials and opportunities to get quick feedback to see their next steps. These could sometimes get lost amongst their other priorities such as their paid employment and supporting parents with younger siblings.

This approach provided them with the material means to succeed and the reassurance they were on track, helping them to manage their time to focus on the things they found more difficult.

If our focus had been on vocabulary or wed enrolled them onto additional after-school interventions, it could have placed them under additional pressure which would not have helped with their learning.

Equally, if the school decided self-regulation was the key, then already-independent pupils could find themselves restricted in how they worked, making their use of time less efficient. It is therefore important we really understand what issues they are facing before we decide on what those best betswill be.

This is also true within our classroom practice. Good diagnostic testing will ensure we identify what it is our pupils of all backgrounds may be struggling with and can then address this. Even though all pupils may benefit from a focus on vocabulary or reading, blanket approaches may not help everyone effectively so diagnosing literacy needs is essential, making use of data which tells us exactly what our pupils are struggling with.

Is it decoding, comprehension, reading or writing fluency which might be the barrier, and if so, what is it we can do to address those on a whole school, class, or individual level?

Diagnostics at subject level are also crucial, identifying the gaps in foundational knowledge, rooting out where misconceptions may be residing and really clarifying what it is our pupils already know and can do.

High-quality formative assessment should run through everything, alongside those formal opportunities to assess, bringing to light information that might challenge or surprise us.

That also means staff must have a good understanding of the content of their subject and the steps and processes needed to be successful at different stages. Time should be devoted to this if we want to understand how to close gaps and enable students to achieve.

Once we understand the issues, we then need to explore how we might go about addressing them, returning again to those best bets. That includes considering how we sequence our curriculum, how we create opportunities for pupils to practise applying knowledge, how we utilise spaced learning so pupils have to think hard about what they are retrieving and ways we can build on their prior knowledge.

If we have a strong understanding of pupils’ starting points through our diagnostic processes, we will then be in a better position to develop responsive teaching, enabling us to adapt our explanations, our questioning, and the scaffolding we use to address the needs of all.

There is a huge amount to unpick there though, and leaders need a clear understanding of the strengths and areas for development across the school too in order for teachers to make the best use of these different aspects.

They need to decide on the key priorities as a whole school and ensure that all staff have a shared understanding of the main focus and what it is they mean by Quality First Teaching in their context.

Staff also need to be given time to reflect, refine and feedback, engaging in defining what that means in their classroom for their pupils too. Leaders and teachers also need to keep a sharp eye on how these choices are impacting upon groups of pupils as well as individuals, giving them a better chance of closing those attainment gaps, returning us again to that ongoing diagnostic process we use day-to-day in our classrooms. We need to think about how we can improve not just how we can evidence what we are doing for these pupils.

Having this detailed understanding can also create opportunities to stop less effective practices where needed and to concentrate on building in more of what their pupils need, be that modeling, other types of scaffolding or probing questions to get all pupils thinking hard.

The challenge here of course is no two cohorts or groups of pupils are likely to always need the exact same things, so schools need to build adaptative expertise and responsive teaching, rooted in subject knowledge, to allow teachers to react to that changing picture.

Coupling Quality First Teaching with well-placed and evidence-informed interventions, plus good relationships with pupils and parents, means we might be in a good position to really make a difference to those pupils who need it the most.

If we can identify what pupils from less-advantaged backgrounds need, what barriers they experience and how we might overcome them, we will be on track to ensuring the best quality teaching and learning for all does indeed come first.


Zoe Enser was an English Teacher for over 20 years and is now working as the Specialist English Adviser for The Education People and an ELE (Evidence Lead in Education) for the EEF (Education Endowment Foundation) in the Kent area. She is also the co-author of Generative Learning in Action and the upcoming CPD Curriculum: Creating the Conditions for Growth, both written in collaboration her husband, Mark Enser.

Write A Comment