Can We Do More With Less?

Aug 27, 2017 | Effective Practice, Teaching Struggling Readers, Whole School Literacy

Effective use of resources depends on how well we know our students’ needs

More than ever, head teachers are having to consider how to cut the limited cloth of school budgets and resourcing. Sometimes we find that, for historical reasons, a great deal of staffing (especially TA staffing) is spread across a range of ‘interventions’. We have library staffing and English teacher time going into Accelerated Reader; a phonics intervention here, a catch-up programme there; in-class support, literacy support, academic mentoring, behaviour mentoring. . . . the list can grow very long.

There are several traps to watch out for in the complexity of a large school organisation.

  1. Are the same students being targeted for more than one intervention at a time? For a few students with a wide range of needs, this may be necessary. But children shouldn’t be receiving more than one literacy intervention at time, if this increases their time out of class.
  2. How much time are interventions costing the students, and how is this impacting on their curriculum progress? Interventions should not require a great deal of time out of the classroom, and there have to be systems in place to ensure that students do not fall behind. After all, interventions are ‘as well as’, not ‘instead of’.
  3. How much impact are the interventions having? Is there clear, objective evidence? And is the amount of progress acceptable? Another pitfall is the assumption that students considered in need of intervention are expected to make little progress. If we don’t expect an intervention to have an impact, and change the student’s outcomes for the better, why would we invest time and money in it?
  4. How much time and training do staff have to ensure that they deliver the interventions effectively?

The danger is that if we become too busy, trying to tick a lot of boxes, the true purpose of the interventions – catching students up to where they need to be – is obscured in the whirl of activity. John Thomsett wrote this post some time back arguing that the focus of our efforts should be on having more impact in the classroom. After-school interventions for revision, for example, can have the opposite effect to that which we intended; students feel that class work doesn’t matter, because it will be done again in the catch-up programme anyway. In such cases, it could be argued that intervention actually de-motivates students and makes them less independent – while adding significantly to staff stress and workload.

We should have no more students than really necessary in interventions, and we should expect these interventions to have a significant benefit in helping students to catch up.  It is essential to have clearly defined criteria for including students in interventions, and very clear criteria to indicate that the intervention’s purpose has been achieved. And, of course, the range of interventions on offer should be based on a careful assessment of what our students’ specific needs are.


The problem here is that the standardised tests schools run to assist with setting or ‘fair banding’ are not designed to inform teaching decisions (though some test publishers might argue that they do). They are, however, excellent tools for sorting students into a rough hierarchy of achievement, and therefore a good first level of screening for learning needs. However, in order to direct staffing and resourcing into the most productive areas, we have to conduct much more thorough and detailed assessment (see How to Save Time and Money Through Screening for more details).

In short, it is much more effective to have a few quality interventions than a rash of activities with mediocre outcomes.


We encourage schools to take a three-tiered approach to their literacy intervention strategy:

Tier 1: High quality classroom teaching that supports all students. This is addressed through curriculum leadership, CPD, curriculum planning, resourcing and careful assessment.

Tier 2: Small group interventions for students reading a couple of years behind, or whose writing is not yet secure enough for the classroom demands of secondary school. This tier requires specifically targeted, well-planned programmes with a clear assessment for learning design and evidence of impact. Staff training and effective timetabling are important to success.

Tier 3: Intensive one-to-one interventions. This tier should be reserved for those students who are well behind their peers because their needs will be more complex and will require more precisely targeted assessment and teaching. Staff need thorough training and the intervention will require strong leadership to ensure that standards are rigorous and students make significant progress. A detailed teaching programme that enables close tracking of students is required, along with quality resources to ensure that staff do not have to spend hours preparing materials or lesson plans.

The aim should be to have as few students at Tier 3 as possible, and to ensure that the staffing in Tiers 2 and 3 is allocated according to student needs (e.g. don’t give them phonics if they need help with comprehension). A great deal can be accomplished in small groups, but if a student has to spend a long time in a Tier 2 intervention, they might be better off at Tier 3, where they should make more rapid individualised progress.


Can less activity result in more progress? If we target our efforts wisely, the answer is yes.


You may also be interested in:

Are All Students Screened For Reading?

Spring Cleaning

Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science

15 Tests for Secondary School Reading Interventions


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