The A Level Mindset – Revised Edition

40 activities for transforming student commitment, motivation and productivity

By: Martin Griffin , Steve Oakes


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Size: 234 x 184mm
ISBN : 9781785830242
Format: Paperback
Published: September 2021
Pages : 192

In The A Level Mindset: 40 activities for transforming student commitment, motivation and productivity, Steve Oakes and Martin Griffin share the secrets of coaching students to develop the characteristics, habits and mindsets which will help them realise their potential.

During their combined 40 plus years of teaching and coaching, Steve and Martin have discovered something important: those students who make real and sustained progress at A level aren’t necessarily the ones with superb GCSEs. Some students leap from average results in Year 11 to outstanding results in Year 13, while others seem to hit a ceiling. But why?

It was in trying to answer this question that the VESPA system emerged. Steve and Martin have cut through the noise surrounding character development and identified five key characteristics that all students need in order to be successful: vision, effort, systems, practice and attitude.These characteristics beat cognition hands down.

Having pinned down the core traits that contribute to student success, the authors have developed a range of practical activities to help every student develop the A Level Mindset: 40 concrete, easy-to-use and applicable tools and strategies that will supercharge learners’ ambition, organisation, productivity, persistence and determination.

And in this revised edition Steve and Martin present a range of case studies and useful advice on effective implementation to guide schools towards putting the VESPA model into practice. Furthermore, they have also revamped the introductions to each aspect of the VESPA model with updated insights and references.

Suitable for teachers, tutors, heads of sixth form or anyone else who wants to help A level students achieve their potential.

Click here to view the related title The A Level Mindset Student Workbook.

Picture for author Martin Griffin

Martin Griffin

Martin Griffin has over 20 years’ experience teaching and coaching post-16 students. He was a Head of Sixth Form and Deputy Head at a successful comprehensive school for eight years, and has worked with hundreds of schools and colleges in the UK and beyond to design and implement study skills, character development and mindset programmes. 


Picture for author Steve Oakes

Steve Oakes

Steve Oakes has over 20 years' of experience as a teacher and leader, and has been a Head of Sixth Form at two successful schools in the UK and the UAE. As a current Head of Sixth Form, he works closely with students to maximise levels of engagement and commitment, designing high-impact interventions and practical tools for improving academic performance.


  1. 1. What is your overall impression of the book?

    The A Level Mindset is an excellent practical toolkit of ideas to help teachers develop helpful mindsets in their sixth form students. The book applies the popular theories of growth mindset (Dweck 2007), grit (Duckworth 2007) and mental toughness (Clough et al 2002) to the sixth form context. The aim is to improve students' learning habits and, in turn, their results.

    The A Level Mindset is written by Steve Oakes, Assistant Director of Sixth Form, and Martin Griffin, Director of Sixth Form, both from The Blue Coat School in Oldham. It follows how they applied their knowledge of these theories to lead their sixth form to excellent results (top 10% nationally).

    Oakes and Griffin summarise some of the research, techniques and ideas they used. They identify five qualities that successful students have, which need to be developed in all sixth form pupils. From this they build the VESPA model - vision, effort, systems, practice and attitude. This structure is really helpful if you want to reflect on each of these elements for your students and identify which of these may need developing.

    2. Who do you think would benefit most from reading the book? What will they learn?

    Sixth form teachers will get plenty of ideas about how to teach the essential skills needed for successful study at sixth form. You can embed these into your teaching and conversations with students.

    Sixth form leaders could also use all or parts of VESPA as a whole school/college approach, depending on their needs. For example, sixth form leaders who want to raise performance for all students may apply the VESPA model as a whole, whereas a sixth form where progression is a weakness might want to begin by focusing on vision. Chapter 7 is aimed only at school leaders and looks at how to deliver the approach at a strategic level.

    Heads of year for younger secondary pupils might also benefit from this book. It gives a really clear idea of the skills students need to develop in preparation for sixth form. This could help to introduce and develop the systems and attitudes needed for independent learning lower down the school.

    3. What did you think about the quality of the writing? Please consider the tone, structure and ideas. Does it suit the audience?

    This is an easy to read book, designed to be read in full or dipped in and out of. The ideas are well explained, referenced and supported by student-friendly activities.

    There are five sections - each begins with a teacher introduction before explaining each activity in a student friendly way. This is really helpful for a busy teacher looking for practical activities. For example, if you have a group of students panicking about revision for a mock exam you could head straight to the practice section for ideas on how to help them revise more effectively.

    There is also a concise summary at the end of the book which is really handy for those who read the book a while ago and want a refresher, or are looking for a concise way of explaining the VESPA model to staff or students.

    4. Please discuss the research used to underpin the ideas. What evidence does the author use? Is it robust and up-to-date?

    The book focuses on the experience and practice of the authors who work with sixth form students in an 11-18 context. It has a 'this has worked for us' approach that is underpinned by academic research. The introduction outlines three bodies of research by Clough et al (2002) on mental toughness, Dweck's (2007) research on mindset and Duckworth et al's (2007) research on grit. Ideas and activities are referenced throughout and a detailed reference list is included.

    5. What did you learn from reading the book? What ideas/approaches/practice will you change or adopt as a result of reading this book?

    I had already carried out a small-scale research project, alongside Steve Ingle at the University of Cumbria, about developing independent learning with sixth form students as part of the Osiris Growth Mindset project. I was looking for further strategies to develop my students' independent learning skills, and this book was recommended to me.

    The book articulates many of my own thoughts and reflections in a really clear and useful way. This not only gave me suggestions of things to try with my students, but the VESPA model was also a useful way to communicate my existing ideas and research knowledge to colleagues.

    The book articulates the concepts of resilience and effort really well, and gives practical strategies which support students. For example, last year I used activities from the revision questionnaire to move students away from content-only revision to developing strategies to increase skill development and feedback-focused learning. This stopped students creating any more mind maps and cue cards, and got them to link notes to exam questions or hand in practice questions.

    I then kept a tally of the number of marks students were getting as a way to see how many exam questions they were completing. I credited all exam practice equally, for example if a student handed in 10 six-mark questions I gave them 60 marks, while two 30-mark questions would get the same. This did not record the quality of their work at this stage, but it enabled me to celebrate exam practice. Each week I shared the top marks to develop a culture where students were celebrated for being brave and trying exam work, irrespective of the grade. Clearly there was a danger here of encouraging quantity over quality, but as a first step I was aiming to change revision habits.

    This year I am going to continue to develop this aspect of the book, but I also hope to use it more throughout the year by planning which bits of the book to use when, for example, discussing the working week as part of student induction (Activity 10: Effort).

    6. Could you share a quote from the book that particularly resonated with you?

    "Students aren't lazy, but they may have developed habits and patterns of behaviour which preclude them from putting in large amounts of effort. The job of the organisation is to encourage learners to form new and more positive habit loops."

  2. This book is causing quite a stir in the Sixth Form world, whether that be Sixth Form leadership, Sixth Form tutors or Sixth Form teachers. The book is based around the idea of VESPA; vision, effort, systems, practice and attitude.

    The A Level Mindset provides 40 clear strategies to support students to move towards successful outcomes and arguably more importantly life skills which will set them up beyond the formal education system. It's incredibly easy to read, the language is positive and reassuring. At the beginning of each quality (VESPA) it provides an explanation of the strategy followed by an application to real situations.

    With the focus at Oriel High School moving towards coaching techniques to improve teacher's professional development, this book briefly discusses the importance of coaching as the medium to facilitate Sixth Form improvement. Coaching students is no different to coaching staff, the focus is not on being an expert in particularly area, but to facilitate the individual to take ownership over their own goals. This biggest thing I have taken away from this book is from the systems and practice section. The practice section provides a great idea on 'revision questionnaire', a simple but effective questionnaire which alleviates the issues of students saying 'I don't know to revise'. It breaks up revision into three areas; content, skills and feedback which enables you as a teacher to feel one of two things - reassured you're doing the right thing or provide a simple idea of the types of revision strategies students could [should] be using. Also from the systems section of the book, the idea of the 'Eisenhower matrix' provide a simple strategy to get students to understand how to prioritise tasks in their lives; urgent, non-urgent, important and non-important.

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  3. The authors have collated a truly outstanding resource detailing enlightened insight and a range of 40 activities based on their work to stimulate and transform student commitment, motivation and desire to improve performance levels. The authors detail their work on the VESPA model for identifying the root causes of student under-performance. These key causes are lack of vision, low levels of effort, poor systems, inadequate practice and a negative attitude. There are excellent sections on attitudes, coaching and making it happen. The book is full of practical tips and activities to transform students' attitudes, commitment and performance. I read this book in the week prior to wales' win over Belgium. After the game I reflected on the section on developing students' vision and the difference between a dream and a goal. Possibly Chris Coleman and his coaching team read the text before me!! In a similar fashion to Oakes and Griffin, the Wales team made the dream of reaching the European Championship semi-finals by making a plan, taking action and transforming the dream into a goal. The players, by extending their efforts, achieved goals which they thought were beyond their capabilities. This book is a must for teachers, mentors, sports coaches and parents at all levels.
  4. I picked up this book at the TedEdx Norwich bookshop as one of the areas that I know I need to work on is mentoring of my sixth form tutor group as well as the students I teach.

    Mentoring is an essential part of the form tutor role regardless of the year group you are linked to. However, I have often found that it is something that you receive very little training or support with. That is where this book stepped in for me and gave me ideas and tools to use in my mentoring that moved it away from the generic conversation. The 40 activities suggested in the book provide conversation starters as well as reflective activities that help the students to take control of their own learning and achievement.

    What I really liked about this book was that it was based on experience as well as research such as the work of Dweck, Duckworth and Clough, but a single research program wasn't set forth as the silver bullet to student motivation and achievement. The authors are both Sixth form teachers and tutors which shows in the way the book is written. It offers a system that works in their schools and could be followed as written but it also allows for adaption development to meet the needs of the individual students that you teach as well as the institution you work at.

    As a classroom teacher and form tutor, I have used this book as an ideas bank where I picked out activities and ideas that I could use with the individual students that I have been mentoring. I do need to point out though that I didn't find this book until Easter of this academic year so in some ways was a little late in the day for some students and reiterated with me the need to start individual mentoring much earlier in the A Level process.

    One key message I took from the book was that many A Level students do not come to 6th form study with the study skill and independent learning mindsets that are expected of them. It seems (and I am guilty of this) that as A Level teachers we expect students to instinctively know how to work and study independently when they reach year 12 despite the fact that we have in some cases pulled students through their GCSEs kicking and screaming. Oakes and Griffin deal with this by outlining their VESPA structure of mentoring.

    - Vision - Why are they doing A Levels? What do they want to achieve by doing them?
    - Effort - Not just the number of hours that are put into independent study but determining if that study is reactive, reflective or proactive.
    - Systems - How students are studying? How are they deciding what to study? How are they spending their independent study time?
    - Practice - What methods are they using? Are they focused on content or techniques? How do they take notes?
    - Attitude - How do they deal with failure? When something becomes difficult how do they deal with it? Resilience, growth mindset and determination.

    This structure is not stand alone steps but areas that should be discussed with the students, and you may find that you spend more time in one area then others with particular students. Due to the time of year that I read the book, I focused a lot on the Systems and Practice sections of the system with my mentees, interleaving the ideas with revision support. Now this may have been too little too late for some of them but on reflection it has helped me to realise what I need to do differently in the future to support my mentees.

    The activities that I really liked included the Eisenhower matrix as a way of organising what needs to be done. I adapted this system for one of my students who was not only struggling with what to revise but also motivation as she felt that she wasn't getting anywhere with the work. So by adapting it so that she could move the elements of her course around the matrix she was able to see the progress she was making.

    I also liked the revision questionnaires and subject skill audits which helped students to identify how they were revising / consolidating on their classwork, which in most cases was content focused. I linked this in with an Emoji Exit ticket on revision and how the student felt about their revision and studying. These questionnaires again worked as a good way to start a conversation with the students about their study habits and how they may not be the most effective way to study, which then linked nicely with the Spaced revision system that I have been suggesting to all my students. I think that these could work well getting the whole cohort to complete them but they really do need to be followed up with a 1-2-1 conversation.

    My big takeaway messages from reading this book (which I have now lost to my SMT) is

    - Mentoring needs to start early in the A Level process, initially with tutors but where necessary with 1-2-1 mentors for those who are struggling to bridge the gap between GCSE and A Level.
    - At A level it is not enough for students to revise and consolidate content which may have got them through GCSE, they need to think just as much about exam practice and feedback, but this system needs to be taught to them.
    - Mentoring is more than just having a quick conversation about how the student is feeling about their studies. Mentors need to have effective strategies to support the student in taking control of their learning.
    - Revision needs to be built into schemes of work so that students have plenty of opportunity to try different techniques and see what works and what doesn't.

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  5. A thoroughly enjoyable book; The A Level Mindset has successfully integrated research and practice into an excellent user guide. It will be a valuable resource for students, teachers, parents and carers. The tools and techniques described are both workable and relevant.
  6. The awareness of attitude, mindset and mental toughness has risen to the top of the agenda in the world of education, particularly regarding their importance for student attainment and well-being. They make a crucial difference. However the challenge for teachers and pastoral staff is how to apply this effectively with their students.

    Steve Oakes and Martin Griffin have created a first class and very practical guide to the application of these ideas in the classroom. Combining their practical experience (they have done it in the classroom themselves) and a good understanding of the theory behind their approaches, this book is a treasure trove of tools and techniques, easily adopted by teachers who want to make a difference.
  7. Oakes and Griffin have produced a remarkable resource that offers a significant guide to enhancing teaching and learning at A level, but with implications beyond years 12 and 13. The resource is firstly a very practical guide to support the 'how' of effective learning as well as the 'what'. As such it provides a necessary antidote to an approach based on managing information and develops a coherent strategy to empower students' understanding and help them become confident self-managing and self-aware learners. The second important point about this resource is that it provides a model that will stimulate professional dialogue around such approaches in primary schools and years 7 to 11. The materials will also serve as a very powerful preparation for studying in higher education and employment.

    Oakes and Griffin are to be congratulated and thanked for a highly practical, relevant and supportive resource.

  8. At a time when too many of us lament the way A level teaching sometimes feels like a bit of a conveyor belt, here's a book designed to give responsibility for learning back to students. It's an ingenious compilation of techniques to manage our learning in these times of information overload and endless distractions. The book is more than a set of tips; it's an empowering and optimistic practical approach which will help students to become more reflective learners and better at managing their studies. I learnt a great deal from The A Level Mindset and would see it as an essential part of any sixth form programme.
  9. Anyone who has ever worked with young people recognises that helping them achieve success is a complicated affair - and simply telling them to study harder rarely has the desired effect. What is special about this book is that Oakes and Griffin haven't tried to reinvent the wheel but have searched through the work of some inspirational characters whose work has implications for coaching young people. They have gathered an impressive array of gems and then packaged them into a structure which is immensely useful. Their VESPA skeleton is powerful and offers an exciting array of practical tasks that can be used to help young people. This is not a one-size-fits-all book - not every activity suits every child - the authors recognise that this is a 'pick and mix' approach to coaching. If I were still head of a school that taught A levels I would immediately order a copy for all staff teaching in that area - if it didn't teach A levels, I would probably still buy the books: some of these activities are real gems and suitable for young people of a wide age range, so much so I think I might try some myself (and it is a long time since anyone has called me young!).

  10. This book is very obviously written by those who have had the experience (and pleasure) of working with sixth form students and the challenges that supporting them to achieve their potential brings!

    The mindset approach, although based on research and theory, feels very real in the strategies and suggestions put forward. The practical and easy-to-follow strategies will support both the sixth form pastoral team, those involved in motivating sometimes the demotivated, with strategies such as the dashboard activity and 20 questions, but also the A level teacher looking for ways to strengthen resilience through practices such as The 3 R's of Habit.
    The variety of strategies will ensure there will be a right fit for every student, something to 'turn the light on', and ensure they have a passion for learning.
    Not all sixth form students fit one mould and the added advantage of this approach is that it will challenge and support the most able in achieving the highest grades, and inspire those students who have lost their way to find it!
    I look forward to trying these techniques both in the classroom and also in more personal one-to-one intervention sessions. I strongly believe that this book will support the drive in any sixth form to raise achievement and also help develop a positive ethos which all staff can contribute to. A really positive and motivational tool for all heads of sixth form.

  11. The A Level Mindset is a book that is steeped in hard won wisdom from school leaders who have clearly grappled with supporting students at this critical stage of their education. It is a book full of practical insights and it provides an excellent framework for teachers and school leaders to help students develop their working habits. This book provides ample solutions to support students' organisation, goal setting, and much more, helping to complement our development of their subject knowledge. The VESPA framework that informs the book is well supported by interesting scholarship and there are lots of real gems of teaching strategies that can deployed in the classroom. The book is accessible, enjoyable and really got me thinking about my A level teaching.

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