Intelligent Accountability?


[First published by Headteacher Update magazine October 2013]

Intelligent Accountability? These Primaries have their own answer.

 

Intelligent Accountability; where schools take the lead through models of peer accountability, proving that the profession can self-regulate, challenge and support itself.

 

On 1 June 2013, five Oxfordshire primary schools became the Oxfordshire Primary Education Network (OPEN) trust. All are or are becoming academies. But as it is an umbrella trust, no one school dominates – a vital factor to the heads, staff and governors involved.

 

The five members of the OPEN trust

Heather Haigh, headteacher, Cholsey Primary School

David Burrows, headteacher, Ladygrove Park Primary School, Didcot (inc nursery)

John Hawkins, headteacher, Manor Primary School, Didcot

Jane Ratcliffe, headteacher, St John’s Primary School, Wallingford

Jane Hemery, headteacher, Willowcroft Community School (inc nursery: ages 2+) Didcot

 

The change was precipitated by Oxfordshire local authority’s decision to encourage all its schools to become academies. ‘Politically we were not that keen,’ says Jane Ratcliffe, head of St John’s primary school in Wallingford. ‘But we talked about our options, the different models available.’

 

John Hawkins, head of Manor Primary School in Didcot, takes up the story. ‘A core group of very proactive governors formed a working party to explore the options and invited a number of people representing different options to address them, including the head of a stand-alone academy and the head of a multi-academy trust (MAT). I was keen for the umbrella trust of primaries.’

 

They found an all-primary umbrella trust in Leicestershire, with 10 primary school members, and invited one of their head teachers to speak to the group ‘and get the story. The main point we gleaned from this was that in an umbrella trust we are all responsible for the other schools if they get into difficulties.’ [For more on umbrella trusts, see  http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/leadership/typesofschools/academies/secondary/faqs/a00204883/academy-chains-faqs#faq10]

 

The issues that led to this kind of partnership

 

Why did these heads decide they wanted to take this route? ‘It all started with the ending of the school improvement partners (SIPs) in Oxfordshire,’ says Jane Ratcliffe. ‘They went after I had been a headteacher for only a year. Schools were left to sort themselves out.’

 

So a group of three heads, who already knew each other through existing school partnerships in Didcot and Wallingford, met to discuss how they could progress the school improvement model. From Autumn term 2011 they planned a number of sessions in each other’s schools, looking at the schools’ key performance data, undertaking joint monitoring, looking at headteacher performance and consulting governors.

 

The schools’ governors were concerned at first – ‘they thought we would be too cosy with each other.’ But after just one meeting, the heads and governors agreed the proposed approach was more challenging than the former SIPs process. They looked at outcomes, working plans, lesson observations, pupil progress… it was really successful,’ says Jane.

 

‘It worked for a number of reasons. There was absolute trust – and no spin! There was honesty on all sides, and openness to hear what colleagues had to say about your school. These people had spent time with one another over months and in some cases years. They had genuine relationships of trust.’

 

Even a member of the local authority service who knew the three heads and what they were planning said they thought ‘you’re doing a better job than we could do.’ The authority then supported the trust financially, through the strategic school improvement programme. Although only two of the headteachers from that partnership went on to become part of OPEN, it is clear that the success of the partnership was an important influence on the formation of the umbrella trust.

 

A member of the local authority service said they thought ‘you’re doing a better job than we could do.’

 

Accountability

 

Within OPEN there is no lead school, and there are officially no lead members of the trust, although there is an elected chair. When the proposal was discussed with the Department for Education, their position was ‘there has to be a head of accountability.’  DfE favoured some kind of hierarchy, but eventually allowed the umbrella trust, once they were assured of the formal joint accountability.

 

The OPEN members have no problems with the principle of accountability: ‘We do need formal responsibility – to each other,’ says Jane Ratcliffe. ‘So John (Hawkins) is detailing the annual risk assessment, using the red-amber-green traffic light system to look at performance, leadership, behaviour and attendance.’ This will be carried out in autumn 2013 for the first time for all schools in the trust.

 

‘A resulting action plan will be drawn up by the school concerned,’ John Hawkins explains. ‘If the overall score is red at the end of a year, the umbrella trust has the right to take control of the school’s governing body, by putting in three additional governors with five votes each.’

 

The umbrella trust has the right to take control of [any failing] school’s governing body, by putting in three additional governors with five votes each

 

Trust programmes and activities are to be planned by the combined senior leadership team of all the schools, a total of 16 people.

 

Clearly, a situation in which the trust members collectively take responsibility for their own school assessment and improvement runs the risk of complacency. Also a lack of awareness could develop as to how you are shaping up against the real world’s success criteria. The group takes action to avoid this risk. ‘We’re aware that other groups of schools are doing similar things,’ says David Burrows of Ladygrove Park school in Didcot. ‘And it’s important to keep in touch with them, compare progress, and help each other.’

 

David Burrows and John Hawkins have previously trained as Ofsted inspectors, and Jane Ratcliffe is considering doing so. Willowcroft Junior School head Jane Hemery likes this idea: ‘Inside knowledge! I’d like to be in a position to practise arguing with Ofsted.’

 

Financial factors

 

Another attraction to the stand-alone trust was cost, or rather value for money. The five heads felt that belonging to another organisation or grouping, such as academy chains, a multi-academy trust (MAT) or even remaining under LA control, would top-slice their income without necessarily providing the services they needed. And under a MAT, says John Hawkins, ‘the senior trust committee holds the funds and revenue, is the employer, and exerts control. We don’t want that. We have found that if you don’t coerce people, they will volunteer’ (and usually perform better and be more fulfilled).

 

The issue of control was crucial. Despite some initial anxiety, all the heads were happy to commit to their joint responsibility – peer accountability. Heather Haigh of Cholsey Primary says, ‘it’s less heavy-handed but more robust than the Whitehall inspection process. It gives primary schools the confidence that they can look after each other. We don’t need big brother to look after us.’

 

‘It’s less heavy-handed but more robust than the Whitehall inspection process. It gives primary schools the confidence that they can look after each other.’ Heather Haigh, Headteacher, Cholsey Primary School

 

A key factor was the high level of trust and respect between the five school’s heads, and increasingly other members of their staff with their opposite numbers. ‘Historically, schools are very insular,’ says Jane Hemery. ‘At Willowcroft, I felt I was thrown in at the deep end in my first year as a head. We opened in 2007 from the ashes of a school in serious weaknesses. We had three visits a year for three years from HMIs. I’m still fighting to make it a school of choice for parents. I thought this was a brilliant opportunity to be supported by the best schools in the area.’

 

How the umbrella trust is working so far

 

From practical and financial points of view there are immediate benefits to the umbrella trust: they have been able to rid themselves of many of the costs of external services covering premises management, health and safety, accountancy/finance, pupil information and management systems, ICT, etc.

 

OPEN has created a group of its business managers to work together on these issues. ‘They are really collaborative and show a group sense of ownership,’ says Heather Haigh. The five business managers now work continually as one group, emailing each other as a matter of course.

 

On the broader issues of developing plans for the umbrella trust, all staff and governors – nearly 100 people in total – met together. ‘We wanted to go beyond what our partnerships might have done in the past,’ says Heather. ‘They had done various things – but did it have impact?’ The OPEN meeting came up with many ideas of what the trust could offer. All ideas contributed were assessed through a dot-voting exercise. One of the most important considerations was staff development. Among the favoured ideas were shadowing and secondments: staff were enthusiastic and keen to run with it.

 

Since then, groups of staff with similar interests and responsibilities in the different schools have sprung up without any input from the headteachers. These include SEN coordinators, a moderators group for the early years curriculum, and forest school leaders.

 

Support and challenge

 

In between the annual risk assessments, the schools undertake ‘mini Ofsted’ inspections, working in pairs looking at episodes of learning, for example. Jane Ratcliffe recalls one occasion when her two fellow heads identified the need to differentiate lesson planning more thoroughly at St John’s. ‘This development feedback hurt me more coming from colleagues whom I trust than it would from Ofsted. But a crucial point is to know the truth. Top-down hierarchical accountability systems encourage organisations, including schools, to hide the truth. Instead, we have trust and honesty: we can research in a safe environment for the truth in our schools.’

 

Heather Haigh agrees: ‘I’m petrified at the thought of you lot coming to find my truths. But we owe it to our children. We’re all in this together.’

 

Clearly, it’s harder to reject or ignore criticism that comes from people you know and respect.

 

The OPEN heads believe their approach to school accountability is actually more useful than the official one. ‘Ofsted’s five-yearly visits – what good is that?’ says John. ‘We will have annual risk assessments, so we’ll always know how we’re getting on.’

 

 

‘We will have annual risk assessments [by our peers], so we’ll always know how we’re getting on.’ John Hawkins, Headteacher, Manor Primary School, Didcot 

 

 

Looking for inspiration? You can find it in your children


[First published by Headteacher Update magazine January 2014]

Looking for inspiration? You can find it in your children

 

Here, Matt Brooks, Online and Mobile Learning Leader at Bidston Avenue Primary School, Wirral, shares his experience of hosting a multi-school day sharing ideas and inspiration across 6 schools; both in person and virtually. The best part? It’s the children doing the presentations – and providing the inspiration.

 

Matt says…

 

“It was back in May 2013, at the SSAT’s Achievement Show that I met Alan Frame, a Headteacher from Downlands Community School in Dorset.  We talked about our Digital Leaders and the impact they were having on our schools.  He also mentioned that he was holding a KidsMeet, something that I had heard of, but didn’t know too much about.  Before long we’d agreed to try to find a date to hold our own KidsMeets, and link up via Skype.  This was the beginning of a fantastic journey.

 

On November 13th, children from five Wirral schools, St. Andrews CoE Primary, Poulton Lancelyn Primary, Heygarth Primary, The Priory Parish and Hillside Primary, joined us for a whole day.  Our original plan was to run the event in a similar way to a TeachMeet, one presenter at a time, sharing their work, a website, an app, or a particular style of learning that they enjoy or helps them to learn.  However, after hosting an SSAT Speed Learning event at the beginning of October, we realised that the Speed Learning format works far better – it means that the children would be more active in their learning and could choose topics that were relevant or interested them. SSAT’s Speed Learning works on three principles; first that the entire experience is discussion based so that you are actively involved in learning about every idea. Second, is that every idea focuses on the impact on children’s learning, and third, that you have choice throughout, so you can pick and choose the ideas most relevant to your own classroom, and focus on how you will apply them.

 

So our day would be made up of ‘get to know you’ activities; two Speed Learning sessions; linking up with another school via Skype; a ‘Genius bar’; and a project to create an advert for our next event!  Last year we appointed our first Digital Leaders in Years 4-6.  This would be a chance for them to share their skills with other children and would be the next step in their journey.  Our four Year 6 Digi-Champs met at lunchtimes to plan out the day and discuss what they would say, as they would be responsible for organising everybody and leading activities.  They were daunted by this at first, but soon began to relish the opportunity to shape the day to how they wanted it to look.

 

Our other Digi-Champs would help out during the day and had been planning their Speed Learning presentations.  They did this at lunchtimes and at home, after choosing their own topic.  It was encouraging to see the children talking about the websites we subscribe to and how they use them, and our school blogs, so well. Their focus was about the impact on their learning, not just the activities that they were engaging with.

 

On the day, children from the participating schools arrived and were greeted by our Digi-Champs.  They took part in some ‘get to know you’ activities and prepared for the first Speed Learning session.  There was no fixed theme for the presentations, it was up to the children to choose a topic or website or app that they were familiar and passionate about and able to share.  It soon became clear that we had a great selection of topics; Ancient Greece, Children in Need, the 100 word challenge, Bug Club, a favourite sport, and so on. Some of the children chose to present using powerpoint presentations; others opted to bring along ‘Top Trump’ cards, or share posters they had created. We wanted to ensure that the children were making real decisions about the content and format themselves.

 

One of the children chose to share about how the 100 word challenge has impacted on her writing, especially when her work is ‘showcased’ and people from all over the world leave a comment on it.  To make her presentation interactive, she set all those visiting her table a 50 word challenge (there isn’t enough time to write 100 words in the time we had!), and ensure that they blogged the entries before they moved on.  She made sure that even our Headteacher completed a post!

 

Standing back and looking around the room, it was incredible to see how children from different schools, backgrounds and abilities can come together so well and share their learning as articulately as they did. It is testament to the work that goes on in our schools. Children were thriving in an environment where they were focusing on learning and making real decisions about what, how and where they shared the impact that these ideas had made on them. ‘Focus on the thing that matters, and the thing that matters is Learning’.

 

As part of our day we linked up with Downlands Community School, Dorset. This gave all the children involved a greater and wider audience and a more diverse range of ideas to share and received.   The children had a chance to discuss what they had been doing and found out a little more about each other’s local areas. This was a great opportunity for the children (and staff) to see the great work going on around the country. We find that SSAT’s Primary Network helps us to identify new schools and partners to link up with so that we connect to schools who share the same priorities and interests as us.

 

One of the other features of our day was our ‘Genius Bar’, where children demonstrated websites, apps and software to one another and suggested ways these could be used back at school.  Lots of great ideas were shared and again, it was inspiring to see so many imaginative and creative learning that happens in our schools.  Finally, the children had to create an advert for our next event, using iPads.  They had to sum up what they had got out of the day and make a video that was sure to attract others to take part, next year.  We all watched the adverts and were astounded at how good they were!

 

When signing up for this project, schools had to pledge to dedicate staff meeting time for their children to share what they had learned and any useful websites and apps that others were using, that they thought their school should adopt.  So far, we’ve heard of children sharing their experiences back at their schools in assemblies, staff meetings and to governors as well as in their own classrooms and with their families and friends.

 

When the children take over, that’s when the magic really happens”.

What really makes ‘outstanding’ schools outstanding?


[First published by Headteacher Update magazine March 2014]

What really makes ‘outstanding’ schools outstanding?

 

With just 17% of primary schools currently rated as outstanding by Ofsted, many schools ask how attainable this status is for the majority. Looking at what some of these schools actually do may help to provide an answer.  We invited schools who have recently been visited by Ofsted to share what they thought contributed to their outstanding status.

 

The new curriculum: local, national and international

A number of the schools inspected in the Spring term were asked what they had been doing to repare for teaching the new national curriculum, due to be implemented from this September.  Outstanding schools described how they were already teaching from the new curriculum, adopting a variety of approaches and constantly evolving their school curriculum to incorporate local, national and international perspectives. Many cited their involvement in SSAT’s Redesigning Schooling campaign workshops with Dylan William as supporting their thinking in developing principled curriculum design[1].

 

Other schools talk about collaborating with local schools and stakeholders across their communities to ensure a local and relevant curriculum. Several schools undertake parent surveys to find out what trades and skills are already within the community, and then connect these with the curriculum work and projects undertaken by the children such that parental expertise becomes part of the classroom – expert demonstrators and skilled contributors.

 

In more rural areas this was often found through examples such as parents working with animals helping the children to plan and run their school farm.

 

In urban and city centre schools this was often found through KS2 enterprise projects, based for example on Dragon’s Den.

 

What was common across all of these schools was how the school had researched their community first, and found links to draw the community into the school, rather than depended on school visits and trips to connect children out into the wider local area.

 

An evidence led profession & a culture of learning

Another line of questioning Ofsted used with these schools was about their professional development programmes, and how they ensured that all teachers were continuously improving their teaching. The frequency with which themes such as developing increased understanding of effective pedagogy came up in conversation revealed the schools’ focus on this aspect. Many cited how useful programmes such as Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement (TEEP) are[2], and the importance of developing a whole-school culture of learning.

 

The schools all agreed the essential need for all teaching staff to seek out the latest research; many cited examples of sharing this across the school as vital in keeping momentum. Ways of disseminating research findings included:

  • Staffroom learning lunches (staff buffet lunch with named staff volunteers sharing a five-minute input on a research project, research finding, or research question)
  • Thinking-Thursday (staff take turns to pose a challenging question on the staffroom noticeboard and engage colleagues in thinking about and discussing a key issue)
  • Staff Research Journal (collated termly by staff each contributing a 1 page article on their own classroom action research work)
  • Research think-pair-share (action research findings applied by a colleague in another classroom, and then discussed with the original researching teacher, before sharing with the whole staff)

 

Transparent data

Many inspection reports from outstanding schools cite the significance of teachers applying knowledge of their children in their planning. A typical inspector’s phrase is ‘Teaching is characterised particularly by a consistent approach to planning well-matched, challenging tasks to support each pupil’s learning’ (the words consistent, challenging and matched are very common in inspectors’ reports). Discussion with SSAT member schools revealed two other trends:

  • Joint ownership of assessment data – children, teachers and parents are all familiar with the children’s attainment, progress and targets throughout the year, not just at report intervals or parents meetings
  • Highly targeted use of data enables all those involved in teaching, planning, supporting, leading and managing school activity, to respond to issues quickly and efficiently.

 

For groups such as children receiving pupil premium funding, these outstanding schools suggested:

  • Look first at your day-to-day teaching and what can be improved, before deciding on intervention strategies.
  • Analyse why children are underachieving, particularly in English and maths, and don’t confuse children receiving pupil premium with low-ability children.
  • Use your best teachers to deliver intervention groups; don’t just rely on TAs.
  • Track the impact of intervention groups during the intervention – don’t wait until it’s completed.
  • Assign a senior leader to manage and monitor pupil premium, and have regular 1:1s between them and class teachers about the PP children. Include this in performance management.
  • Capture evidence of impact throughout the year – case studies for each child.

 

Post-level assessment: progression, consistency collaboration

Another common theme across schools recently has been in planning for post-level assessment, particularly in light of the curriculum changes underway. Add to this context a focus during recent Ofsted inspections on what is being done to develop and extend teacher subject knowledge (cf. the new curriculum), and we face a complex and challenging picture.

 

An example of progression and collaboration is how schools work with early years providers and secondary schoolsto ensure effective transitions. This raises a number of opportunities (rather than challenges – as these schools were keen to highlight) about progression all the way from EYFS to KS1, KS2 into KS3, including the importance of consistency of language in classroom assessments before and after transition phases, between year group changes and when working vertically and horizontally in subject sets. Where groups of schools are working together (eg across a pyramid or cluster), many cited a progression as a focus. While it was initially on sharing an understanding of assessment informed by subject knowledge and tracking progression, experience led to developing consistency across primary schools. Examples include moderating work samples, undertaking classroom observation and team teaching in order to develop and agree a consistent approach to assessment.

 

What matters most

Perhaps the most poignant of the key themes that emerged during these discussions was that outstanding schools focus on children’s learning first and foremost and are unashamedly ruthless in prioritising that above everything else. The principle and practice of shared ownership of improvement in the quality of teaching across the school came up a number of times.

 

This showed up in the way working groups and roles within the school are described. Even small schools refer to their leaders as directors of learning, with other roles described as ‘data innovator’ for example instead of assessment manager. There is a very clear trend in these schools towards targeting roles towards specific outcomes – making staff members project leaders rather than managers of traditional areas. This is just an indication of how schools who are working through all the layers and facets of their development to ensure that all variables are aligned with their overarching vision: to improve children’s learning first, second, third and last.

 

As Dame Vicki Paterson, executive headteacher of three outstanding schools, said at the SSAT National Conference in December, ‘We don’t respond to Ofsted. We respond to children. If we take care of children and their learning, then Ofsted will take care of itself. In my experience, across three schools, that’s what works for us’[3]. 

 

[1] http://www.redesigningschooling.org.uk/campaign/curriculum/

[2] http://www.ssatuk.co.uk/ssat/support/teaching-and-learning/teep-2/

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jULbBB1W6rQ&feature=youtu.be

Outdoor Learning without using up your budget


[First published by Headteacher Update magazine May 2014]

Outdoor Learning without using up your budget

 

An analysis of the last thousand primary schools to have been inspected by Ofsted, shows two very important trends; first that the area most commonly identified for improvement (in over half of all schools inspected) is Teaching. Second, that the most common reason that a school is not yet good or outstanding centres upon children’s engagement levels.

 

Developing strategies for improving teaching and learning, and increasing children’s engagement, is not easy and many schools have been seeking inspiration for new ideas and fresh approaches. One of the common themes across the country at the moment is about developing Outdoor Learning; ranging from forest schools to farms, and from sensory to sandpit. Here, we share some practical ideas for developing Outdoor Learning on a budget.

 

Gill Ellis, from St Andrew’s CE VA Primary School in Radcliffe, Bury[1] explains…

“Our Outdoor Learning development was a vital part of our planned strategy for raising attainment outcomes. In the summer of 2012 we thus began to develop a careful plan which targeted specific children in our school. Our focus was very much on our continuous provision across the curriculum, and how best we could develop quality enabling environments both indoors and outdoors. We were also keen to involve a range of staff in the journey; beyond teaching staff and leadership teams.

 

Our first step was to redefine our school outside space; establishing security and boundaries so that we were portraying a clear, and improved place where expectations for learning could be clearly rooted”.

 

HIGHLIGHT: How does the outside space that children work within infer an expectation of pro-active learning?

 

“Once we had clear learning spaces identified and established, we undertook a thorough audit of what resources we already had available to us. We utilised guidance and information from a range of people familiar with outdoor learning and landscapes, and immersed ourselves in thinking about key questions and ideas raised from within these”.

 

“We then reflected carefully on what other people had done and drew these ideas together to plan the space; prioritising what we could achieve in the short and longer term. It was important to us to establish some initial successes so that the children, staff and families could see how our outside space would develop over time.

 

 

 

Some of these initial actions were simple things such as our school caretaker erecting guttering and an outdoor tap. These simple actions opened up a vast range of opportunities that we could then use across the curriculum. We also held a Ground Force Day where we built a sand based learning area and a Mud Kitchen”.

 

 

 

“We wanted to create a sense of sensory nature and so we sought help locally to re-bark the floor of our outside area and to add tree stumps for seating and interest areas”.

 

 

 

“Planning how we would maintain and sustain our outdoor learning space was important in our planning. We obtained a large shed and abundance of storage boxes for the areas so that we could use these throughout continuous provision. None of our provision has been budget breaking. For example:

 

  • Guttering (£30.00)
  • Outdoor tap (£20.00)
  • Teepee made with bamboo canes (£15.00)
  • Mud kitchen(£20.00)
  • Sink tyres (free)

 

“We have repurposed existing resources such as crates, an old classroom table, a PE trolley and chalkboards, and we also find objects for £1 each week that facilitate learning in each of the areas such as jugs and baking trays, to complement more complex resources that are more expensive to source, such as magnifying glasses”.

 

HIGHLIGHT: Outdoor Learning does not depend on expensive landscaping projects or costly equipment.

 

For example, as Cath Lavelle, Assistant Head, Barlow Hall Primary School[2] explains: “We have recently built a Mud Kitchen in our outdoor area and just purchased waterproof clothing and wellies for the children to keep clean (ish!) and dry. The children mix their own mud from clean topsoil and water and we enhance it with natural materials that the children bring in or that we find around the school such as pine cones, leaves, woodchip, petals etc. The parents helped us by donating wooden and metal bowl, pans and utensils and one of the teachers dads built the tables and frames. The children use it every day and it is always a busy but calm place to be. The children have become independent at fetching their own wellies and getting themselves dressed in waterproofs. It is a great place to promote sharing and collaboration and for imaginative play and speaking and listening”.

 

 

 

 

 

Across the country many schools are currently working on or thinking about developing their outdoor learning provision. One of the questions that often arises in conversation is from our member schools who are within city centres or who have limited outside spaces. We have seen some very creative solutions to these challenges – ranging from sophisticated roof classrooms in new build schools, to window box vegetable patches in multi floor schools. It’s entirely possible for all children to benefit from the curriculum opportunities that ‘outdoor learning’ offers without depending on access to outdoor space.

 

Other approaches that our schools talk about is bringing nature inside the building; for example recreating everyday forest floor objects such as twigs, leaves and soil, inside the role play area. Children put wellies and overalls on inside the classroom just the same as they would do if going outdoors; and this is particularly good for children from low income families who might not otherwise have their own wellies – a couple of pairs of differently sized wellies ensure that all children have equal access (hunt in your lost-property box; there are bound to be a few). This kind of sensory experience awakens children to a vocabulary and sense of discovery that lends itself to targeted questioning and knowledge development encompassing science, geography, art, music and maths, as well as the more obvious literary connections.

 

Another benefit that children in more rurally located schools have is to be able to lie under trees en masse to read, write or draw. Those with schools fortunate enough to have such landscapes will know what a profound impact this can make to children’s imaginations and creativity; particularly in their writing. A number of schools have used inside spaces to recreate this – oversize indoor plants adjacent to library skylights, or trellis partitions covered in climbers for example, create a sense of scale, mottled light amidst the leaves and particularly when near to a window breeze can strike the imagination within any classroom.

 

It’s important to give children the opportunity to connect with nature regularly; not just on day trips or for those lucky enough to benefit from family who go on walks or play outdoors. Bringing natural fabrics; bark, wood, willow and moss into outside learning areas provides a sense of inclusion for those children who do not regularly get the opportunity to open their senses to the sight, smell and texture of nature.

 

 

As Jason Bilinciwitz, Deputy Headteacher at Sacred Heart RC Primary School in Bolton[3], summarises, “The key to outstanding outdoor learning is creating memorable learning experiences that will stay with children for a lifetime. We have a huge focus upon improving children’s social and emotional development. Many children with difficulties working in large groups or with their speaking and listening skills are highlighted at pupil progress meetings and enrolled into our weekly OLE (outdoor learning environment) groups. These children then work with a guided TA to develop their interpersonal skills through small group based learning activities. They might talk through and re-enact bible stories, design and make green man masks or discuss a story by the fire-pit whilst sipping hot chocolate.

Children are able to learn in a safe and exciting space whilst being in a small group allowing for more focused teaching. It is our vision to share with the children what the outdoors can bring to education and we believe that these real life experiences contribute to the education of the whole child”.

Here are a few top-tips if you’re thinking about Outdoor Learning as a priority in your school:

  • Identify a leader for Outdoor Learning development and empower them with the budget and team to deliver on their vision.
  • Think carefully about what your vision needs rather than what is easy to source.
  • Ask your parents and community what skills, expertise, materials and ideas they can offer – lots of schools carry out surveys to find out how parents can contribute in kind – and parents often prefer this to being asked to sponsor events or find cash for the summer fair.
  • Avoid investing time and money in objects that look great just because they can be seen by parents and passers-by. Challenge yourself to justify how each item will directly support children’s learning before you commit to the spend.
  • Look around your local area with a fresh pair of eyes – what can be reused or recycled? What natural resources can be found nearby? Or if you are in the middle of a city – is there a building site throwing away bricks, tiles or planks that can be reused for example?
  • Outdoor Learning doesn’t need to be a timetabled slot for a whole class activity; think about outdoor learning experiences as targeted interventions, and the activities as curriculum differentiation.
  • Ensure that your Outdoor Learning provision is making a difference – identify targeted groups of children, and plan how particular spaces or activities will be used to meet their specific needs in a specific timeframe. Use the analysis of their progress to best determine next steps in planning future provision.

 

[1] http://www.standrewsradcliffe.co.uk

[2] http://bit.ly/1kAHZp8

[3] http://www.sacred-heart.bolton.sch.uk

Making collaboration make a difference


[First published by Headteacher Update magazine June 2014]

Top Tips: How to ensure Collaboration & Partnership make an Impact where it matters most

 

If “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”, then you must play your part, to ensure that our profession is seen as more than just the data that we report on…
Across our networks of schools[1], collaboration has been consistently climbing higher and higher up the agenda. With the Education Select Committee having recently published a report which goes as far as recommending funding should be made available to support it,  schools are increasingly seeking out networks, to benefit from what Andy Hargreaves would call our shared Professional Capital[2].

 

Yet there remains an irony in primary schools; that whilst the expertise of the profession is very much within our schools, we are, as a profession, much more reticent about self-proclamation.

 

Usually, this is because with limited capacity to be able to visit other classrooms, let alone other schools, teachers and leaders often mistakenly assume that others are also displaying the same innovative practice, or applying the same research informed strategy. That’s usually not the case! There are so many amazing, inspiring things taking place in schools across the country, and many of us who have the privilege of visiting different schools every day, are able to see this vast collation of professional expertise; sometimes literally bursting (!) out of classrooms, school buildings and outdoor spaces.

 

As such, the role of national networks and indeed the more localised work of Teaching Schools, is increasingly about sourcing innovation and inspiration and disseminating it across schools in creative ways. For example, we have seen phenomenal demand for places at free-to-attend twilights such as TeachMeet and Speed Learning. This is perhaps in part because it is not supply cover or budget dependent, and perhaps also due to the quality, breadth and depth of practitioner sharing now known to be available through this model. Unlike many professions, teachers respect and trust each other and see opportunities like these as a unique and easy way to benefit from that collective expertise.

Arguably, reflecting a gradual increase in confidence as a profession.

 

True collaboration, rather than professional development dissemination, is a non-hierarchical activity. Collaboration is about looking at a problem or idea together. It’s about planning, discussing, debating, reflecting and a shared ownership of implementation. As such, collaboration for our profession is about all 250,00 people within our professional workforce connecting together; (albeit not all at the same time!); looking beyond school data and Ofsted outcomes, designations and statuses, and instead communicating effectively together to work towards raised outcomes.

 

But for many schools, particularly those who are located remotely or tackling different challenges to nearby colleagues, identifying which schools to connect with and brokering those relationships can be difficult. One of the many ways to approach this is through using publicly available data – such as Edubase which includes filters and information to be able to refine down to a few schools with the most in common in order to make connections and discuss practice.

 

The key theme amongst all of these kinds of activities is connectedness as seen in the informal social online world, and across user and consumer communities. In other words connecting with purpose. Collaboration is fundamentally based on two way communication, and mutual benefit. Collaboration is successful where individual people communicate about something that is personal, relevant, timely, sustainable, achievable and motivating.

 

With this in mind, how often do we openly discuss strategies for professional communication and collaboration within school? For example,

 

  • How often do you, as a leader, engage in discussion with your staff about the specific skills involved in collaborating (or communicating professional ideas to others)?

 

  • How often do you scaffold (rather than just encourage) your staff to openly and pro-actively share their successes and strategies?

 

  • How often do you actively encourage your staff (not just the high performing leaders and teachers), to share a single aspect of their practice, with others?

 

  • Thinking about the opportunities for collaboration, networking and partnership available – what could you share into these, and what would you hope to benefit from them? (Ensuring that you undertake the professional and moral responsibility to both give and take!).

 

These important elements of professional learning are as central to professional collaboration as they are to the collaborative learning of the children within your classes. Can we really expect one without the other?

 

So, reflect on the questions above, and stop being so modest! You, and your staff, have so much to share with each other, and beyond your school walls. Try a few of these ideas this term:

 

  • Build an ‘idea of the week’ board in your staffroom to add post-it notes to. Informal, Simple and great for catalysing conversations between staff.

 

  • Hold a staffroom Learning Lunch with staff volunteers sharing a five-minute input on a research project, research finding, or research question (and all bringing in a plate of something tasty to share!)

 

  • Run a Thinking-Thursday where staff take turns to pose a challenging question on the staffroom noticeboard and engage colleagues in thinking about and discussing a key issue. Great for trying ideas out, reflecting over the weekend, planning for the week ahead and returning energized on a Monday morning!

 

  • Collate a Good Ideas Scrapbook with staff each contributing a 1 page article on their own classroom actions. Celebrate these collations in the same way that you celebrate children’s end of project outcomes.

 

  • Join in with Teach Meet or Speed Learning to share a practical idea around a table with other teachers – great for building staff confidence in sharing their classroom actions, and for sourcing new ideas for your school.

 

 

But most importantly, find a way for all your staff to celebrate their own achievements and share in one or more of the ways that you choose. In our classrooms we don’t just promote the work of our high attaining children, and neither should we do that with our staff. Instead, keep the idea sharing small and practical – everyone is good at something and no-one is good at everything.

Then build in progression; enabling your staff to share a simple classroom idea or whole school activity through local networking events or or case study contributions. These provide a wider audience to build more confidence in your staff as professionals, and this starts them on the journey to sharing locally, regionally and nationally.

That continuum, is how we practically start making our wider workforce contribute to our wider professional capital. It doesn’t mean losing your staff to the wider world; it means challenging them to seek out and bring back new ideas and reflections on their own practice.

 

So stop being so modest, and stop your staff being so modest.

Our profession should stand up, be seen to celebrate itself, and be seen to share practice readily and confidently.

What will you do next?