[First published by Headteacher Update magazine October 2015]
The importance of being earnest: two school strategies which have roots deep in moral purpose
As the brilliant systems leader Anthony Alvarado often said, “isolation is the enemy of improvement,” and with tighter budgets restricting the extent to which school leaders can get out of school, creative approaches to collaboration are becoming increasingly common and increasingly popular. School networking has grown significantly in the last few years, partly because of the high-impact and creative approaches to bringing schools together to work in partnership; through joint research, sharing practice, exchanging resources and providing a valuable combination of challenge and support. Here are a few examples of inspirational schools sharing strategies.
The Compass Partnership:
By focusing on behaviour, to what extent are we implying that we don’t actually ‘expect’ our expectations?
The Compass Partnership is a soft federation of five primary schools with very contrasting communities. All schools are successful and achieve highly through a shared vision and set of values which not only underpin the work of the schools, but are deeply and sustainably embedded within the culture within and between the schools across the partnership.
Listening to the terminology used to describe behaviours within the learning environment at Compass schools, expressions such as Restorative Justice, Culture of Conversation and Diligence occur with consistency. This kind of focus on equitability between children, and in the interactions between children and all adults; not just teachers and leaders, is both profound and purposeful. John Camp, Executive Headteacher of The Compass Partnership describes “the environment as an illustration of what the school values”, and walking around the schools it is absolutely tangible to see the partnership’s values deeply, and consistently, embedded.
It is within this context that the schools across the partnership have made an educated and strategic decision to develop behaviour, learning, and learning behaviours all without the use of reward systems – instead focusing on creating a powerful and sustainable culture of conversation. As values-driven schools, the presence and exemplification of what is important is found in every space – for example carefully structured learning spaces which focus the mind on specific aspects of learning through visual and evocative display. Display that celebrates but also challenges and extends – not just through reminders and questions but through powerful imagery or purposeful use of lighting. Precision is found everywhere; from books to wall mounting; clearly communicating the importance of visible and tangible high standards, and all adults – not just teaching staff – are trained and supported with the tools and vocabulary for structuring conversations, phrasing challenge and providing support, in such a way that exemplifies the values themselves.
This subtle yet overwhelmingly powerful and positive use of the environment is what empowers the schools to move beyond traditional behavioural systems – so that every interaction between child and child, child and adult, or adult and adult, is embraced by a cultural familiarity – a culture of conversation. This approach empowers every individual to become confident with the tools of resolution such that the school’s gift of learning transcends academic results
- Key Question: Thinking about your school reward system; to what extent is the giving of your rewards inferring that good behaviour (or work) is being recognised as an exception, rather than an expectation?
Christ Church SW9[i]
Seek first to understand. Then, be understood.
Christ Church SW9 is magical place – described by visitors as feeling more like a home than a school. This is a special place, with an ethos of finding solutions in the most creative and inspiring of ways. But the magic of Christ Church is not just about the breathtaking artwork displays, the pedagogy of the outdoor learning or the exemplary approaches to managing behaviour. Instead, the special ingredient is the love that the children, staff and families have for their school – which for both visitors and those who attend everyday feels more like a home.
In talking about Christ Church SW9 it doesn’t feel right to refer to the staff as leading, because listening to the Headteacher Jakki Rogers, her leadership team, learning mentors, teachers and artist-in-residence, the vocabulary that is used all stems from a genuine belief that the school community – children, families, staff – are a one big, extended, unique family. It’s all about ‘we’, and all about addressing challenges which for the children translate into real impact on social mobility. Walking around the school, it’s clear that every member of staff knows every child’s name and most importantly their story. Christ Church SW9 really is a school where everybody matters – children, staff, families.
Through this introduction one could be easily forgiven for thinking that this is a school with a plentiful budget and countryside setting, but Christ Church SW9 brings diversity to the table. Situated in Brixton with high levels of social challenge, and a plethora of families where only some have access to FSM and PP funding, this context is not an easy one. But the solution for this school has been the SLT expectation that every child and adult should know and get to understand each other.
The focus and emphasis is about understanding each individual child and then the dynamics of groups of children. Staff have developed skills which utilise Kagan methodologies and counselling techniques amongst other influences. Strategies are undertaken only after deep observation of contexts; of watching children’s behaviours, learning, and learning behaviours – focusing on individual children, then groups of children. Only then, once a deep understanding of the dynamics has been ascertained, are strategies planned and implemented.
- Key Question: To what extent are individual children’s learning behaviours and group dynamics part of the observation process for intervention and curriculum work in your school?
Christ Church SW9, in the most challenging of circumstances are achieving what they, the school and the government want them to achieve but through their own vehicle. Central to the school’s mission is the importance of experiential learning; being outdoors growing and measuring a plethora of vegetables, cooking on the roof in the pizza oven made by the children, developing vocabulary inside a greenhouse made entirely from empty drink bottles. One of the most striking features about the Christ Church approach is that rather than depend on huge sums of money to resource all the creative projects they aspire to undertake, emphasis is very much on ‘making something from nothing’ which has resulted in a number of significant impact ripples. First, that children and their families are seeing ways to be creative with everyday objects, and how to achieve projects on a shoestring. Second, that the focus of all resourcing is absolutely and unapologetically about the learning rather than about the vehicle or the resource. One of the most creative thinkers is Jules Rogers who leads on Outdoor Learning development who explains the impact of this way of thinking on the children; “I love doing these things; making something out of nothing, being creative – and that shows the children that it’s possible and that it’s about learning, and that it’s exciting, and then they develop a passion for these practical, lifelong skills”.
Last but not least, one of the unique features of Christ Church SW9 is the Art Academy that takes place with carefully identified children across Years 3, 4 and 5 who have been identified as benefitting in one of many ways (eg; children recently bereaved, children for whom their English is very limited, children who had witnessed crime). As Hannah Littlejones; Artist in residence says “Children respond really well to have the chance to work in smaller groups. These times develop really meaningful dialogue and relationships with the children, and for them with each other. It focuses the conversations, through art, onto caring, sharing, having pride, recognising leadership and responding to it all – the loosest sense of Christian values – and how they can be made relevant for children who often are from such extreme backgrounds”. The Art Academy projects, in simplest terms, use art stimuli as a counselling vehicle; delving into the philosophy of what’s happening and the emotions that stimuli create “we don’t draw an image about going to the moon – how would they know what that’s like – they’ve never been to the moon – but they can be part of dialogue about love, fear, hatred, everyone has felt these emotions – and we can translate these emotions into art through collaborative pieces”.