George Street Primary School is a two-form entry primary in Pontypool, Torfaen. With 42% eligible for free school meals and 12% of pupils are from the gypsy/traveller community. The school is an active professional learning community having participated in the reform programme as a professional learning pioneer school and as an Initial Teacher Education alliance partner with Cardiff Metropolitan University. Many of the staff have wider roles as mentors, assessors and delivering professional learning programmes. The school has a positive outward-looking and reflective culture that supports improvement.
Many children enter school with a low baseline, often lacking the social and communication skills that underpin learning. Years of focus on targeted teaching and intervention have not addressed this successfully. We determined that a different approach was needed, one that would improve pupil engagement and agency and foster positive attitudes to learning.
Despite the consistent use of conventional approaches to support pupil progress, the continuing under attainment of a significant minority of pupils remained a concern. Self-evaluation identified that experiences for younger pupils, though in line with Foundation Phase practice, needed to create stronger engagement for pupils to buy-in to their learning.
Two members of the staff team (Early Years Leader and Deputy Headteacher) made separate visits to a highly effective Early Years setting in England (Wingate) to investigate a more experiential approach to learning. Following this, changes were introduced in the Nursery class to reset the balance between adult-led and child-initiated learning. Daily practice, including simple routines, child-adult interactions and the organisation of the learning environment were adjusted to provide a greater opportunity for pupils to lead their own learning. These changes evolved on a trial-and-reflect basis using ideas gleaned from individual research and collaborative discussion. In 2019, Estyn judged that ‘pupils make very good progress during their time in the Nursery’.
In 2020, what was emerging as a play-based approach to learning, was ‘rolled’ out into the two Reception classes. This strengthened the collaboration across the Early Years team, with staff working fluidly between Nursery and Reception to develop common, progressive approaches. The strong emphasis on well-being and agency that was becoming embedded helped to support pupils effectively in transitioning between school and home during periods of lockdown and re-opening.
A formal collaboration between the Early Years and Foundation Phase 1 teams took place in the summer 2021 term to expand this practice into the Foundation Phase. This included transition visits with teaching assistants and teachers working together to share knowledge of pupils ahead of their move and to develop awareness of how the learning environment and the role of adults has been altered to support a more playful approach to learning. This collaboration then led to the development of distinctly different pedagogy in Year 1, including extended periods of independent ‘play’ every day alongside short bursts of more conventional literacy/numeracy activity. The latter have also been altered to ensure that pupil interest and engagement are sustained as drivers so that children exercise choice and continue to remain largely in charge of their learning.
All of these changes have been underpinned by the individual and shared professional learning activity of team members. This has included trialling, discussing and reflecting on the ideas of active proponents of similar approaches, including Anna Ephgrave, Greg Bottrill, Alistair Bryce-Clegg. As a result of reading books, sharing webinars, journal articles and reflecting together on the impact of new approaches, staff have become increasingly well informed and knowledgeable about how children develop, and the conditions needed for them to thrive. This collaboration has been supported by a cohesive team structure that provides valuable opportunities for staff to work together to develop and evaluate practice. This ensures that staff at all levels contribute purposefully to developing practice and teams are empowered to innovate and experiment with novel ways of working. Team leaders and the Senior Leadership Team review changes regularly in joint meetings that encourage thoughtful debate about progress and challenges and the benefits or disadvantages for pupils’ learning and experience. Leaders work well together to ensure that collaborative learning drives shifts in practice, that changes align to improvement needs and that resources support these developments.
Leaders work strategically to create synergy between different projects so that professional learning from a range of activities is mutually supportive. For instance, learning gained through work on improving pupil well-being as part of a current the National Professional Enquiry Project has been utilised to deepen understanding of agency and to develop methods for assessing engagement.
In 2021, the participation of leaders on an agile leadership programme enabled a new set of common tools and approaches to be introduced that help teams to sharpen the focus of their collaborative efforts.
Overall, these changes are leading to a reframing of our organisational mindset; away from a view that measures progress based on fixed expectations to a practice that nurtures positive attitudes to learning for the longer term.
INSET in 2021/22 is enabling a whole-school professional learning activity to build on existing professional learning and to advance pedagogy that support the aspirations of Curriculum for Wales. This requires a redefinition of our vision, foregrounding the primary importance of agency as a motor for personal development. All staff, pupils and wider stakeholders are contributing perspectives to this new vision which is taking shape as our practice evolves.
The collaborative nature of this activity means that it is not linear; in some instances, as with our younger children, it is planned, but responds to the moment and requires just ‘have a go’ attitude, recognising at points that learning is sometimes serendipitous. This trialling is balanced with regular opportunities for regrouping, reflecting, and evaluating before moving on again. Inevitably, this means getting things ‘wrong’ at points, but this is more than offset by the growth in confidence staff experience as practitioners making choices about how we work with children in our care. The development of this culture is the main goal of activity as it will support and energise our development in the future.