This case study describes how the The Pilot Partnership’s Learning Away programme has been developed, and its subsequent impact on teaching approaches and practice across eight east Birmingham primary schools.
Building in teacher development as an integral part of its residential learning programme has enabled teachers to develop skills of thinking ‘outside the box’ to meet the needs of pupils in an area of high deprivation. The programme is teaching pupils and staff how to take risks in their learning and teaching – both on residential and back in the classroom.
Teachers and headteachers involved from inception stage
The leadership from the group of eight schools worked together, along with the Director of The Pilot Partnership, to focus on the key needs our partnership wanted to address through our residential programme.
The Pilot Partnership, a former Education Action Zone, offers training and coordination support for a network of schools in east Birmingham. It aims to enrich lives and the local community through education.
Some of the key challenges the schools identified were: under-achievement, low aspiration and self-esteem, teenage pregnancy, high levels of crime, high levels of domestic violence, alcohol and drug misuse, obesity and poor health awareness. We also had a rapidly changing community from mainly White British to a more mixed community that included both economic migrants and asylum seekers. There was a very active challenge from some of the community to this and high levels of voting for the British National Party and other ‘far right’ parties.
We also wanted the time on the residentials to be really meaningful and useful, and to make an impact both on the curriculum and our learners – both young and old. We therefore wanted to ensure that the themes we chose could be integral to the curriculum. We agreed this could be best achieved by writing linked curriculum modules that could be built on back in school.
As a leadership group, we also decided that to tackle these issues we had to start young, and so our residentials should be available from Year 1.
We chose three themes that would support us to tackle these issues:
- Autumn Term Year 1 or 2: Respect for Myself and the World
- Spring Term Year 3 or 4: Cultural Diversity
- Summer Term Year 5 or 6: A Chance to Shine (arts-based).
We then delegated the work of constructing the residentials and their curriculum modules to the children and classroom staff, working alongside and supported by The Pilot Partnership.
Constructing our residential programme and the associated curriculum modules
Planning work was undertaken over a period of two years (2009-11), and during the subsequent two years (2011-13) we more or less ‘perfected’ the programme, evaluating which aspects worked well and those that could be improved. However we deliberately built in elements of the programme that would continue to encourage pedagogical debate and an opportunity to develop practice year on year (see below).
Investing in joint planning
We began by thinking about the range of skills that we wanted to develop for pupils. Our planning of this coincided with the initial publishing of the new primary curriculum in 2009 and, although this was shelved by the change of government, we liked the progression of skills in the document and so decided to use it to support our own planning. Two planning days were designed: a planning of the curriculum day, followed by a planning of the experience day.
The Pilot Partnership then worked with the school group to identify which skills and elements of learning from four key areas they wanted to develop for each residential. They key areas were: understanding English, communication and languages; understanding physical development, health and wellbeing; scientific and technological understanding; and mathematical understanding.
The group of classroom teachers was asked to debate each of these areas of learning and skills and to highlight those that they felt would be appropriate to our mission. They were then asked to apply the key areas to either or both the residential and/or the partner curriculum module. This in itself created a great deal of discussion and learning for the group.
The pupils were asked what they would like to learn for each of the three areas. This presented some difficulties as sometimes pupils ‘didn’t know what they didn’t know’ – and this was particularly the case with some of the younger children. To overcome this, pupils were offered possible areas of cover for the curriculum and the residential and it was then easy to see what excited them and inspired them about ways of approaching learning – which, of course, has implications for teaching and therefore pedagogy.
The three programmes were written around a central theme for each of the residentials:
- Saving Peckwood From Destruction! (Respect for Myself and The World)
- Piecing the World Together for Peace (Cultural Diversity)
- Lights, Camera, Action! (A Chance to Shine).
Each programme had a curriculum module that partnered the residential and each one entailed a mission and this created drive and focus for all of the participants, including staff. The missions were to save a woodland, to create a multi-cultural carnival, and to create a film.
Building staff confidence and a culture of collaboration
The chosen residential centres were a local church-owned woodland and lodge, and two scout sites. They were chosen to be very low cost and therefore financially accessible to all of our pupils. Our first residential used no external providers at all. Our second employed a team builder and various music and dance providers. Our third used the same team builder, a script writer and a film company. However, school staff continued to provide most of the learning activities for the pupils.
We wanted the programmes to be as immersive as possible. Therefore staff and children would do their own catering, their own menu planning and would organise how and when the food would be purchased and delivered. This particular type of large scale planning and troubleshooting was new to some staff, and they needed to learn quickly so that they could teach the same skills to their pupils!
Many of the teaching group found this daunting: working closely with unfamiliar facilitators; the prospect of organising catering; and working from an unfamiliar site that had only the most basic levels of comfort and facility. They were very much outside of their comfort zone and this in itself generated a huge amount of learning for them, in terms of what they could achieve practically, taking risks, and being flexible and adaptive.
We found that working together to develop a shared approach to the curriculum actually utilised the same skills as in planning our catering needs. Using this shared planning approach encouraged staff to get children to think about where they wanted to be with their learning, to set their own learning goals and to plan how to achieve their goals. For many staff this was a very different approach to teaching and learning, moving away from a prescribed hourly curriculum. They had to take a leap of faith that enabling the children to take an element of control and teaching in a more cross-curricular manner would pay dividends.
Working together to do this gave staff confidence to take these risks and practice in a different way. Staff later reported that they had then been able to take these skills back into their classrooms and think about what they were teaching, rather than just delivering from an already established curriculum. They thought ahead to where they wanted the children to travel in the development of skills and worked backwards.
“Staff have developed a much greater confidence in their own teaching and it has also raised their aspiration in terms of the types of approaches they could use in their work. I see it in their planning and in the classroom- an example is the use of film. I see this being used in class very cleverly and far more often by pupils and staff. We have changed our whole approach to the school curriculum and the staff have developed the confidence to go with this and contribute to its vision of development”.
Maggie Rose, Headteacher, Timberley Academy
Another key tool for developing staff confidence was the decision to get our staff to first experience the learning activities that we were going to lead the children through, at the residential sites that we would be using. The film company and script writer also joined us at these bonding events. This created a strong team, generated trust and further supported the vital work of mutual mentoring across and between the schools.
“The opportunity to share planning ideas and share the work load makes the programme all the more enjoyable and puts children at the heart of the process”.
John Weaving, Deputy Headteacher, Hallmoor Special School
Each of the planning days incorporated an element of continuing professional development (CPD) for staff that encouraged the development of pedagogy. Aspects of each residential also encouraged this – for instance the script writer provided CPD to the staff and modelled lessons with children prior to them going on their residential to make their film.
“I have learnt to develop our curriculum so it is more skills based rather than knowledge based and give the children the opportunity to have more of an input into what they are learning and the way/environment with which they learn.”
Laura W, teacher and Learning Away Coordinator
During the development of the programme, each school helped to construct a pupil personal profile It’s Good To Be Me!. This was designed to encourage self-evaluation and also to build self-esteem. The final document would provide a record of a personal learning journey travelled by the child.
Ongoing reflection and development of pedagogy
Each year the partnership of schools now offers their pupils a rolling programme of the three Learning Away residentials per year.
Three months prior to the commencement of each residential, The Pilot Project holds a CPD event for teachers and support staff if they are attending the residential. Half of this event is focused on the curriculum module for the residential and the other half is focused on planning of the timetable and practicalities for the actual experience.
The curriculum module planning retains the same core theme from year to year, but staff are led through a review of their individual medium- and short-term planning to ensure it is still appropriate to the needs of the cohort and to train those new to the work. Revisiting such work further enables existing staff to extend their study and development of their own teaching pedagogy and style. Working as a group in this way is particularly supportive, as it enables each participant to support or benefit from the experience and expertise of other members.
The Pilot Partnership also holds an evaluation event, asking lead staff to bring along data and work produced for each of the residentials, photographs of activity, and their It’s Good To Be Me! pupil personal profiles. Part of this day is about examining approaches to teaching and reflecting on what has been learnt.
“Staff in the programme have seen it as a very potent form of professional development, with opportunities to work collaboratively with mainstream school colleagues. It has enabled them to keep up to date with curriculum practice in other settings and stay aware of how all children develop. Special schools can be insular and staff can lose sight of ‘normal’ expectations of children’s development, capabilities and how they progress.”
John Weaving, Deputy Headteacher, Hallmoor Special School
In summary, what have been the benefits of this approach?
- Three interconnected residentials throughout the primary career of a pupil have helped to create ‘buy-in’ from pupils and families.
- Residential themes are focused on key needs of the local community.
- Residentials are not reliant on expensive providers or accommodation – shared purchasing of such provision attracts bulk-buying discounts.
- Accompanying curriculum modules for each residential make the residentials ‘built-into’ the curriculum and not a ‘bolt-on’ (as can often be the case with more traditional residential models). This gives teachers time to try out their developing skills.
- Involving children and staff in the construction of both the residential and the curriculum creates a deeper learning and stakehold for both groups.
- Staff CPD is in-built and teachers have a safe environment in which to take risks and try new practice. This has further benefits for pupils who receive a more interesting, varied teaching style that becomes accessible to a wider group of pupils.
- Inter-school collaboration creates a melting pot of ideas and educational discussion based on a shared understanding of local needs.
- An ongoing pupil reflection booklet focusing on self-development and self-evaluation supports the raising of aspiration – a key teaching target.
And the key success factors?
- Headteachers being actively involved and on board from the beginning enables change to happen more readily.
- Schools are sincerely willing to work in partnership, to share ideas and support each other – and this brings many benefits.
- A coordinating organisation (in this case The Pilot Partnership) leading the pedagogical change by providing an external, strategic perspective and expertise, whilst enabling the schools and individual teachers to choose their own direction.
- One organisation (The Pilot Partnership) managing ‘back office’ tasks frees up participating teachers to focus on their own and their pupils’ learning.