Our initial Learning Away evaluation reports had helped us to develop impact hypotheses, linked to the thirteen partnerships’ residential programmes. Planning using a theory of change approach became a useful way of asking partnerships to begin to test these hypotheses.
Learning Away introduced this way of planning at the beginning of the third year of the programme. Although part way through a programme was not an ideal time to initiate a new way of working, some partnerships incorporated this model, and found it beneficial in a number of ways.
Clear, shared aims and vision ^
Partnerships found that the theory of change model added an extra dimension to their cross-school planning meetings. Its focused and structured planning system generated shared long-term aims and medium-term outcomes across staff from different schools with different priorities. These shared aims meant that staff across partnerships could then be clear with others in their home school about what the residential programme was trying to achieve – plus they had a clear visual representation to share. Planning in this way has been particularly helpful in partnerships such as Walney, Bulwell and East where a number of primary and secondary schools are working together.
Focussed, needs-led planning that encourages innovative ideas ^
The theory of change planning pathway encouraged Learning Away schools to plan in a more focused way with a big emphasis on meeting students’ needs.
For example, Walney partnership used it to plan their transition residentials with Year 6. Staff and children planned together to agree their long-term aim – successful, smooth transition to secondary school – and transition skills (the residential’s medium-term outcomes) children would need to reach the aim. They then decided together on the activities and outputs they thought would be most likely to help them develop their identified transition skills.
One of these activities, which the children thought would be the most helpful in managing being afraid and working through this fear in a safe space, was to tell scary ghost stories in their tents with their friends (which morphed into a storyteller starting them off). No adult would have thought about this as a useful activity, but the focused theory of change planning approach identified the specific need and enabled it to be met – and in an innovative way. Find out more about the Walney transition residential here.
A further example of an innovative idea came from South Hetton partnership, who devised a family ‘rent-a-tent’ programme as a result of using theory of change planning. They piloted and evaluated this idea and are now in a position to roll it out, having been successful in bidding for funding.
Linking different subject/phase areas ^
Having shared aims and outcomes meant that what would otherwise have been disparate curriculum areas had the potential to be brought together under a shared theme or context, which helped to reinforce learning. For example, Canterbury High School planned a large Year 10 residential each year focusing on GCSE attainment; each residential involved staff from up to eight subject areas. In order to unify the residential, each one had a theme and culminated in a final event, which enabled staff to connect the learning between subjects and be explicit about transferable skills.
General information about Canterbury’s residentials can be found here on their partnership page, more specific detail about their themed residentials here and a case study about the school’s residential at Hampton Court Palace here.
Linking with the wider school improvement agenda ^
“Residentials are most successful when they form an integral part of long-term curriculum planning and are closely linked to classroom activities. Brilliant residentials are not seen as ‘one-off’ special events but are an integral part of the school, fully integrated within the curriculum and life of the school for all students.”
York Consulting, Evaluation of Learning Away: Interim Report 2, September 2014
Planning in a way that generates innovative ideas and more lateral thinking means that residentials become, and are seen as, part of the School Improvement Plan. Links between residentials and the school are clarified and strengthened, and they are therefore more likely to influence whole school culture. For example, the residential programme in the South Hetton partnership has led to a complete overhaul of the way that the schools within the partnership teach literacy. Christ Church partnership planned their residentials to drive their creative curriculum and integrated it with termly research themes. Read more about these residentials here.
Integrating residentials into the School Improvement Plan means they have a greater chance of being sustained over time, particularly within an environment of budget constraints; they are no longer seen as a stand-alone ‘nice to have’ but as a significant part of the school’s work around raising standards as well as supporting a strong community ethos.
Read more about curriculum integration here in our free resource.
Robust evaluation ^
Schools sometimes struggle to evaluate their programmes effectively. The theory of change approach supports robust evaluation. It requires – at the planning stage – in-built evaluation methods that measure the more quantifiable changes (through the completion of outputs) as well as the more qualitative, medium-term changes (the outcomes). In addition, users are asked to test their assumptions about why change happens as part of the evaluation. Testing these assumptions as part of the programme’s evaluation means that lessons are learned and future planning is informed quickly. Read more about how Learning Away partnerships planned and evaluated their residential using a theory of change approach here.