Stokesley Primary Academy
Built upon Significant Strengths
Shortly after conversion to becoming an academy in the Enquire Learning Trust Stokesley Primary invited enquiry into their practice. In the enquiry team were the principal and vice-principal, the directors of the Enquire Learning Trust and senior leaders from within the Trust. The enquiry team spent the day exploring practice and provision in Stokesley, observing classrooms, looking at children’s books, talking to staff and pupils and exploring what was emerging with senior leaders. The outcome is a description of what the enquiry team believe are the significant strengths of Stokesley at the moment of conversion and a number of reflective questions through which they can explore their next steps towards becoming a great place for children to learn and for adults to work.
Children Embracing Challenge
In so many classrooms we encountered children who were absolutely committed to their learning. Scanning those classrooms, it was apparent that task design and the culture for learning meant those children who were not being directly supported by an adult were deeply engaged with their learning. There was often animated conversation as they tested out their ideas and supported one another to move their learning forward. Watching and listening to the adults who were leading their learning, there was often a fierceness in their approach. 'Focused', 'intense', 'insistence' was how one of the enquiry team described their approach. Adults were being demanding of the children in their class and children were embracing the challenge that presented.
These were children with a fabulous attitude to their learning. We spoke of how hard they were working, what levels of sustained concentration they showed and how prepared they were to persevere when learning was challenging. Speaking with children we got a sense that they enjoyed this level of challenge in their classrooms. They spoke of adults expecting them to do it for themselves, of not giving them the answer but helping them to think it through and of how proud they were when they overcame those challenges and achieved high quality outcomes.
There were two particularly striking aspects of what we were experiencing. The first was the quality of relationships, the sense that in so many classrooms adults and children were in this together. There was a closeness between them. Adults working closely with children making those demands and children who believed in those adults and wanted to do the very best for them. A real sense of mutual care. The other was the way in which adults continually pushed responsibility back to the children. Modelling, prompting, guiding then stepping away. Expecting them to think it through for themselves.
Engineering Collaborative Talk
One of the key features of teaching and learning in classrooms in Stokesley is the way in which tasks are designed so that children are compelled to engage in collaborative talk. We spoke of the ways in which learning was being engineered so that children can test their ideas out in conversation with one another. Sometimes this was done formally when children were asked to share their ideas with their learning partner, or a group were invited to talk around a table about a task the teacher had invited them to engage with. However, the most striking aspect of talk in the classrooms was the informal talk children engaged with as they wrestled together with a problem a teacher had set them. In those informal moments, it was obvious that this was a habitual part of the way in which learning was expected to take place and that what we were observing were children whose ability to engage in talk for learning had been consciously developed.
There were some fantastic episodes where children were invited to engage with a mathematical problem. The task design meant that rather than doing it alone, pairs or groups of children engaged with those problems. Talking their thinking as they explored the ideas that were developing. Testing those ideas out with one another. And we heard adults modelling that mathematical talk. Utilising opportunities to intervene in those conversations to guide and extend their thinking. We saw similar examples of adults modelling their thinking when they engaged children in 'book talk'. Leading the conversation as groups of children engaged with a book, inviting them to draw deeper meaning from the words and pictures in those books. And we saw groups of children engaged in similar activities; from the youngest children in the school sharing a picture book, to the oldest working together as they searched for deeper meaning in complex texts. Leaning from the modelling of adults how to engage in deep conversations about their learning.
Children also spoke of how much they valued the opportunity to talk, to ask for and give support to one another. To help one another to improve their work using success criteria and using rubrics to engage in peer critique. They also talked of how powerful it was to draw upon the best of one another's ideas. As one of them said;
"It's great to be able to share good ideas so that everyone can use them. And we can also help one another to have better ideas"
Teachers also created space for reflective talk, time for children to look back over what they had done, earlier or the day before, discuss it and decide upon the best ways to move forward.
Pace, Urgency and High Expectations
Looking through children's books there was a sense that a 'body of work' was being created. Children work hard in Stokesley and so books are evidence not just of the quantity of work that has been done but also the quality of that work and the high expectations teacher have of children and children have of themselves. We experienced the practice behind those high-quality outcomes. At the heart of that practice is routine. We saw it in the early years, children who had well developed routines for independence and a clear understanding of what expectations were when adults signaled that they were moving from one part of a lesson to another. We spoke of insistence, not only in the early years but in so many other classrooms in the school. Insistence that when an adult wanted their attention, they respond promptly and without any fuss. Our thought was that time is used well in Stokesley. The time children spend on task is high. Invariably introductions to lessons are kept to a minimum and time is made for children to engage with the learning challenges teachers present to them.
What we encountered in so many classrooms is a real sense of urgency. In the moment of transition between a whole class input and children moving to activity we heard adult urging them to their task;
"Right let's go for it"
"Ready, steady, let's do it"
"Work hard, work smart, no excuses"
Were some of the comments we heard in that moment, and we saw children responding to that pace setting with purpose.
Responding to Need
At the heart of learning in so many classrooms is the way in which teacher and other classroom professionals respond to need. What we experienced could be described as ‘teaching to the gaps’. At one level teachers were utilising what they learned from marking children's books to adjust their teaching the next day. Not just adjusting the content of the lesson but changing the groupings of children in the light of their response to the previous day's learning. Those teachers knew their children incredibly well, what they could and couldn't do and could tailor learning day by day to the needs of groups and individuals. At another level in some classroom we saw teachers readjusting in real time. As they worked the room, they first questioned children to elicit understanding. Then they sowed a fresh input into that conversation, checked those children had clarity about expectations then moved away. That input may have been to extend the learning of those children, but the intervention was often about a misconception. What we saw those teachers doing was teaching to the gaps, in the moment.
We saw some examples of incredibly precise teaching built upon an active knowledge of those children, where they had got to and where they needed to go next. What we also felt as we watched those teachers work the room is that they had time to dwell, to spend time with a small group, to get inside their thinking and give the precise input they needed to move forward. When we scanned those classrooms, the other children were absolutely focused upon their learning. Perhaps an additional benefit of that precision teaching in those classrooms was that every child is invested in their learning because it is so precisely tailored to their needs.
Consistently About Quality
On the walls in the classrooms and around the shared areas in the school were displayed the outcomes of children's engagement with the books promoted by the 'Power of Reading' programme. These are a great image of the push for quality in Stokesley. That programme, which puts high quality children's literature at the heart of its work but leaves space for teacher to be creative with the resources it provides, is also a good image of how learning is organised in classrooms. There is consistency across the school but there is also space for individual teachers to create a classroom regime which reflects their own personality and their approach to teaching. That consistency is focused upon being 'consistently about quality'. We saw that in children's books, not just their mathematics and their writing books but also across their curriculum. We saw that in the pride hey took in sharing their books with the enquiry team. We saw that in the way in which they were prepared to draft and re-draft because of feedback from adults and their peers. We heard it in the questioning of adults and the demanding challenges they presented to children. We heard some of the youngest children in the school discussing the effect word choices would have on the reader. And elsewhere we saw older children responding to precise feedback which demanded that they make a high-quality response.
In the Hive we observed highly skilled adults who know their children well, who model through intense interactions incredibly high expectations and provide scaffolds which enable children to create outcomes they are rightly proud of.
What we encountered throughout the school were children who were prepared to strive for quality and to not be satisfied with ordinary.
Community and Togetherness......
The school has travelled a significant journey, there were conversations about a time not so very long ago when much of what we experienced during the enquiry was not present. There was talk of the impact the mentoring approach has made to knowing children well and being able to precisely meet their needs. We talked about the impact the Hive has had not, just on those children who got there to learn but upon the way things are in classrooms. And we talked about the ways in which adopting The Power of Reading approach has enriched the curriculum. We also talked about the changes in demographic in the school and the incredibly diverse community the school serves. And we talked about 'buy-in'; buy in from staff and from children and from the wider community. We talked a lot about community and about togetherness and a sense of common purpose.
The journey isn't complete, perhaps it never will be. There are things to do and areas to focus upon, however what we learned is that Stokesley is both a place that serves the needs of needy children and a place of academic excellence, where no matter what your ability you can achieve great things. A place where high quality relationships pervade the interactions, be they in the classroom, in the staff room, or at the front office. Where everyone is cared for and respected. The outcomes of that authentic care are apparent as children grow and move through the school. Over time adult and child relationships become more informal. There are smiles, humour and banter. A sense that adults and children are in it together. And those classrooms are filled with children who are supportive of and caring about one another.
How can the school be represented to the whole community so that they can demonstrate how well they both meet the needs of needy learners and achieve academic excellence?
How can the environment in EY be richer - curriculum themes, pupils work, text - and the mechanisms for choice be refined so that learning is emphasised?
How can the practice be revised to maximise language development - explicit and conscious modelling, shared and accountable talk, giving curriculum purpose?
Learning environment - how does this establish and communicate expectation, how is learning scaffolded, what can be learned from the most effective classroom environments?
How can the school ensure that the progress of transient pupils is evidenced?
How does the school develop a strong culture of staff learning from the best of one another's practice?
There is some great mathematical learning going on in classrooms, how can the environment be enhanced to support that learning?
How might the school build upon and develop some of the really effective learning happening around peer critique?
How do teachers get the balance right between an initial input which gives children clarity about their purpose, but isn't so long that it eats too much into time for children to be actively engaged in learning?