Building pupils' learning power

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Three children studying together

St Mary’s Catholic Primary School uses a variety of techniques and strategies to help pupils become better learners. It works in partnership with the University of Exeter to keep raising standards.


Number of pupils: 255 
Age range: 3-11 
Date of inspection:  June 2016

Information about the school

St. Mary’s Catholic Primary School is in Bridgend.  It has 255 pupils, 80% of who are baptised Catholics.  The school has a wide catchment area and serves families from the full socio-economic range.  Currently, 41% of its pupils have English as an additional language (EAL) and 45% are from a broad range of ethnic minorities.  The school is an Advanced Thinking School and one of the Welsh Government’s Pioneer Schools, working to develop a new curriculum for Wales.

Context and background to sector-leading practice

Since 2008, the school has developed a ‘Building Learning Power’ (BLP) approach to teaching and learning and this philosophy has a strong focus in its life and work.  It established a partnership with the University of Exeter in 2012 - culminating with accreditation as an Advanced Thinking School in 2014.  St Mary’s now contributes to the university’s research in the field of cognitive development.  It is currently working on the concept of ‘dialogic learning’.  This identifies best practice in relation to teaching and learning and how learners’ verbal interactions can make a significant difference to outcomes.

Description of nature of strategy or activity

The whole school community began setting up the University of Exeter partnership in 2010.  It began to work towards satisfying the university’s criteria for Thinking School status immediately -   achieving this status in 2012.  This work continued and, in 2014, St. Mary’s became an Advanced Thinking School.  The university described the school’s work as a ‘shining example of cognitive development’. 

Throughout the process, the school identified a strategic lead person from its leadership team to ensure that the whole school community remained focused on this work. Over a period of several years, it also introduced a number of cognitive development strategies for pupils of all ages. 

Building Learning Power was the driving philosophy throughout. The following strategies were developed via high quality INSET (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Thinking Maps: allows pupils to link the maps to particular thinking skills such as classifying and finding analogies.  It enables pupils to establish clear structures in their writing.  Pupils use the maps across the curriculum. Staff encourage them to make their own decisions about which to use and when to use them.
  • Bloom’s Taxonomy: identifies a hierarchy of ways of learning.  This work encourages pupils to reflect more deeply on their learning.  They also realise that learning is about more than simply remembering and regurgitating information.  At the outset of learning activities, pupils identify opportunities to analyse information and to create something new.  This approach greatly increases the depth of their learning.
  • De Bono’s Thinking Hats: using these hats across the curriculum has allowed pupils to learn about a wide range of approaches to thinking.  In addition, pupils use the hats to self and peer assess from a particular perspective such as looking at processes, possible problems or from a purely factual angle.
  • Dialogic Learning: research is ongoing (in partnership with the University of Exeter) looking into ways in which high quality dialogue can positively affect outcomes.  Pupils have developed a ‘Code for Dialogics’.  This identifies ways of thinking effectively (caring thinking, collaborative thinking, critical thinking and creative thinking) when talking with peers and staff.  This work is ongoing and has the potential to have a significant impact on standards.

All of the strategies referred to above are in place across the whole school.  As a result, a common language of learning is in place throughout.  By the time pupils complete key stage 2, many are mature and sophisticated learners.

What impact has this work had on provision and learners’ standards?

The school’s monitoring processes indicate that pupils’ rate of progress as they move through the school is transformational. 

On entry to the Foundation Phase, 17% of pupils have low levels of English and only 76% are operating at expected levels in literacy and numeracy (mean over the last 2 years).  At the end of key stage 2, 98% achieve at least the expected levels. 

The school’s strategic partnerships have contributed significantly to the BLP approach, and have enhanced it greatly.  Pupils develop an increasingly analytical approach to their learning as they mature.  The school has designed its own tracking system, which focuses well on the key dispositions of learning. 

Analysis of progress indicates that pupils develop their thinking skills and a curious and questioning approach to learning rapidly.  This attitudinal aspect has benefits across the whole curriculum.  In addition, specific subject area skills have developed rapidly too. 

In mathematical problem solving, for example, pupils increasingly show rapidly improving reasoning skills.  As a result, pupils’ mean raw and standardised scores in the annual National Reasoning Test have risen significantly over the last three years.  The quality of pupils’ factual and report writing has also increased, thanks to the structure provided by the range of Thinking Maps used consistently across the school.

How have you shared your good practice?

Leaders have taken part in a range of events to disseminate the school’s cognitive development work for the Central South Consortium and for its cluster school partners.

The school has worked closely with other ‘Thinking Schools’ on a reciprocal theme.  Some of these are from South Wales and one from South Africa.  St. Mary’s is a ‘Lead Practitioner School’ and has shared good practice with its ‘Emerging Schools’ partner in this area to great effect.

A number of teaching colleagues have made informal visits in order to find out about the school’s BLP approach and its impact on pupils’ thinking skills and general cognitive development.  These visits are most welcome as they provide staff with opportunities to reflect continually on their practice and to refine it.

Links:  http://moodle.bridgend.gov.uk/stmarys/