Penllergaer Primary School radically changed its curriculum, following workshops with parents, pupils, and teachers. Overly detailed lesson plans were swapped for rich tasks that provide worthwhile opportunities for pupils to develop their skills. This case study represents the school’s curriculum development in relation to their progress in self-evaluation and planning and preparation.
Penllergaer Primary School is in the village of Penllergaer, in Swansea. There are currently 386 pupils on roll. There are two single-age and nine mixed-age classes, plus two part-time nursery classes and two specialist teaching facilities for pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties from across the local authority.
A few pupils are eligible for free school meals and a minority have additional learning needs. Very few pupils have a statement of additional learning needs, are from an ethnic minority background or receive support in English as an additional language. Very few pupils speak Welsh as a first language.
Stage 1: Evaluating the current curriculum within wider self-evaluation arrangements
In September 2015, the school responded to the recommendations of Successful Futures, (Donaldson, 2015) by asking parents a simple and straightforward question “What do you want our school to do for your children?” The headteacher facilitated a series of workshops with parents to seek their ideas and views at different times of the day and evening. The theme of the meetings, “The Curriculum is changing” was quickly established and parents were encouraged to talk openly about what type of school they wanted for their children. In doing so, they considered what they felt was good about the school. Parents were divided into groups and given a large sheet of paper on which to brainstorm their views and opinions. Each group contemplated the following questions:
- What type of school would you like Penllergaer Primary to be?
- What type of teachers do you want for your child?
- What type of pupils do you want your child to mix with?
The outcomes of these meetings focused firmly on developing a curriculum that would:
- enable their children to be creative and not be afraid of making mistakes
- allow their children to make informed choices about their health
- give them good opportunities to develop their life skills
Immediately after the parent workshops, the headteacher engaged with pupils. She introduced the proposed areas of learning and experiences (AoLE) as well as the four purposes and the three cross curricular skills before asking them “How is this different from what we are doing already?” Nearly all agreed that they wanted to be in a school that promoted:
- children’s rights
- health and fitness
- good citizenship
- responsible individuals who look after the environment and planet
- pride in the Welsh language and culture
- respect, tolerance and understanding of other cultures and religions
- skills and knowledge
- preparation for a job in the future
Following these meetings, the headteacher and senior leaders met with the governing body to present the main messages outlined by both the pupils and parents. Governors agreed with these principles and were of the opinion that there was ‘no need to panic’. However agreed to a whole school curriculum appraisal, from the foundation phase through to key stage 2. Leaders felt that this was necessary before any possible changes were implemented to both curriculum planning and pedagogy. They firmly believed that they needed to consider evaluation outcomes before developing any future plans.
What followed was a thorough, 360 degree evaluation that involved all members of staff and pupils. Leaders used a range of evidence to inform their evaluation of current practice, which focused firmly on the effect of teaching on pupils’ ability to learn and develop their skills. The focus was always on how well teachers provided opportunities for pupils to ensure that all activities were relevant and fun, and that they enabled pupils to learn new skills and build on ones already introduced. Evaluating pedagogy and developing an agreed understanding of teaching methods were key to developing a strong curriculum.
The school’s stakeholders wished to develop a broad, balanced, relevant, multi sensory approach to teaching and learning. During the evaluation period, staff were encouraged to take risks and to be creative with topics. They were reassured that they would not be judged for taking risks, and that, if something did not work out, they would find out why and plan to improve delivery next time. Lesson Studies and triad working supported building capacity and establishing effective pedagogy.
Staff placed an emphasis on moving away from subject based learning and decided not to follow the commercial planning package that they had been using successfully for several years. They replaced these well-established and detailed lesson plans, which focused more on curriculum coverage, with rich tasks that provided worthwhile opportunities for pupils to develop their skills.
The school defines a ‘rich task’ as an activity that connects different subjects and involves a variety of teaching and learning methods. It sparks interest, relates to real issues and experiences and helps pupils to develop lifelong skills. These tasks promote active learning and encourage pupils to engage in their work. During well planned, differentiated rich task activities, pupil use their own initiatives and explore the topic in depth.
During the evaluation period, staff worked in groups known as ‘Trust Trios’. This involved three teachers planning together before observing each other teach. Leaders wanted to build on the creativity that already existed among the staff so that new and inexperienced staff could develop their imagination in relation to their teaching.
Stage 2: Planning and preparing for change
Following initial findings, the senior management team evaluated that planning was far too detailed. Concerns were raised about ‘work/life’ balance, and many teachers were working long hours planning detailed medium-term plans and often writing individual lesson plans. As a result, the school decided to focus on planning rich tasks that outlined clearly the activity, resources and experiences provided to develop pupils’ skills.
Enhanced tasks were introduced in key stage 2, which focused on providing effective challenge, especially for boys and middle achievers. These tasks are open ended challenges and allow pupils to lead their own learning by utilising and applying skills they have learned. They encourage pupils to use their thinking skills and be creative. They are extended tasks that pupils return to at different times. This aspect of teaching was included as a whole school objective and was a target for every teacher’s performance management.
Leaders concluded that the pace of most lessons were too fast. Pupils were not given opportunities to think and to establish what they already know. As a result, they did not plan well enough for what they needed learn. Leaders were keen to eliminate the weekly catch-up known in the schools as ‘Friday chaos’ that resulted from over ambitious planning.
Following the evaluation, leaders questioned the effectiveness providing ‘two stars and a wish’ and whether or not this contributed to raising standards and improving pupils’ work. Although nearly all pupils make good progress from their baselines, the leaders believed that this was not the result of teachers’ marking. They limited written feedback, when needed, to a very few key words, which were documented during verbal feedback in the presence of the pupil. Targets are not recorded in writing, but are known and understood by the pupil with far greater thoroughness than before.
Following the evaluation, the school decided that the main focus for change was pedagogy. All staff signed up to the notion that ‘good teaching leads to good learning’. Following their involvement as Trust Trios, they understood the importance of planning against the four purposes.
The school keeps curriculum coverage and quality under review through well and leaders regularly monitor and evaluate progress. The governors changed the staffing structure by organising staff into AoLE teams. These teams are given time in the staff meeting calendar to review current practice and implement improvements. There is no immediate urgency to change theme titles or sudden changes in curriculum content. The focus is on changing the way that teachers teach through measured evaluation of pedagogy against pupil engagement and outcomes. Purposeful feedback through the senior leadership group ensures that all AoLE leads know what is happening and identify excellent opportunities for joint working.
The school has very little barriers to change and has developed a very healthy attitude towards reform by working closely with each other and with other schools in local and national clusters. Any uncertainty is addressed within a culture of openness and integrity.