Professional learning enhances the quality of education and helps improve outcomes

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Professional learning enhances the quality of education and helps improve outcomes

Over the past six years, three primary schools in the Vale of Glamorgan have worked closely together to improve learning and teaching in their schools. The headteachers and senior staff at Barry Island Primary School, Rhws Primary School and Romilly Primary School have established successful professional learning communities, for example, focusing on assessment for learning, improving investigative science work and enhancing the use of the outdoor environment. These projects have helped to improve the quality of education and enabled pupils to achieve better outcomes.

Schools: Barry Island Primary School, Rhws Primary School and Romilly Primary School, the Vale of Glamorgan
Age range: 3-11 years

The context and background to sector-leading practice

Over the past six years, three headteachers and the senior staff of three primary schools have liaised closely and worked together as like-minded individuals who share a passion for improving learning and teaching in their schools. They created an effective network between their schools, which was in addition to the school cluster groups formed by the local authority. This network has since evolved very successfully into professional learning communities (PLCs) across the three schools. With the recent appointment of one of the headteachers to another school in the same authority, there is scope for these learning communities to involve more than1500 pupils and 150 staff.

As schools that were already performing well in comparison to family, local and national averages, leaders and managers were very aware of the challenges of maintaining, and where possible, securing better outcomes for pupils. At the same time, curriculum and pedagogical changes, such as the Welsh Government’s ‘Developing Thinking and Assessment for Learning programme’, with its focus on developing learner-thinking skills, demanded new and different ways of working.

These leaders and managers recognised:

  • the benefits of sharing information and promoting best practice across the schools;
  • how undertaking action-based research helped staff to be better informed about learning and teaching;
  • the important economies of scale that could be achieved when resources are shared; and
  • the high priority that schools should give to developing pupils’ literacy skills so that pupils can succeed in work across the curriculum and achieve higher standards.

Through working together, analysing different approaches and challenging practice, these schools have been successful in improving the quality of education and enabling pupils to achieve better outcomes.

Messages from the schools

‘We firmly believe that the right culture has to be in place for PLCs to thrive. Because we had already established trust between ourselves as a network, we were not afraid to challenge each other.’

Janet Hayward, Headteacher, Cadoxton Primary School

‘Working as part of a PLC with other schools has supported our own self-evaluation because we have gained an external view of our practice. It has been really helpful to see what others are doing well.’

Kelvin Law, Headteacher, Romilly Primary School

‘It is important to be open to working in different ways because it is about seeing how different kinds of approaches can benefit the school.’

Louise Lynn, Headteacher, Rhws Primary School

‘With the economies of scale we have achieved by working together, pupils’ learning can take place in more varied and exciting ways.’

Ty Golding, Headteacher, Barry Island Primary School 

The good practice in detail

The development of professional learning communities has evolved in the schools over several years. During this time, staff have established a common approach, which they have found to be successful in focusing on a range of work. This approach includes:

  • initial meetings of representative staff from the schools involved, in which staff agree the areas of work and outcomes required;
  • engaging high-quality professionals with significant and relevant expertise to review current approaches with the schools;
  • the development of a range of activities, including action-based classroom research, to meet the objectives set by the schools; and
  • reporting back to all staff so that those not directly involved in the PLC have an opportunity to discuss, question and learn about the work that has been undertaken.

The PLCs have focused on different aspects of school improvement, such as curriculum developments, assessment for learning (AfL), playtime projects, improving investigative science work and enhancing the use of the outdoor environment. While some of the work of PLCs occurs over one or two terms, other PLCs have lasted up to two years. Janet Hayward says ‘We began the PLCs by involving staff who were eager to try new approaches and ways of working. This approach helped to encourage other staff and when the outcomes were shared, the evidence was influential in convincing everyone about the benefits of working across schools.’

Following the publication of the Welsh Government’s ‘Developing Thinking and Assessment for Learning programme’, the schools set up a PLC to examine and develop assessment for learning strategies that could be implemented in all of the schools. The work took place over two terms following the approach described above. Initially, the activity involved three year groups within the schools, where staff were already committed to the principles of assessment for learning, such as developing pupils’ skills in self and peer assessment. One of the developments that emerged from the work was the need to improve plenary sessions at the end of lessons. Action-based research indicated how powerful these sessions could be in developing pupils’ learning. For example, staff found that when they used approaches such as ‘hot-seating’ or exchanged classes to share the plenary sessions, pupils were more highly motivated and re-engaged in their learning, which helped them achieve more. The ‘plenary toolkit’ produced by staff in the PLC is now used by all staff in the schools. Plenary sessions at the end of lessons help to ensure that pupils’ learning is as effective as possible.

While staff already visit the other schools regularly to examine and share good practice, a key feature of the work of the PLCs has been to arrange for pupils to visit these schools as well. Pupils have also been involved in collaborative learning via a range of online tools. During their visits to the other schools, pupils make presentations on the work they have undertaken, such as in their joint project on the topic of ‘Flight’. The feedback that pupils provide following these experiences enables staff to gain valuable insights into particular aspects of learning and teaching.

The schools also survey parental views about learning and teaching. This adds a further dimension to the information that leaders and managers have about the quality of their work. For example, senior managers in Barry Island Primary School surveyed the parents of pupils in Year 1 about their child’s attitude to school. Parents said:

‘I (mum) really enjoyed it, it made Peter1 sit down and think about what he did each day and we actually talked about it. Previously, it was the standard “I can’t remember”, also I hadn’t realised quite how confident he was in his abilities.’

‘The project has encouraged Jane to discuss with me her days at school and be open about her feelings and concerns.’

With the curriculum changes in 2008 and the development of the non-statutory skills framework, the schools considered how to develop their planning to respond to these requirements and continue to improve pupils’ learning and thinking skills. Staff knew that they wanted to develop their curriculum planning to provide an approach based on topics and themes. Literacy was given a high priority in this work so that pupils would develop the skills of oracy, reading and writing in work across the curriculum. Staff were also keen to ensure that pupils were involved in the planning and determination of their work, so that they would be more engaged, better motivated and achieve more.

The three schools also set up a PLC to help them examine and determine an approach to topic planning. The outcome of this work has been an innovative model of curriculum planning adopted by the schools. The model represents a learning journey for pupils through a topic or theme and, due to the nature of the model, this approach may also be used as the structure for a lesson or a series of lessons. In addition to the work studied through this topic approach, the schools also plan special themed weeks or a subject-specific unit of work such as a design technology or mathematics project. In this way, pupils’ work is interesting, varied and meets the requirements of the National Curriculum. Importantly, this model links well to the learning and teaching approaches of the Foundation Phase, so that pupils experience continuity and progression in their learning. To ensure that the transition to secondary school is also effective, the primary schools have shared information and involved their partner secondary schools in devising their specific curriculum approaches.

Developing pupils’ literacy skills has been central to this curriculum model. The thematic approach has been helpful in providing many varied opportunities for the development of pupils’ oracy, reading and writing skills. In particular, the approach has provided pupils with genuine reasons for writing as well as scope for producing extended and sustained pieces of written work. 

The approach to the topic or theme work has nine important stages that develop pupils’ learning, communication and thinking skills. 


Louise Lynn, headteacher of Rhws Primary School, devised the representation of this curriculum model shown in this case study.

The first three stages of the curriculum model are Immersion, Brainstorming and Inquiring shown in the diagram above. Early on in the analysis of different curriculum approaches, staff recognised the importance of stimulating pupils’ interest and involvement in the thematic content. Therefore, before they start a topic, pupils spend several days immersing themselves in the topic or theme, where many resources are used to stimulate their interest.

The next three stages of the approach are Planning, Investigating and Organising. At the planning stage, pupils determine their own success criteria. During stage six (Organising), pupils use the success criteria they set to help them evaluate their learning to date and share the outcomes with others in their class.

Together with staff, they plan the next steps of their learning journey. The final three stages of the approach are Creating, Celebrating and Evaluating. When creating as part of stage seven, the emphasis is on the relevance of the outcome so that pupils understand the purpose of their learning. At stage nine (Evaluating), pupils consider the strategies they have used and the skills they gained. They identify their strengths and areas for development as well as set targets for future learning.

The use of professional learning communities in these schools has helped leaders and managers to:

  • develop teacher collaboration within and across the schools enabling staff to work together to share and develop their professional expertise and knowledge;
  • gain better access to knowledge about learning and teaching;
  • drive change across the network of schools;
  • respond effectively to national educational challenges; and
  • secure better outcomes for pupils.

The impact on standards

A range of pupil performance data shows that the schools have been successful in improving standards over time. In particular:

  • since 2008, the core subject indicator of all three schools has been above their respective family of schools mean and also well above the local authority and Wales results; and
  • at key stages 1 and 2, the +1 level results compare favourably with family, local authority and Wales results.

Inspections of two of the four schools have occurred recently. In the inspection of Rhws Primary School, inspectors noted that:

‘Nearly all pupils understand how well they are doing, how well they are progressing and what they need to do to move on to the next level in their learning. This is an outstanding feature.’

‘Throughout the school, teachers …use …assessment for learning strategies very effectively to give pupils ‘ownership’ of their learning…’ 

‘The skills-based curriculum is used very effectively to plan for pupils’ learning in key stage 2 and provides a progressive acquisition of knowledge and understanding. Through a themed approach, the school develops very good links between areas of learning.’

In the inspection of Romilly Primary School, inspectors noted that:

‘Pupils work very well with each other and have an outstanding ability to understand how well they are learning and of their own performance.’

‘The school has made outstanding progress in developing self and peer assessment to improve pupils’ understanding of the next steps they need to take in their learning.’

‘Where teaching is outstanding…teachers use assessment for learning methods and thinking skills strategies very effectively to give pupils ownership of their learning.’

Pupil and parent surveys have also endorsed the success of the schools’ work. For example, parental surveys from each of the schools show that nearly all parents rate teaching as good or very good. The outcomes of pupil surveys are also positive, such as these comments from pupils from Barry Island Primary School and Rhws Primary School.

‘I really enjoyed our visit to Romilly Primary School. We shared our work about flight with the other children. We found out that we did lots of the same things, but it was interesting to see what the other schools had done differently.’

A Year 4 pupil from Barry Island Primary School

‘It was great to celebrate what we had learned by flying our kites together.’ 

A pupil from Rhws Primary School

Read about other related case studies. You may find it helpful to read about the successful work of other schools in the Best Practice case studies published on Estyn’s website.

Reflect on practice in your own school

Use the case studies to help you reflect on practice in your own school.

  • What outcomes associated with this case study have you achieved to date? 
  • What impact does your current practice/activity have?
  • How do you measure the impact of this work?
  • What outcomes associated with this case study, have you achieved to date?
  • What impact does your current practice/activity have? How do you measure the impact of this work?
  • You may also find the following prompts useful in determining what to do to raise standards.


To what extent are pupils helped to:

  • improve their skills in work across the curriculum;
  • develop and use higher-order literacy skills confidently and competently across the curriculum;
  • improve their ability to plan their own activities, know how to improve their skills and set their own skills targets; and
  • achieve higher standards of performance overall?

Planning a whole school approach

  • How does the planning of a skills-based curriculum occur? Is literacy a core organising element?
  • How well have staff combined the non-statutory skills framework with the National Curriculum 2008 subject orders? Is there a suitable emphasis on literacy in all areas?
  • Is there clear progression in pupils’ skill development across the curriculum?
  • Do all staff ensure there are enough opportunities for pupils to use and develop their reading and writing skills (including extended writing) across all areas of the curriculum?

Teaching and assessment

  • How well do staff enable pupils to be independent and take ownership of their learning?
  • Do all staff consistently use assessment for learning strategies?
  • Do teaching methods take account of the development of pupils’ skills in work across the curriculum, such as the use of questioning techniques, the support provided by writing frames etc.?
  • Do teachers assess pupils’ literacy skills across all areas of the curriculum and not just in English or Welsh?
  • How well does the school track pupils’ skill development across the curriculum? Is information shared and used effectively across the school?

Leadership and management

  • How is the development of pupils’ skills across the curriculum monitored and evaluated? (Who is involved and what do they do?)
  • What has been the impact of monitoring and evaluation procedures?
  • How does pupils’ skill development fit into school development planning and self-evaluation?
  • Do staff have the skills they need to promote literacy through all areas of the curriculum? What INSET on literacy takes place and how does this benefit teaching and learning?
  • Do pupils benefit from the way your school works with others to raise standards, such as the local authority, with your school cluster, as part of a professional learning community (PLC) etc.? Is good practice being shared across all partners? What more needs to be done?
  • What has been the impact of improvement work on standards? Where are improvements still needed?