Putting pupil voices at the centre of planning to develop independent learning

Print this page
Planet - Planed

Monnow Primary School identified that their curriculum was not engaging pupils, or meeting their needs fully. The school has since addressed these issues and developed a vibrant and innovative skills-based curriculum by valuing pupil voice and its role in curriculum design. This case study represents the school’s curriculum development in relation to their progress in self-evaluation, planning and preparation, and realising change.


Monnow Primary School is in Bettws, Newport.  The school has approximately 400 pupils on roll including 45 who attend the part-time nursery class.

The school has 17 classes, including two nursery classes, seven mixed-age classes, eight single-age classes and two classes for pupils with additional learning needs. 

A minority of pupils are eligible for free school meals.  A few pupils come from ethnic minority backgrounds and have English as an additional language.  The school has identified a majority of pupils as having additional learning needs.  Very few pupils have a statement of additional learning needs.  No pupils speak Welsh as their first language.

Stage 1:  Evaluating the current curriculum within wider self-evaluation arrangements

Following a thorough self-evaluation of the curriculum in 2012, which involved all stakeholders, senior leaders identified high levels of pupil disaffection and low levels of attendance as significant concerns.  Leaders evaluated that teaching, learning, and the curriculum were not engaging pupils enough or meeting their needs fully.  They concluded that:

  • most teachers organised the learning environment to support whole class teaching with little or no flexibility, classroom displays were computer generated from websites and rooms were overcrowded
  • teaching was generally a process of transferring knowledge to pupils, which involved pupils observing practical activities rather than experiencing them first hand 
  • teachers differentiated largely by outcome rather than ability
  • marking of pupils’ work had little impact on improving standards
  • lengthy learning objectives and success criteria failed to move the learning forward
  • teachers delivered the curriculum through fixed timetables and most teachers reused the same subject specific lesson plans year after year
  • opportunities to develop pupils’ thinking skills and independence were limited

The school has since addressed these issues and developed a vibrant and innovative skills based curriculum by valuing pupil voice and its role in curriculum design.  The school encourages risk taking and innovation by staff to improve outcomes for pupils. 

Stage 2:  Planning and preparing for change – developing a thematic, child led approach to teaching

In September 2012, the school introduced thematic planning, which initially focused on literacy.  Teachers gave pupils responsibility for selecting a novel or text and then planned cross-curricular activities from these. 

The school placed pupil voice at the centre of all planning and learning.  Experiences became largely pupil led through regular board meetings, involving class teachers and pupils.  Prior to the meetings, teachers identified the skills that the class needed to cover, and then both parties negotiated the content of forthcoming lessons.  This provided pupils with high levels of control over their learning and resulted in greater engagement.

Staff developed thematic planning further to include ‘authentic learning experiences’ with pupils initiating areas of study based on real life events.  For example, pupils regularly watch children’s news programmes together and use this to decide what they would like to explore next in their learning.  Teachers plan a skills based curriculum through the AoLE with a focus on the four purposes.

Scaffolds to support independent learning

Teachers use a range of strategies to develop pupils’ thinking skills across the curriculum, for example by using thinking hats, thinking maps and thinking keys.  The school also develop pupils’ awareness of themselves as learners through their own approach, based around a series of characters from ‘Planet Thunk’.

Staff plan collaboratively to improve the learning environment to ensure that activities provide good opportunities to develop the four purposes effectively.
For example:

  • The school has replaced square desks with round tables to encourage and facilitate collaborative learning.  This has had a positive effect on developing pupils’ ability to participate fully in their work. 
  • Each classroom has a designated area for exploration and discovery through creative opportunities.  Pupils generate an authentic learning problem to research, action plan, create and test against a set of success criteria.  For example, pupils designed an emergency geodesic shelter for refugees, as well as kites that fly in extreme weather conditions for a measurable amount of time.
  • Teachers plan for the daily use of ‘independent learning zones’ to develop Very Independent Pupils, known as VIPs, in both foundation phase and key stage 2.  These provide pupils with the opportunity to work independently and collaboratively in a self-managed environment.  The zones enable pupils to consolidate and practise taught skills and transfer knowledge, for example by using thinking tools as a scaffold to extend and evaluate their work.
  • Well-planned VIP MAD Time (Make a Difference) activities allow pupils to develop a mind-set of responsibility towards their own specific learning goals.
  • Teachers produce outstanding displays to encourage pupil aspiration, through celebrating their work and scaffolding their learning.

The curriculum focuses on skills based learning without schemes of work, and pupils decide what and how they learn.  This ensures that learning remains authentic to the experiences of the pupil and changes according to their interests. 

Stage 3: Realising change – embedding the four purposes

The school’s teaching and learning policy has a clear focus on preparing pupils to be active, flexible learners and confident critical thinkers who work effectively to solve real life problems.  This useful document provides all new members of staff with clear guidance on how leaders expect them to approach teaching in the school.

Pedagogy at the school is key to developing the four purposes.  Teachers frequently provide pupils with the opportunity to learn from experts such as accountants and engineers, who take them beyond the confines of the immediate school environment.  This allows pupils to develop the necessary skills to be ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world. 

Teachers organise well-planned differentiated activities around small groups who change regularly to reflect the progress and needs of individual pupils.  This method of teaching motivates and engages pupils, promotes challenge and ensures positive learning experiences.  Learning intentions and success criteria are clear, and pupils are encouraged to relate these to the four purposes.  Staff provide helpful feedback to scaffold pupils’ learning and challenge them to evaluate the extent to which they have met the four purposes. 

Teachers encourage independence using the learning zones.  Activities allow pupils to consolidate knowledge and develop strategies for problem solving.  These develop a growth mind-set and reduce pupils’ fear of failure through collaborative approaches to discovery and investigative learning.  The learning zones contribute effectively to developing enterprising and confident pupils.

Teachers plan frequent opportunities for the development of pupils’ creative and entrepreneurial skills.  Half-termly ‘Headteacher Challenges’ encourage pupils to embed these skills through critical thinking and the development of an end product  The school has developed its outdoor environment well and pupils have access to an extensive Forest School area and garden.  This supports pupils to engage in outdoor learning and helps them to understand the importance of contributing to the making of a sustainable world. 

All pupils and staff encourage each other to converse in Welsh.  The school actively promotes Welsh heritage and culture, which has a firm place across the curriculum. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) projects are routed in examples of Welsh architects, scientists, engineers and structures.  Local Welsh STEM ambassadors visit school regularly to inspire pupils.

The school’s dedicated digital learning room (Digi-Den) provides pupils with access to a range of laptops, tablets and other digital technologies that pupils use to develop their skills independently.  As part of the Lead Creative Schools project, STEM ambassadors work alongside other pupils to develop the use of simple robotics.  As a result, the school is preparing pupils well by developing lifelong, independent learning skills that they take forward into their next stage of education and the workplace.