Transforming the curriculum at Ysgol Gymraeg Aberystwyth took more than two years. With passionate leadership, strong self-evaluation and careful planning the school now delivers rich curricular experiences for its pupils. This case study represents the school’s curriculum development in relation to their progress in self-evaluation, planning and preparation, realising change and evaluating change.
Ysgol Gymraeg Aberystwyth is situated on the outskirts of Aberystwyth in Ceredigion. There are 400 pupils, including 54 part-time nursery-age children.
A very few pupils are eligible for free school meals. Many pupils speak Welsh at home and a very few are from ethnic minority backgrounds. The school has identified that a minority of pupils who have additional learning needs, but very few have a statement of additional learning needs.
Stage 1: Evaluating the current curriculum within wider self-evaluation arrangements
Leaders are given unhindered freedom by the headteacher and governors to be creative in order to develop an innovative curriculum. They are passionate about providing regular opportunities for staff to experiment with diverse teaching approaches that strengthen their ability to develop pupils’ skills. This is supported by the school’s vision to ensure that staff have a thorough and successful understanding of its strengths and weaknesses in pedagogy. Leaders work hard to deliver effective support and training when necessary so that every member of staff is aware of their teaching capabilities. In order to do this effectively, the headteacher uses the new professional standards for teachers to evaluate the effectiveness of the teaching and provision.
In September 2015, the school decided to consider one area of learning and experience (AoLE) at a time in order to evaluate the current curriculum. The school started with the expressive arts.
The first step was to scrutinise pupils’ books and to ask “What could we take out – what is unnecessary?” Leaders noted that music is often pulled into thematic work, but that teachers do not plan co-operatively in order to develop pupils’ skills effectively. Therefore, staff decided to trial ‘creative music days’, which focused on composing using ICT and focused clearly on developing literacy skills.
In order to evaluate the effectiveness of this provision, teachers observed one another over the course of a term. Working closely in teams of four, one of the four teachers taught a lesson. The other teachers observed the lesson and provided feedback. The following week, it was another teacher’s turn to be observed teaching. After providing feedback, teachers edited the planning, and the outcomes of the observations influenced future lessons. The teachers planned activities that would foster the development of pupils’ literacy and ICT skills through the creative music lessons. Once all teachers had been observed, staff discussed the outcomes at a staff meeting and agreed on recommendations that are now priorities in the School Development Plan. The following term, ICT and health and wellbeing were the focus of the observations.
In September 2016, following a year of monitoring specific aspects of the six areas of learning, the school was ready to experiment through planning themes based on humanities, expressive arts, health and wellbeing and science and technology.
Leaders ensure that themes develop pupils’ understanding of the key skills through first hand experiences. An example of this was the use of the work of ‘T Llew Jones’ as a central theme for drama, dance and music activities. The school also developed ICT skills through poetry and creative writing rich tasks. Such regular activities enable pupils to develop their literacy, numeracy and ICT skills to a consistently high level.
Evaluating the effectiveness of the curriculum, its suitability, relevance and impact on raising standards, has been an integral part of the school’s self-evaluation processes for two years. Teachers from both key stages have evaluated the breadth and content of the activities available to pupils. The school’s self-evaluation processes look specifically at the pupils’ theme books and consider the aspects that are relevant to the four purposes. They also evaluate what curriculum content needs to be reduced or omitted from each academic year.
Leaders continually focus on ensuring that all members of staff understand the importance of skills progression so that each activity develops skills as a starting point. As a result, every lesson throughout the school is now a numeracy, literacy or ICT lesson.
In order to support this work, a member of staff and a member of the senior management team attends every pioneer school meeting. This means that everyone hears the same messages from the Welsh Government. As a result, every member of the teaching staff developed a solid understanding of the requirements of Successful Futures, (Donaldson, 2015), as well as the necessary knowledge to evaluate the effectiveness, suitability and feasibility of their current curriculum provision.
Stage 2: Planning and preparing for change
The governors have responded sensibly to Successful Futures, (Donaldson, 2015), and are eager to avoid rushing to instigate change until the curriculum has been presented in draft form. They encourage staff to explore its current approach to pedagogy by empowering staff with further skills.
All stakeholders work together through a ‘Sharing Learning’ processes in order to identify good practice and aspects that need to be improved or changed. All members of the senior management team have contributed fully to the school’s pioneer involvement, and ensured that the school development plan has suitable priorities to instigate change. For example, building on Pioneer Schools strategies and partnerships by using the Digital Framework as a cross-curricular tool is one of the school’s four main priorities. Additional funding from the Welsh Government has enabled the school to address this priority effectively and leaders regularly evaluate progress and impact on teaching and learning. The school uses this funding effectively to give all members of staff valuable non-contact time to monitor teaching within the school and to further their own professional development through training and research. This has developed a deep understanding amongst the staff of the fundamental elements of effective pedagogy that has enabled them to develop new planning ideas with staff at St David’s University at Trinity in Carmarthen and Arad Goch Theatre Company. Staff have benefited from working closely with specialists in the field of dance and ICT, which has enriched the experiences available to the pupils. An innovative project ‘Quantifying Skills Through Expressive Arts’ involved 15 university students working closely with teachers from the school in order to plan arts activities based on the work of Welsh authors. They focused on creative writing and drama workshops using the expertise of Arad Goch Theatre Company’s artistic director. Teachers work with the students from the university to provide valuable opportunities for them to observe lessons for four weeks before planning their own literacy and numeracy skills activities through expressive arts.
In order to plan effectively for curriculum development, the headteacher has developed an observation package to be used by all teachers. It identifies clearly which aspects need be documented and evaluated. This places a very firm focus on developing teachers’ leadership skills in relation to the new professional standards and motivates them to take responsibility for their own development. During the first term of curriculum review, teachers scrutinised books in teams of four, in the same way that they observe each other teaching. During the second term, a teacher from another school was invited to join the process and the outcomes of the evaluations were shared on the Welsh Government’s digital learning platform, HWB360.
Stage 3: Realising change
The school has revised the way that teachers plan activities in order to work within short, punchy projects, creating sub-themes around aspects of creative music, creative writing, dance, art, ICT, poetry and drama. The school shares the planning work for ICT and creative writing nationally with other schools via Hwb360. Staff share all changes to planning at staff meetings, which stem from book scrutiny and team observations of each other’s lessons. These changes ensure that the realisation of change is gradual. All staff are included in the decision-making and are not under pressure to change their planning too quickly.
Members of the senior management team present detailed reports to the governing body, who are very well informed about the work that is done at the school. This enables them to support other governing bodies through practical presentations on curriculum development at their meetings.
Stage 4: Evaluating change
The school is constantly evaluating the curriculum provided and is moving towards ‘days of learning’ based on the Successful Futures, (Donaldson, 2015), agenda. This allows teachers to be more flexible in their approach to planning and delivering rich curricular experiences.