Neil Hawkes outlines a values-based approach to school improvement

Few would doubt that secondary education is arguably the most challenging stage of education because students mature and individuate on their journey towards adulthood. Concurrently, society places increasingly high academic demands upon them. This situation creates a key question: how can a secondary school support the social and emotional development of its students, while having a climate for learning that promotes academic excellence? Some head teachers believe they have found the answer!

What is Values Education?
Values Education (VE) is a philosophy of education that places the search for meaning and purpose at the heart of the educational process. It fosters positive relationships and recognises the worth and integrity of all involved in the life and work of the school. VE is central to the creation of a values-based learning community that fosters positive relationships and quality in education. It encourages the reflective consideration of core values, such as respect, cooperation and honesty and recognises the importance of staff modelling them – no easy task!

The following casestudy shows the impact of VE. It is chosen because it illustrates the power of the approach (to get out of special measures) when fully embraced by the head teacher and staff. I hope that it will inspire schools to consider adopting VE as a key element of their improvement strategy.

Herefordshire case study
Weobley High School, in Herefordshire, has seen a phenomenal transformation because of its adoption of VE. Its head teacher, Sue Woodrow, recounts the school’s journey: ‘In September 2003 I became the head teacher. It was clear that the school was not providing well for its young people, and nowhere was this more evident than in the behaviour and attitudes of the students, especially in their demeanour of low self-esteem, and lack of respect for each other, themselves and their learning.

‘It was a largely dysfunctional learning environment, within which some excellent practice by some dedicated and talented members of staff; both teaching and non-teaching, shone out like a beacon.

‘I realised that what the school needed, in a road to Damascus type-moment, was that everyone needed to be on board! I realised that, actually, none of this was possible if we were living in a culture of blame and criticism. We needed a climate for learning based on positive core values. It was obvious that the impending Ofsted inspection would place us in a category of weakness – probably special measures! In the event, this suspicion was borne out in the May of 2004. This was very difficult to bear for many community members, but in hindsight the decision probably helped to crystallise the thinking and timeframe for improvement, although I am pleased to say that many of the necessary strategies for improvement had already been implemented and were rolling forward.’

Weobley’s approach to VE
Sue continues, ‘The way that we focused on VE was to first get everyone “on board”. The staff agreed to strive for positive working relationships and to model the agreed values. In order to confirm that we all wanted the same things for our working environment, we conducted staff, pupil and parent surveys, asking the question – what will the school “look like” and what will be happening in it when it is a good school, where we will all want to be each day?

‘Sure enough, almost without exception, the responses from all groups came up with similar value statements, listing mutual respect, tolerance, trust, care, being listened to, helping each other out and other key values as vital to them in their day-to-day experiences.’

Julie Waring (assistant head teacher) takes up the story. ‘We decided to construct a sequence of “focus” values over a two-year cycle, as recommended by Neil Hawkes. We felt it important to comply with the statute for a daily act of worship, and to recognise all of the key religious festivals. We hit upon the idea of using the values structure in full school assemblies, upper and lower school assemblies, year group assemblies and all form time. The Value would present the topic for the moment, thus raising the profile of that Value across the whole school for a significant period of time.’

Sue comments, ‘Our concern then became – how would form tutors make this a meaningful part of their very brief morning session with their class? This time had traditionally been for largely administrative purpose. Julie has since produced some really useful and simple materials for each Value as we work through them. The materials focus on key questions for a tutor to put to a class. The class may then discuss the question in pairs or small groups while the tutor deals with the daily business. At the end of the session, the tutor may encourage the group to brainstorm their thoughts and have a moment for silent reflection and/or worship if they so choose. The materials broaden out to include key beliefs and festivals. Gradually, the values approach has become part of life at Weobley High School, but like everything worth having – it’s hard work, and needs to remain high profile!’

Impact of VE at Weobley?
Sue believes that working with VE turned the school around! ‘We came out of special measures in one year from first HMI inspection to last, leaping from 41% five A*-C grades to 55% in one year. This year (2006) grades have moved up further to 67%. Behaviour is exemplary.’

You may now be wondering if VE could be applied to your school and how you begin the process? Success (as illustrated by Sue at Weobley) is within the grasp of all schools and commences with the behaviour of staff who need to value one another and learning itself.

I hope you will now have been given a glimpse of the power of VE. I believe that it is the means of creating a climate for learning that enhances the quality of teaching and learning in schools while making a powerful contribution to sustaining a civil society.

First published in Learning for Life, November 2007