Academic standards can only be raised when behaviour is improved. Awaiting an Ofsted visit, headteacher John Viner continues his series on how staff at Drapers Mills Primary have worked together to raise standards

When I took over the leadership of Drapers Mills Primary School I knew that there could be no quick fix to the problems that the school faced. In the event it took three years before we started to get the behaviour right: only then could we focus all our attention on raising academic standards.
I write this on the eve of a visit from Ofsted; so we will soon find out whether we have succeeded, in their view.

Recommended resource: Take a look at John Viner’s new book Leading a Faith School (2009) – full of topical debate, practical advice and guidance, and a comprehensive history of faith schools

Monitoring with support
We did not, of course, simply leave standards alone for the first three years. We inherited and continued a pretty rigorous monitoring regime. The challenge was to get the balance right between:

  • ensuring people felt supported
  • leaving them feeling sandbagged.

This meant that we had to find a way to maintain rigour but to depersonalise hard messages as being about an objective thing called ‘teaching’.

Over time, we have evolved a system of monitoring that combines all-round rigour with high levels of support: when issues are identified, staff are offered solid coaching and mentoring.

Nobody likes being continuously told they can do it even better if they try. However, because we are working as a team to recognise and respond to the needs of the children, we have been able to embed an effective and acceptable culture of ‘intervention in inverse proportion to success’.

This carries with it a sort of shared permission to be upfront about performance. We have learned that the messages given must be:

  • convincing rather than appearing vindictive
  • based on agreed evidence rather than simply a line manager’s ‘opinion’
  • accompanied by whatever support is necessary to help the employee with the consequences of their decision.

This does sometimes lead to people moving on. It still moves me to recall the teacher who thanked me for all my support, and then resigned. We helped with the offer of time and advice to facilitate retraining: that person is now far happier in a similarly paid position elsewhere in education.

An accessible curriculum
Good teaching is only part of the story. It slowly dawned on us that one explanation for poor pupil performance was that much of what we were teaching was inaccessible; our pupils, many of whom come from troubled or chaotic backgrounds, found themselves unable to access traditional models of learning. The result was that they entered a hopeless cycle of failure and disinterest. We clearly needed a new approach.

There was increasing interest among the staff in brain-based learning and we found ourselves chasing butterflies of accelerated learning techniques, Brain Gym, Building Learning Power and a heap of other catchy but still elusive strategies. This was a time of experimentation as teachers were freed from the straitjacket of common planning styles – endlessly checked and monitored for compliance – and given permission to try and develop a more creative curriculum.

International primary curriculum
We learned about the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) from another school in Thanet and, after some investigation, decided that it might work for us too. Governors agreed to find the significant pump-priming costs and, with support and training from the IPC, we began using it.

The IPC is a cross-curricular, modular and innovative way to tackle foundation subject teaching. It also provides excellent opportunities for basic skills development. The curriculum is established in more than 330 schools in 44 countries. It has programmes for 4-5 year olds and 6-12 year olds.

Each topic in the curriculum starts with an ‘entry point’ – a big event that captures pupils’ interests and hooks them in. A unit on refugees, for example, started with the year group being ‘evacuated’ – with only the clothes they had on and a single small case of belongings – to a local hall where they were greeted by people who spoke another language and gave them instructions they did not understand. When asked to reflect on their feelings about this, many wrote moving accounts.

A unit on travel saw a Year 2 class turn their room into a travel agency, selling holidays to visiting children and then, later, preparing to embark on a flight to Canada, going through all the pre-flight activities they would encounter at an airport. Canada, it turned out, was a classroom where tables were piled up and covered in cloths (mountains), where there was a rolling visual of the Rockies and there were tents and ‘ponds’ with fishing poles. It may not have been very Canadian to the adults but belief was suspended and, for these children, some of whom never travel as far as Canterbury, some 15 miles away, it was a real holiday experience they could drawn on.

There was a real need to do a bit of work to make sure that the IPC fulfilled national curriculum requirements. We quickly learned, for example, that it was not possible to rely on the IPC to teach science. However, three years in, the curriculum is still exciting, fresh and making teaching and learning much more enjoyable.

Tackling learning We always said that, once we had got on top of the behaviour, standards would follow. What this meant was that sorting out the behaviour in an emotionally intelligent way and giving teachers the tools to manage residual disruption gave us the opportunity to drive forward the learning.

Key elements in this strategy were:

  • making our pupil tracking systems really robust
  • engaging teachers in an open and accountable way with their pupils’ progress,
  • drawing them into regular and accurate assessments that they shared with senior management
  • developing an assessment culture that had the individual pupil at the centre.

When the issues of assessment involve us all, and the culture of assessment is shared rather than something done by senior management, we can truly start to tease out the deeper issues for development.

Learning styles: VAK

Visual – seeing and reading

Auditory – listening and speaking

Kinaesthetic – touvhing and doing

Setting by learning styles
Good assessment led us to the realisation that we were still not really reaching all our kids. It was in a planning conversation with our school improvement partner (SIP) that we realised we would need to come up with something really radical and different if the high-profile, disruptive underachievers were going to escape their cycle of failure and disaffection.

This led us to thinking about the way we grouped them. Setting had failed these pupils; mixed ability classes had not done not much better. VAK lesson planning had had some effect. How about trying to set our classes by learning styles?

Early in their junior school years, most pupils learn kinaesthetically, slowly developing their visual and auditory learning capability. But something changes as they move into upper Key Stage 2. We located a VAK test and applied it to pupils leaving Years 4 and 5, using its results to divide pupils into auditory, visual and kinaesthetic learners. We went for a high-risk, high-cost solution and took on an additional teacher in both Years 5 and 6 so that we could have:

  • a small (all boys) kinaesthetic class
  • a class of auditory learners (who tend to be the ‘smarter’ kids)
  • two parallel classes to be taught in a visual-kinaesthetic way.

The results have been dramatic. Our auditory and visual-kinaesthetic learners are making better progress than was predicted for them. However, the most dramatic impact has been on the kinaesthetic learners.

These boys were once our high-profile, poor attending disrupters. Now, in both classes:

  • behaviour is outstanding
  • attendance has improved
  • they are happier
  • they have great attitudes to their work.

They may be doing work they missed out on in Year 3, but they are learning and making dramatic progress.

A memorable moment for me was when, during an IPC entry point, our Y5 pupils were building full-size Anderson shelters out of wire and cardboard. The kinaesthetic learners had looked at the task, come up with a (verbal) plan, cooperated perfectly and completed a pair of workmanlike shelters they could sit in, looking smug.

The visual-kinaesthetic learners had done similarly, with some tasteful embellishments, while the auditory learners, who had wonderful plans and written accounts, were sitting on their collapsed rolls of wire looking puzzled!

As we approach the end of the first year of VAK grouping, it has been much more successful than we expected. Above all, it is allowing pupils to access the curriculum in ways that suits them. We hope the results will be good for them and good for the school.

Moving on
Ofsted will be a true test of our claim that we have raised standards by becoming a more emotionally literate school. This has been an exciting, demanding and sometimes emotionally moving journey and it has been a privilege to be a part of it.

Our staff recently completed the Team Emotional Literacy Questionnaire from the School of Emotional Literacy (www.schoolofemotional-literacy.com) and it was thrilling to learn from Elizabeth Morris, the school’s principal, that we were the most emotionally literate staff she had worked with.

The journey continues and there are still improvements to be made. As I move on, after 28 years of primary headship, I am delighted to know that I leave the school in such good hands.

John Viner’s book on Leading Schools of a Religious Character is to be published by Optimus in 2009. It will look at the history of faith schools, what makes them distinctive and how headteachers can work with their governors and diocese to uphold the ethos of the school.

Adept Education Associates
John Viner retired from the headship of Drapers Mills in July, to work as a freelance consultant. Find out more about what he offers through www.adepteducation.350.com