During the summer term, Primary Leadership Focus will discuss some of the different aspects of school improvement that can be improved with a thorough ‘spring clean’; beginning with attitudes to learning

The weather is glorious; everyone is feeling good and, at the first hint of sunshine, children discard their sweatshirts, causing chaos as the pile of unnamed clothes mounts and staff try to return them to their owners. The change in weather doesn’t only affect the children’s spirits, however – it can also have a beneficial effect on school improvement.

Just as we arm ourselves with dusters, cloths and soapy water for the annual spring clean at home, so we need to arm ourselves with the tools of evaluation, planning, and preparation to refresh our school improvement processes.

Refreshing core areas of school improvement
Children’s attitudes to learning, progress they make on a daily basis within lessons, taking responsibility for their learning – all these continue to gain momentum in education today. A new National Strategies report, Children who attain level 4 in English but not mathematics at Key Stage 2 (Ref: 00317-2009DWO-EN-01) is worth taking time to read. Looking beyond its narrow focus reminds us of key themes which can be interpreted across the curriculum, including:

  • regular analysis of progress and attainment
  • assessment for Learning
  • aspiration and high expectations for every child.

Schools know these areas are at the heart of successful school improvement. Over the past few years, many schools have not only ‘spring cleaned’ areas such as target-setting, tracking, assessment and analysis of pupil progress systems – they have also carried out a major refurbishment. These schools, with systematic, efficient, and effective monitoring and evaluation procedures, are making a considerable difference to the daily learning experiences of their students and the progress and outcomes they achieve.

Children’s self-perception as learners
Our first area for scrutiny is how children view themselves as learners. During a recent visit to a school, I was struck by the vast differences in how the children perceived themselves as learners. A busy hour in a reception class found me taking part in a talent show with four and five year olds who talked to me about their own learning. Through the opportunities they were being offered in the classroom they were:

  • encountering the familiar
  • being extended by the challenging
  • becoming confident enough to make mistakes
  • organising how they wanted to develop their own learning.

It was the confidence of the children in their ability to become learners, and their assumption that they would become successful learners, which was most striking. This was quality-first teaching at its best: every child was receiving a curriculum which was meeting his or her needs, and being guided by adult input to extend their learning and assessment for learning.

Moving on to Key Stage 2, it was a different story. How, you would have to ask, could a school fail to see the stark contrast between the active learning of reception and the passive learning of Key Stage 2? Here, learning was directed by the adults; typically by the teacher for the majority of children and by the teaching assistant for those with special educational needs. Classrooms were testament to what children were studying, adults were well prepared, behaviour and relationships were good – but teachers were over-controlling of the children. A glance at the organisation of furniture told me that teaching lacked spontaneity, and that adapting the environment to fit the purpose of different lessons and the diverse learning needs of the children was not a regular habit. How, I questioned, do these children view themselves as learners; continue to develop their skills as independent learners; take responsibility for their learning; set themselves suitable challenges?

Talking about learning
Schools that want to improve children’s development of learning skills, how they view learning and how they see themselves as learners as they move through the key stages, have much to do. The probable starting point is with the children themselves. You may decide to do this in small groups; via the school council; through questionnaires; or via information and discussion meetings. Whatever you decide, it should be dependent on the age of the pupils – but you do need to reach as many children of as many abilities as possible.

Below are some examples of what you could talk to children about when you discuss learning.

  • What makes a good learner?
  • What do we need to do every day in our school to help you to become a good learner?
  • At what age is learning most exciting and interesting in this school? Why is this?
  • What makes a good lesson?
  • What makes a good teacher?
  • Why is it important for you to be a good learner?
  • Do we help you to become a good learner?
  • If yes, what do we do?
  • If not, what do we need to do?

I am sure you will be able to think of other questions that are specific to the developmental needs of your school. If it is to be more than just a surface spring clean, why not give the project a name such as ‘Learning about learning’ and go further by inviting not only the children but a range of people – such as parents, governors and staff – to contribute their views about what makes a good learner, and what learning should look like in your school.

You will learn much about your pupils and their parents from an exercise such as this. Most importantly it will tell you what is essential for facilitating learning in all classrooms every day, so that you can be sure that each child receives the quality-first teaching to which they are entitled.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2009

About the author: Jane Golightly has written extensively on school improvement and has more than 30 years experience in primary education