When he took over a failing Manchester primary, Chris Fenton planned to develop the good practice he found in the Foundation Stage and spread it throughout the rest of the school

For a headteacher part of the challenge of developing and changing the learning culture of a failing school is to identify areas of strength within the current practice and capitalise on it, using it as a benchmark for improvement that can impact on the entire school. 

As the newly appointed headteacher of a failing Manchester primary school, my initial audits of practice identified that teaching and learning in the nursery and Reception classes was some of the best in the school.  Situated in what seemed to be a far-flung area of the building, under-resourced and in need of a face-lift, the area proved to be an oasis of good practice, a fact that provided me with a starting point to demonstrate quality teaching to staff and a building block to begin the process of whole-school change management that was ahead of us.

Assessments clearly showed that our children were starting school well below national averages, which led to discussions with the team and external advisors, and opened up the possibility of developing a Foundation Stage – a relatively new concept in early years education at the time. Manchester LEA was keen to develop the principles, and recent professional development within the early years team had shown them the opportunities a Foundation Stage, properly supported, developed and invested in, would bring to the learning of the children in a severely deprived area such as ours, and also to the professional growth of the team.

Significant consultations with stakeholders began and the idea was accepted. By the end of the school year, we were to have one of the first Foundation Stages in the authority. However, not long after the initial excitement had waned it became apparent that it would take a lot of hard work to achieve it.

The planning stage
SMART planning (planning that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) is essential if changes in practice are going to be far-reaching and sustainable. Planning of the new Foundation Stage was lengthy, fraught and, occasionally, overwhelming. However, we were fortunate enough to have the experience, support and dedication of an outstanding advisory service, without which the process would have been impossibly slow.  Momentum is the key to asserting new principles. In this case, the challenges set by the LEA were measured and achievable, starting with planning and the Foundation Stage frameworks for continuous assessment, and eventually moving on to managing the change within working practice and, most significantly for me, the changes required to the working and learning environment.

This entire part of the school was in need of an overhaul before plans for a Foundation Stage had been thought out. The early years play area was effectively a large, barren stretch of concrete that served little purpose and offered no inspiration at all. In order for some of the key elements of Foundation Stage practice to be realised, both classrooms would have to be opened up, specialised learning areas developed, and the outdoor learning environment would have to be completely landscaped, secured and resourced. I was so impressed by the level of dedication shown by the staff and supporting teams that I wanted to ensure that they would be provided with an outstanding environment in which to develop. I was fortunate enough to inherit a large surplus budget from the previous headteacher and ring-fenced a large portion of this to invest in developing the Foundation Stage learning environment.

Midway through the school year, when the darkest nights were drawing in, the Foundation Stage team and I seemed to be sat in continuous lengthy meetings. This was the half-way point in the growth of our dream. With files spilling with paperwork, half of the playground dug up and in development, and the teaching and learning practice in early years seeming to be half old practice and half new, it would have been understandable if our colleagues thought we were losing the plot, but every day was bringing a step forward and, as the planning format grew, so did the confidence of the team.

Resources began to arrive and decorators began to move in. Before we knew it, the trike track was complete, and the nature garden (as designed by Year 6) was being planted and shaped.  Under the guidance and leadership of the LEA’s advisory team, we were starting to see how far we had come, and the huge benefits to all involved in the early years. As the end of the school year approached, this once dark and shabby area of the school was becoming the flagship of the changes taking place throughout our school and the impact of the transformations was showing in the working practices of KS1.

By June the transformation was complete. The planning was set for the following September, and the grouping, assessment practice and curriculum were planned. I appointed a Foundation Stage manager from within the team, who also sat on the SMT. I rewarded the hard work and professionalism of the teaching assistants, through commitment to continued training in Foundation Stage practice and, similarly, the appropriate incremental pay awards. Meetings with parents to introduce the new practice were well received but some uncertainty was to be expected.

Ready to go
The commitment from the school to providing a good start to the educational journey of our newest children, was clear. Parents were comfortable with the early years team, many of whom had taught them during their time at the school, and this helped to instil confidence in the changes. Starting school is one of the most stressful times in both a child’s, and, indeed, a parent’s, life, so it is imperative that this area of transition is given the same amount of importance as the transition to high school. Similarly, the Foundation Stage sends a message to parents about the rest of the school. I ensured we were well resourced and welcoming, since I wanted it to act as an advertisement to parents and the entire community that we valued the children we served at the beginning of their educational journey and, indeed, would continue to do so throughout their time at the school.

After what seemed like a never-ending year of growth, the Foundation Stage opened for business in September. Like all new developments, continuous monitoring is essential to iron out issues as they occur. We continued to receive the same high quality level of support from the advisory service, which built confidence further. By the end of year one, policy and practice had changed again as new practices had time to mature. At the beginning of year two the team was working confidently and efficiently, a comment backed up by the Ofsted team that visited. The LEA used us as a benchmark for other schools wishing to embark on the challenge of developing a Foundation Stage, but our thoughts were beginning to turn to continuing practice into KS1.

Taking the changes into KS1
By the end of the second year of growth, the children who had experienced Foundation Stage learning for two years would be entering into a completely different style of learning that, in essence, could set both their confidence and learning development back. KS1 learning is designed to complement KS2 and is the beginning of a developmental track that ultimately leads to SATs at KS1 and KS2. The problem is that the Foundation Stage style of learning is more open and child-centred, allowing for much more freedom in differentiation and, ultimately, while providing challenge, allows the child to work at a suitable pace.  In order for the true extent of Foundation Stage learning to manifest itself, it seemed imperative that KS1 should adopt some of its principles, particularly in Year 1, to ease children into the more stringent curriculum and capitalise on their progress.

As a school, we had looked at how our entire school environment impacted on learning, and I had invested much of our surplus budget alongside further budgets, such as devolved capital and grants, to vastly improve our learning environments, significantly investing in ICT and classrooms and learning spaces that functioned more appropriately. The KS1 layout matched the Foundation Stage learning environment and so now lent itself to, and was ultimately more prepared for, a more open learning experience.

Planning began in the final term of the second Foundation Stage year, and, in consultation with the Foundation Team, the KS1 team planned to support their new intake with a more Foundation-style approach to some of the core subjects. In the first year, I directed more teaching assistants into Year 1 in the mornings, to support the group-style learning approach of key points in literacy and numeracy, with elements of the science curriculum being taught in this way two mornings a week. The rolling programme of differentiated learning, rotating throughout the morning, gave children a more localised and familiar style of teaching that best supported their needs. They could comfortably begin to address the new curriculum and its expectations in a style that they were familiar with. The true essence of Foundation- style differentiation couldn’t be totally met, because we felt that the current Year 2, which had never fully experienced the Foundation Stage, would have found it disruptive to their learning. We took the decision to capitalise on Year 1, which was the first class to experience the Foundation Stage in our school. We continued to focus on literacy, numeracy and science throughout the year, and the children made continued and confident progress.

We were secure in the knowledge that, when this style of teaching and learning continued into Year 2, the full benefits of Foundation-style differentiation would show itself in the ability to move children around the entire Key Stage, according to their needs. This more individualised learning style is the essence of the Foundation Stage and, ultimately, is forming a significant part of the future of educational practice.

The recent drive towards building locally relevant creative curricula, in line with Excellence and Enjoyment and Every Child Matters, seems to embrace many of the elements of the Foundation Stage. Not only are we leaning towards a freer curriculum, against a backdrop of government standards, it is now the expectation that children receive a more individualised learning programme that helps them to achieve curriculum standards in a more secure learning environment. This progress is not only welcomed by many schools, but, as long as it is coupled with the appropriate support for school leaders, managers and staff, should form the basis of a radically different style of teaching and learning that can only benefit the learning experience of children and enable them to securely meet learning intentions in a supportive environment.

Schools across the country are now facing significant challenges and changes to their current practice that will require both dedication and perseverance. My experiences of leading such significant changes to teaching and learning have afforded me the luxury of knowing that the hard work and determination involved are rewarded when observing the confident learning progress made by children who are excited by what the curriculum offers

Former headteacher Chris Fenton is currently an educational consultant