A project aimed at raising the profile of plenaries at Sandringham School, St Albans, has evolved into a catalyst for change that allows students to make their voices heard in the school. Deputy head Ceddy de la Croix explains

There were only a few reasons for introducing this project two years ago but now there are many to keep it going. Initially, training up Year 7 students to be able to confidently lead their peers through three different types of plenary was about raising the profile of the plenary and highlighting the importance of students reflecting on their learning. Today, as the project evolves, its emphasis is changing. On the one hand it develops skills of leadership in our students and helps to further enhance student confidence and motivation within the classroom while enabling students to engage in the wider context of the school in particular, improving the learning experience of their peers. On the other, as a core strand of our overall student voice programme, the project is a catalyst for change. The quality of teaching and learning is improving as is the triangle of positive relationships between staff, students and parents and, perhaps most importantly, the project is breaking down the preconceived classroom roles of who leads the learning. The project is one which involves over 75% of all Year 7 students and because of its quality and sense of purpose it is valued within the school by staff and students alike. Since its introduction staff have noticed many things. Firstly, the students are acting as active carriers of good practice as they take one plenary idea they have seen used in a lesson and transfer it to another. Where it’s taken myself and many other senior teachers years of frustration to set up an effective system through which teachers might share good practice across faculties and subject areas, the students have done it effortlessly and with immediate effect. The effect on within-school variation is also potentially significant. This system is very cheap; ‘in-house’ and more importantly ‘bottom-up’. The students, the very customers of the learning experience, are starting to influence the conditions of their learning. Some of the more advanced and confident students are even adapting the plenaries to create ones more suited to their interests, needs and those of their peers. Secondly, and quite interestingly, other students have begun to make their own notes on each plenary in the back of their exercise books. Their aim: to compete with the plenary leader, thus ‘upping’ the quality of questioning as well as the quality of the learning that happens in the last moments of the lesson. In addition, students are much more ready to lead their own learning and are requesting the opportunity to do so. So what next? We are now working on training students to integrate all three aspects of deep learning (see Hargreaves, SSAT Pamphlet 1 – Deep Learning) into their plenaries: assessment for learning (through questioning); student voice (through developing their own plenaries) and learning to learn (through getting the student leader to reflect on and evaluate with the class the styles of learning used). Since one of our whole-school drives is the development of thinking skills, we are also encouraging students to bring thinking challenges into the plenaries. We have to be careful that a lesson at Sandringham doesn’t mean ‘death by plenary’ and we are often asked how this project develops into Year 8. At the moment it doesn’t and to be honest I’m not sure how it will but then again, it won’t be up to me – our students will take charge of it!

Training students to lead the plenary

  • In September two Year 7 students from each tutor group are selected to receive a two-hour training session.
  • In this training students receive coaching on: what a plenary is, how to lead three different types of plenary and tips on how to manage the class. They also watch an example on video.
  • Three quite common and relatively easy plenaries are used to begin with. They are: ‘Sentence Finish’, ‘Taboo’ and ‘True or False’.
  • Each plenary has the same key elements: the learning objectives must be referred back to by the student leader at the start of the plenary and must remain the focus of the plenary and all students must take part by either writing down a question to ask or by writing a true or false statement.
  • Each student leader completes 10 plenaries in their training books within a fortnight, in order to receive a Headteacher Commendation. After each one, they receive brief written feedback from the teacher. Once they have completed 10 plenaries, they become responsible for coaching up another student in the class. The initial student leader then becomes responsible for giving the feedback to their ‘prodigy’, thus taking the onus away from staff.

Tips:

  • Take the idea to the student council and ask for their views.
  • Use the student council (the members themselves or by asking them to seek volunteers) to get a pilot off the ground.
  • Video some students leading plenaries and use this to promote the programme with staff and the rest of the student body.
  • Get feedback from everyone involved in the pilot and use this to help review, evaluate and tweak the project before it is launched.
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