How do you create (and demonstrate) an ethos where high achievement is valued? Bob Cox visits a school with a strong commitment to ‘ambition and educational achievement’

I set out to visit Disraeli Community Primary School in High Wycombe to see if their ‘whole school ethos’ translated into anything concrete and tangible. This meant seeking out not just pretty displays or neat policies in a file, but the ways in which, to quote the institutional quality standards ‘an ethos of ambition and achievement is agreed and shared by the whole school community,’ with ‘success across a wide range of abilities celebrated.’

On entering the school a visitor is assailed by questions in print; at the time of my visit, there were questions all about The Snail by Matisse.

  • Why is the picture called The Snail?
  • What shapes are the pieces of paper he used?
  • Why does it make you think of a snail when you look at it?

A large aquarium is labelled ‘le reservoir de poissons’, which immediately raises issues about languages: why is French vocabulary so often limited in its exposure to an MFL section in a classroom? Then the Disraeli belief system kicks in, with quotes along corridors overlooked by a wise owl and reminding us:

Tell me and I forget
Teach me and I remember.
Involve me and I learn.

This philosophy is immediately exemplified by the pictures of house captains taking pride of place: ‘We’re here for you’ they say, and the power of the student voice is echoed down every corridor. ‘Thunk of the Month’ encourages simple questions about everyday things. ‘Artwork of the Month’ is introducing pupils (and visitors) to the styles and lives of great painters, and pupils halt before displays on corridor windows to find clues, discuss ideas and hand in competition answers. ‘Interaction’ is a key word and the planets, stars, mottos and key words which hang from every corner all stimulate response from the pupils.

At the beginning of term, new staff are introduced to the school and the ethos is communicated clearly from the start, using a quote from Elizabeth Kubler Ross:

‘People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, But when the darkness sets in, Their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.’

Gandhi also contributes:

‘Every worthwhile accomplishment, big or little, has its stages of drudgery
And triumph. A beginning, a struggle and a victory.’

Thinking skills culture

You will find questions and captions in different languages at Disraeli and you will find pupils altering their targets on display boards, re-assessing their feelings about their own learning and updating achievement boards. This is thinking skills as a culture, as an ethos, tangible from the moment you tear yourself away from the fish tank and see, behind it, a library where it should be: at the centre of the school’s environment, with a continual stream of children turning the books over, sharing readings and working with learning support assistants on fundamental reading issues. Adults and children are often kneeling in this central area, squatting around boxes of fiction, surrounded, not just by inspiring words and artwork but by music: as a pupil considers the delights of Michael Morpurgo’s latest tale, Pavorotti sings Nessun Dorma, or you could find yourself listening to Beethoven, Mozart or Tchaikovsky. A different piece is chosen every day and it’s not just background music or a relegation of classical pieces to merely ‘soothing’. Pupils, teachers and visitors all ask questions about the music and that is the idea: we are all learners at Disraeli. So, are you visualising Disraeli as a highbrow school, set in leafy laned Buckinghamshire, building a challenging learning environment for typically suburban middle-class pupils? In fact, 49% are from minority ethnic groups and 39% have special needs. Headteacher Jatinder Virk and her staff have made it a priority to build a challenging learning environment for all pupils, including those who are more able. This ensures an aspirational culture that is lifting the expectations of staff and pupils throughout the day.

‘Can-do’ culture

Disraeli School is a place for ‘can do’ people, a school where the emphasis is on positive energy and active achievement. Jatinder (described by her staff as ‘inspirational’) says that the ongoing challenge is: ‘the backbone of what we do. We must move on and stimulate learning. Gifted and Talented education and challenge for all is a vital part of personalisation. It’s giving everyone what they need to blossom.’

‘Team’ is a word everyone at Disraeli uses a lot. I stopped various staff in the corridors to talk about their feelings for the school and the same vocabulary unconsciously slipped out:

  • ‘We discuss things together.’
  • ‘We feel involved.’
  • ‘Everyone is important.’

Staff meetings at Disraeli take place in the central library area with staff brainstorming, disagreeing, debating and laughing. The ethos is passionate and, at times, exhausting, because the boundaries of what might be possible are being pushed continually. Jatinder feels that Disraeli is a great school for the right kind of teacher; but the dynamic environment has only been developed by a massive input of time and commitment. She values her staff and appoints people talented enough and willing enough to be incorporated into the team ethos.

G&T provision

In terms of spreading effective teaching for GT pupils across the school, the aspirational culture is critical. It is not a case of a few pioneering teachers making a difference in their own classrooms, but a whole school community agreeing policies and expressing them via good teaching and learning and a visibly dynamic environment. It reflects the kind of good practice recommended by international experts. Professor Deborah Eyre, writing Gifted and Talented, What Really Works in June 2007 chose to emphasise team work across the school first:

‘Gifted and talented provision only really works where the entire school is aiming for excellence.’ She describes a climate where ‘demanding learning opportunities are offered widely and pupils are invited to strive to conquer them.’

The able, gifted and talented coordinator at Disraeli is Sarah Langley. She has been instrumental in raising expectations both in and out of the classroom by introducing teachers to the kind of thinking which has convinced staff of the relevance of G&T Education at a school with 39% special needs. She says that, once the principles of planning with the highest ability in mind were understood, and once staff realised that all pupils would benefit from the challenge culture, she was able to make good progress. In addition, Disraeli is a school which is used to continual change, so placing G&T at the heart of teaching/learning developments was not so hard. Sarah has cascaded ideas about extension, provision mapping, differentiation and independent learning to raise standards. She is well aware of the importance of her work – the school deals with many pupils who are often in groups identified nationally as in danger of underachieving. Sarah is now completing an Oxford Brookes certificate of advanced extended practice in G&T provision. It is another example of how teachers and pupils tend to keep learning together in a genuinely dynamic environment.

The Oxford Brookes course is a national pilot whereby the first module (20 points) can be related to the NACE Challenge Award Self-evaluation Framework. Sarah has found the Challenge Award extremely useful in auditing, evaluating and planning for improvements in G&T education at the school. She has been able to study for points which can contribute towards a Master’s degree whilst following an auditing process which she would have followed as coordinator anyhow.