Open Futures at Southside School
Southside Primary School educates children aged 4–11 years with predominantly two classes per year group (420 pupils on roll in 2013–2014). It is located in a city in the north east of England that has seen a trend of de-industrialisation and rising unemployment over the last decades. The ward served by the school is in the top 5% most deprived areas of the UK, as is the wider city, and generally around half the students are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM). Pupil Mobility is around 23%, which is above both local authority (LA) and national averages and in the past 6–7 years the school has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of pupils for whom English is an Additional Language (EAL), with 23 languages now spoken in school and EAL pupils comprising around 18% of the total.
In September 2011, Southside began 2 years of initial training and development as part of the Open Futures programme. Open Futures is a skills and enquiry based learning programme (http://www.openfutures.info/index.htm) for primary schools, which intends to facilitate change in pedagogy and curriculum. There are four integrated strands: growit; cookit; filmit; and askit (Philosophy for Children). The school had previous gardening experience, but had little or no history of using the other strands as vehicles for learning. In deciding to get involved with Open Futures, Southside committed itself to the 2 years of supported development, which included making a financial contribution to the costs of training. The additional commitment of staff time and inclusion within school planning came under some pressure when Southside was inspected in September 2012 by the UK’s Ofsted service and it was judged that the school ‘requires improvement’.
The head teacher, however, was excited by Open Futures as a means through which the school could widen their curriculum, providing a range of new and engaging experiences for pupils. It was hoped that, in time, this would result in increases in attainment, as required by Ofsted, and the development of independent learning skills that could be applied across the curriculum and beyond.
In common with the other schools involved in the programme, Open Futures at Southside acted as a catalyst for immediate tangible changes that the school was intending or aspiring to make in curriculum content, development of physical space, enterprise and community links. This was seen in the finding and organising of physical space for the programme, new topics added to the curriculum to build links between strands and with existing content, and open days to showcase gardening and involve parents. Strand leads were appointed for each strand. The head teacher also ensured that Open Futures was on the agenda for school and governors meetings, and adapted budgets and staff deployment to accommodate and resource the programme.
Growing areas were extended and developed throughout the school grounds, enabling easy access for all classes and planting in tyres and pots to maximise the use of space and ensure high visibility. Southside developed an existing mobile classroom into a cooking space with adjoining classroom, and space was found for filmit, in a classroom now to devoted to filmit and music, allowing easy access to resources and additional space for activities (see Fig. 1).
Southside staff got involved in the programme as a school initiative. There was some pre-existing knowledge among staff members but this was diverse and not integrated. Although some had prior experience or skills in a particular strand, many did not and were reliant on the Open Futures training to up-skill themselves as well as learning specific teaching techniques relevant to the strands.
Both pupils and staff were enthusiastic about Open Futures. Pupils commented that they value learning new skills that they can then use at home and in the future, as well as appreciating the strands as ‘fun’, ‘exciting’, ‘different’ and ‘messy’. In terms of enjoyment, pupils rated cookit and filmit particularly highly. Staff believed that this enjoyment is significant in engaging children in learning and reported that behaviour is particularly good during Open Futures sessions. As anticipated, the Open Futures activities provided a context for other learning:
What we do know is that it tends to be the Open Futures things that children remember having done you know, so if you say to them you know we were talking about gasses and you say to them remember when we did that and it’s the yeast activity in the cookery room they tend to remember (head teacher).
Initially, explicit links were built between strands, curriculum topics and skills. Exemplifying this approach is a questionnaire comment, made in spring of the second year of the programme, by a Southside teacher explaining that s/he was involved in the following curriculum development:
Plan strands into the yr 2 curriculum. Try to fit NC & OF into a timetable. Each term we try to incorporate each strand into the topic.
Over time however, the links between the elements of Open Future and with the wider school curriculum became more seamless, although there were still recognisable Open Futures activities, often taking place in the explicitly Open Futures spaces as described above.
After two school years involved in the Open Futures programme a number of changes had occurred at Southside. The integration and mutual dependence of these developments, together with the evident enthusiasm of the head teacher and other staff, suggested to us that these were indeed signs of deeply embedded change in pedagogy and culture.
When school level test results showed small, but positive, change the head was cautious, proposing that there could be a link between raised attainment and the programme. She was further convinced of the efficacy of Open Futures because, as she pointed out, implementing such a programme may in the short term put outcomes under pressure:
…for attendance to make slight gains and for attainment as measured in SATs etc. to hold steady at a time of curriculum change, i.e. the implementation of O.F strands, is in itself noteworthy because change which involves everyone learning new skills and finding ways to include them across the curriculum could have been a disruption that caused a dip in these measures until it became embedded in practice. I think that it is a tribute to the quality of the training and to the staff of all the schools that this did not happen. (Head teacher, email, 27.1.14)
This suggests change within practices and understanding at Southside, but it is evident that these more intangible developments are bolstered by embedded changes to curriculum, staff training and the school environment. For example, training of Southside staff in askit ensured that this strand had become an integral part of learning from Foundation Stage through to Year 6. Yet the development of askit was also supported by the physical environment, since, in addition to exploring topics in lessons, pupils were encouraged to use the ‘wonder tree’ (see Fig. 2) as a means to ask questions and offer answers across the school. This proved to be a popular resource, facilitating reflections and conversations across year groups.
It is worth reviewing how this change occurred. We observed initial physical alterations and organisational changes becoming established, being further developed, and helping to embed Open Futures activities in the life of the school. Over time, Open Futures became less explicitly referenced in school planning, because it was so accepted. It was firmly rooted in the school’s use of space, within specialist areas and in general classrooms. It was also bolstered through protected budgets and established staffing. During the later interview and in subsequent email communication, the Southside head teacher described how the changes due to the programme enabled better learning processes and teaching practices to continue to develop.
Staff professional development through Open Futures enabled teachers at Southside and the other schools to make the strands and activities their own. Open Futures tends to embed collaborative practices between staff members, enhancing curriculum coherence and pastoral care across the school. As seen at Southside, once Open Futures is established, there is on-going, mutually dependent development of curriculum, organisation and space. In this and other ways, Open Futures strands are integrated with the wider curriculum and this integration is embedded in physical space, particular activities and ways of learning.
It may at first appear that innovation through Open Futures was enacted mainly at the structural level, which, as discussed above, is rarely sufficient to bring about real change. However, we would like to argue that, contrary to a cursory view, detailed examination of the change process at Southside, and other Open Futures schools, reveals changes at the levels of individual agency and culture, in addition to the many structural changes described above. The Open Futures support and community provides a culture within which school staff can situate and understand the structural changes. The distinctiveness of this culture from the prevailing culture in English education appears to enhance the agency of school leaders, as demonstrated by the Southside head teacher. Meanwhile, the practical development of the programme which depends on devolving responsibility to staff, tends to enable individual agency thus allowing staff to make progress with their part of the programme. This can be seen, for example, through the allocation of strand leadership roles to staff, mainly teachers, and in increased involvement of teaching assistants in developing specific strands.
Table 1 summarises the changes we saw at the early and later stages of implementation, supporting and then sustaining the intended change, together with the suggestions of institutionalisation that were becoming evident:
Open Futures at Southside School has provided us with an example of innovation which was extremely successful as a result of change at a structural, cultural and individual level. In order to explore this idea further we now turn to a school where a longer term change process within a considerably bigger institution demonstrates interesting but perhaps more mixed results.
Building learning power and project-based learning at Town End Academy
Town End Academy is a larger than average secondary school in the north east of England. The school operates on two sites, one of which houses the Key Stage 3 pupils (aged 11–14) and the other the Key Stage 4 pupils and sixth form (aged 14–18). Many of the teachers travel between both schools over the course of a school week. The school has a below average number of pupils of an ethnic minority, on free school meals or with special educational needs.
In 2006 the school began experimenting with enquiry-based learning in order to provide the students with an engaging curriculum that would also connect them to their local area. The initial impetus for this experimentation came from the deputy head teacher who felt that the poor behaviour being exhibited by many of the pupils was the result of emotional immaturity and a lack of interest in learning. Her decision to research a range of curricula coincided with radical changes to the Key Stage 3 curriculum introduced by the UK government. This included the abolition of the end of Key Stage 3 national test and a renewed focus on creativity.
The deputy head was determined to develop a sustainable vision for the school and to that end she set up a working group which any members of staff could join. Seventeen took part, representing every faculty and a range of teaching experience. The group started with an initial research question: What kind of children do we want and how do we get this? The staff visited schools around the country that were putting a variety of different approaches into practice and finally settled on the Building Learning Power (BLP) programme developed by Guy Claxton. This focuses on ‘creating a culture in classrooms—and in the school more widely—that systematically cultivates habits and attitudes that enable young people to face difficulty and uncertainty calmly, confidently and creatively’ (http://www.buildinglearningpower.co.uk/). The school created their own cross- curricular programme (history, geography, RE, design and technology and art) which they called ‘Inspiring Minds’ and which consists of 9 hours of curriculum time. This introduces the pupils to the habits of mind, collaborative working, research, reflection and the language of learning.
In order to create a workable model for introducing the Inspiring Minds programme, it was initially introduced to the Year 7 pupils in 2006/7. Then in 2008/9 the key principles which underpin the programme were incorporated into the lessons of the remaining year groups, including the sixth form. All of the teachers are expected to plan and teach the content of their subjects in ways that reflect the values and skills that the programme promotes.
As well as the changes made to the curriculum and the timetable, the senior leadership team also encouraged the teachers to rearrange the furniture in the classrooms so that collaboration between the pupils would be facilitated. Circular tables were purchased for some classrooms and in others the teachers created L or U shapes or grouped two tables together. Pupils were expected to sit facing one another so that they learn from each other as well as the teachers.
The head teacher and senior leadership team all promote the ethos of the school and the BLP programme and the teachers are supported to both understand and deliver the approach through a comprehensive structured programme of CPD which includes residentials and coaching. Sharing good practice is also encouraged through the creation of an open-door policy whereby teachers can observe one another’s teaching. Promotion structures have also been linked to the ability of teachers to model good learning and enact the principles of BLP. Notably, the arrangement of classroom furniture has continued to be used to both facilitate and promote the collaborative learning that is desired. Tables in rows are not allowed and the classrooms are monitored to ensure that such rearrangement does not occur. The rationale for this is that tables in rows would represent a teacher who does not embody the values and vision of the school.
In 2013 the school started working with staff from High-Tech High in San Diego, USA and the Innovation Unit to introduce and develop Project-Based Learning. With its focus on cross-curricular projects that promote reflection, critique and producing high-quality work for an audience that includes the community, project-based learning seemed a natural step for the school to take and one that fitted in with the programme already in place. The staff embraced the principles of PBL, including the concept of collaborative planning which the High Tech High teachers introduced (e.g. project tuning). A series of projects was developed, including both cross-curricular and within subject projects, in every year group. However the development of project-based learning has suffered a series of setbacks recently. The reasons for this include: the departure of a key member of staff with responsibility for its development within the school, the introduction of the new secondary curriculum which requires more time for teaching subject content and finally aspects of the physical school space which are not conducive of project based learning.
Although the school premises include large rooms that can accommodate end of project exhibitions (see, e.g. Fig. 3), the classrooms and split site do not make the development stages of projects easy. Teachers in the school do not have their own classrooms, but instead teach in four to five rooms, often across the two school sites. As a consequence they do not have ownership over the teaching spaces and cannot create the type of areas needed to allow the pupils to work independently on a variety of activities (i.e. areas for research, computer areas, craft areas). Collaboration between the staff is also impeded by the fact that each subject area has its own office (i.e. a Maths Department office, an English Department office) and this is where the teachers do their planning and spend most of their breaks and lunchtimes. This limits the practice of cross-curricular team work, reducing chance interactions as well as making deliberate collaboration more difficult to arrange.
However, having experienced the increased engagement of the pupils who take part in project-based learning as well as the improved quality of their work, the senior leadership team are determined to put structures in place that will enable the staff to feel confident to teach projects at key points in the year. This process has begun with the creation of a weekly programme of CPD that will address the key issues and stages: critique, project tuning, planning a project. Crucially the programme will involve teachers from partner schools who are also developing this approach. This will encourage the sharing of good practice and provide a space, organisationally and physically, to discuss the challenges being faced.
The changes at Town End are summarised in Table 2 as for Southside:
Although not an initial driver of the changes the school has made, the physical environment has facilitated and supported the changes in classroom and curricular practices achieved over the last decade. However, it would appear that aspects of school space are hindering further development. In particular, subject specific offices are making cross-curricular planning more difficult and causing other contact between subject teachers to be infrequent. It could be argued that this physical limitation is impacting on further structural developments, such as curriculum developments, but also affecting development of an appropriate culture of education at Town End. In addition, the issues around classroom arrangement and the lack of ownership can be interpreted as hindering the agency of individual teachers to develop the project based approach. Considered in this way, we suggest that, while the changes have been successful so far, a failure to engage with these current challenges could result in pedagogical innovation at Town End existing only at the structural level (curriculum and tables), which makes it vulnerable.