- Getting pupils to attend school and developing their attitude to learning were recognised as being key to school improvement.
- Pupils were given an active role in helping improve these areas of school life.
- A fresh look was taken at rewarding individuals, classes and the school as a whole.
Leading any school today has its multitude of challenges, regardless of category or catchment. Each leader faces an uphill journey, striving to secure the best possible outcomes, and perfecting the art of balancing on a tight rope while spinning multiple plates. The plates are the demands of what is now required within primary education and the balance is between what is expected and what is needed.
With so many challenges, so many demands and so many changes to primary education, it can be difficult to know where to start to when considering school improvement. Having a clear vision that is shared and bought into is, of course, paramount, but the journey also needs to be well thought out, planned and, most importantly, flexible.
Many professionals have their own opinions on how to select school priorities; some may manipulate data while others claim to observe and unpick policies and procedures before creating a ‘To Do’ list. Regardless of preference, the underpinning issues and the key areas for development need to be identified.
Where do you start?
The exercise of identifying the areas for development wasn’t the issue for Michael Drayton Junior School (MDJS), based in North Warwickshire; it was deciding what to prioritise, ‘the chicken or the egg’ scenario.
Recognising that standards needed to improve, especially for those pupils identified as disadvantaged, the newly appointed senior leadership team (SLT) had to work fast, but in a way which would take both staff and pupils with them.
Working backwards from the ultimate goal helped the SLT, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: How to attain your ultimate goal
The SLT recognised that each area was of equal importance, but also that the order in which they were tackled mattered if the desired knock-on effects were to be achieved. Teaching is the ultimate priority for many schools, but with many pupils not attending lessons, MJDS questioned whether this was the right place to start.
After further discussions, the SLT decided that the issue was not just getting pupils to attend school; it was also pupils’ attitude to learning once they were in the classroom.
Attendance and attitude
The senior leadership team decided to focus on the pupils: their attendance and their attitude. Although teaching practice needed to develop along with the curriculum and assessment processes, leaders felt that getting the pupils to school and ensuring that they were ready to learn would have the biggest impact on improving standards.
Rather than reinventing the wheel, the headteacher utilised the experience that staff had gained at previous schools. Different strategies were explored and personalised to meet the needs of the school.
Motivating the pupils was key. Pupils needed to want to be at school; to not want to miss a minute, let alone a day. It was at this point that the decision was made to increase inclusion, hoping that giving pupils more responsibility along with power, would encourage them to attend. In this way, the school hoped to be able to solve multiple problems in one go.
Spinning plates and the pupil voice
In spite of attendance and attitude to learning being identified as the school’s main areas to improve, the SLT began to explore and develop other areas, including teaching and learning, curriculum and assessment.
Pupils were given an active role within the school; a voice. Recognising the strengths and value of the School Council and the Eco Committee that already existed, the SLT decided to imitate these models within other areas of the school. They investigated what committees other schools had nationally and which had maximum impact on developing the whole child, learning attitudes and, as a result, raising standards.
The idea was that representatives from each of the pupil voice committees would collaborate to create a junior leadership team (JLT). Their role would be to inform the SLT of wants and needs from a pupils’ perspective.
Two and a half years down the line and pupil voice is still paramount at Michael Drayton Junior School. British values are promoted throughout the organisation, as is the coordination of all groups. Democracy is a strength and is used through the election process of each group. Pupils have more of a say and feel in control; one factor which we believe has contributed to an improved attendance figure.
Figure 2 shows the number of committees and the responsibilities of the students involved.
Figure 2: Committies and their role at Michale Drayton Junior School
Less talk, more action
During a School Council meeting, pupils were asked: ‘What would improve your lessons and your learning experience?’ Councillors took this question back to their class for discussion and later returned with a handful of common factors.
It was clearly evidenced at this point that teaching needed to become more active and teachers needed to talk less. Active learning and teacher/pupil dialogue then became a focus of CPD, triads and the appraisal cycle: pupil conversations, lesson observations and learning walks.
During this research, pupils also shared that they liked cross-curricular learning and requested more ‘fun’ lessons. This feedback prompted a review of the curriculum and development of a more inclusive topic approach to learning, which allowed the pupils to share input into planning and suggest outcomes.
Cultivating attitudes to learning, improving the quality of teaching, and developing the curriculum enthused pupils. The majority of pupils enjoyed their learning and savoured their valued roles. Attitudes were developing and pupils were enjoying their learning more.
Pupils had always been rewarded for having good attendance at our school on a termly basis, which was great for those who achieved attendance rates of over 97%. For those who were not motivated by certificates and badges, this reward had very little impact. Drawing on strategies experienced at other schools, it was decided that those pupils who needed more motivation would benefit from an incentive.
Using pupil premium funding, the school started to run a weekly year group competition. The class in each year group with the highest attendance would receive £5. Should there be multiple classes achieving the same figure, £5 would be given to each class. Should a class achieve 100%, then it would be rewarded with £10.
Money motivated the pupils who had previously been hard to reach, while the school still rewarded the regular attendees. Pupils were given the option to spend or save their winnings. It didn’t take pupils long to realise that £5 between 32 pupils wouldn’t stretch very far.
Pupils now vote to come to an agreement on what to do with the money, with the teacher facilitating this process. The school has found that the majority vote to save the money until they have a substantial amount to fund their desired item or activity. This develops the pupils’ entrepreneurial skills too.
The school has even seen the beginnings of collaboration, with pupils in one class approaching pupils in another to join funds. Last summer, one class wanted to hire an inflatable laser tag game but couldn’t afford it alone. They researched which classes had the amount needed and then pitched their idea to sell time to them to play in the inflatable.
Individual versus whole-school rewards
As well as rewarding classes, individuals were also rewarded. Those pupils who achieved attendance levels over 97% over the academic year were invited to attend a special trip. During the first year (2013/14), over 300 of the 500 pupils attended the trip to a local theme park. Funding for the reward was again through pupil premium.
Despite the day being one to remember, it was a logistical challenge to arrange, ensuring that adult ratios were correct on both sites. The decision was made after the first year that if the whole school achieved 97% attendance again in the following year, the whole school would go collectively on the special trip.
Pupils were reminded weekly in assemblies, and parents reminded via newsletters, that there are 365 days in the year and, of those, they are only expected to be in school for 190 days, which leaves them 175 days to spend with their families. It was also mentioned regularly that every teaching assistant is first aid-trained and able to administer medicine should a child be feeling under the weather. The school encouraged pupils to come in when feeling poorly but not contagious, reassuring them that they would be looked after.
While improving attendance and developing learning attitudes, Michael Drayton Junior School worked effectively to secure better standards across the school. This has been recognised by Ofsted in its inspection in April 2016. Ofsted said:
‘The school’s use of rewards encourages good attendance and has had a positive impact on improving attendance. Good attendance is contributing to good achievement.’
The school was congratulated on having outstanding personal development and welfare:
‘Pupils are proud of their roles in school. The responsibilities that are given to them are outstanding.’
Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you to put the ideas in this article into practice:
- Worked example – Creating a plan for teachers and teaching assistants to improve student learning26.97 KB
- Worked example – Whole-school learning improvement plan 29.53 KB
- Form – Creating a plan for teachers and teaching assistants to improve student learning 25.38 KB
About the author
Diane Compton has worked alongside Warwickshire Local Authority for the last 8 years supporting neighbouring schools. Diane is now in her third year working as a headteacher at a four-form entry junior school.