I have been working with A Partner in Education over the past year or so. I had been Skyping Jean de Dieu, and we had been discussing similarities and differences between our schools and the jobs we do as well as trying to make suggestions to one another to help improve our respective settings. Over that time we had built up a very good friendship. At the end of April I was offered the opportunity to visit Umubano Primary School for a week. It was a fantastic experience and one which I have learned a lot from.
Before I went, I met with Angie and Keith to discuss the focus of my visit. My main concern was that I wanted my time at UPS to be useful for everybody involved and not just ‘a bit of a jolly.’ I didn’t want to visit the school and leave having had no impact at all. Keith suggested that I looked at the school with the question in my head of, ‘what would I do differently and what would my focus be if this were my own school?’ My other concern was that UPS is a totally different setting, in a totally different country with a totally different history and with totally different priorities so I couldn’t (and shouldn’t!) look at it from a UK school improvement focus thinking, ‘what would Ofsted think?’
I arrived on the 24th April and was straight into UPS the next day where I met the terrific team led by Jean de Dieu and Amy. I learned about the issues the school faces from Jean de Dieu and Amy such as low maths results at the end of P6 and low uptake of nursery places. We discussed what they thought the focus of the week should be and toured the school. Jean de Dieu was keen to hear more about Circle Meetings, Magic 10 and maths teaching at Wroxham as these were initiatives that we had discussed during Skype sessions and which have had a hugely positive impact on teaching and learning at Wroxham.
Currently UPS has many class places available across the school which, of course, has an impact on the school budget. The problem seems to be that their results are low for maths (but not in other subjects so much) which means that parents do not want to send their children to UPS and send them to the government schools instead. Quite quickly it became apparent that maths might be the key; if standards are raised in the teaching and learning of maths, the results will improve and more parents might be happy to send their children to UPS.
After watching some maths lessons it was clear that some aspects of teaching pedagogy were missing and teachers did not know how to support and extend children in their classrooms or how and why they use resources. Classrooms did not have simple counting resources so Amy and I spent a day making number lines for walls and individual ones for children along with 100 squares and x table grids. By the end of the week, a couple had gone up on the walls.
We also discussed the importance of subject knowledge and asking the question 'why?’ to encourage children to explain their thinking. One teacher explained to us how they would solve a multiplication problem but there was a specific part of the working out that didn’t make sense to me. When asked about it they couldn’t explain what they had done and why they had done it. This posed the question that if teachers couldn’t explain what they were doing, how could they teach children who were struggling with a new concept? Jean de Dieu, Amy and I met with the Maths teachers to discuss the importance of subject knowledge. They were so open, reflective and eager to discuss improvements to their own practice. In the some UK teachers can be so closed and unable to reflect on their own practice so it was so refreshing to have that at UPS. At Wroxham we have recently introduced a new policy for how we teach different methods for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and the UPS teachers were so keen to look at this to improve their own pedagogy and practice. Amy has led staff meetings on this since my visit.
We also introduced an initiative that we call ‘Magic 10’. Magic 10 was introduced at Wroxham after Sally Barker, Wroxham Maths leader, and I visited Shanghai in 2014 as part of the England-China Maths Exchange. In Shanghai, children are fluent in their times tables and number bonds to 10 and 20 before they even arrive at school. Children in the UK still struggle with tables going into Year 6 and beyond so we introduced an additional 10 minutes of times table practice every day. Fluency in this area improved across the school. If children don’t have a strong grasp on the basics of maths such as times tables and place value, then maths can be a very difficult subject to make sense of.
The nursery was the pride and joy at UPS. The children had time to play but they had few toys to play with. Judging from UK standards, there were very few resources but, when compared to the local government school I visited, it was amazing. The children were so happy and excited to show me the cars they were playing with. The classrooms throughout UPS are bright, welcoming places with eager and happy children in them and enthusiastic teachers teaching them. It is a wonderful place where learning happens; you can see it and feel it.
By comparison, the Government school that I visited was not! There were children, even in the nursery class, who stuck in a room from 7am everyday with nothing on the walls, no resources and nothing to do! The resources that Amy and I had spent a day making were thrown in a corner not even being used. It was a depressing place.
The government school also had 200 brand new computers which they'd had for 5 months, still in their boxes in a cupboard. They also had a brand new piano which was still in a box in the Head's office being used as a table because nobody had the skills to play it. It was heart-breaking as UPS do not get any of this. Amy suggested to the Head that UPS took the piano and the Government school could bring their children to UPS where they could be taught music and both schools would benefit rather than it continuing to sit in the office with test papers resting on top of it. Depressingly, I think I know exactly where that piano is still sitting!
Jean de Dieu, Amy and I also discussed whether Circle Meetings might be a useful tool to introduce at UPS. At Wroxham we do not have a school council. These are often quite elitist and only a few children get to have a voice and share their ideas. Instead at Wroxham, we have mixed age group Circle Meetings led by the Year 6 children who plan and chair meetings for all children from Y1 up to Y6. At the meetings the children discuss all manner of issues relating to life at Wroxham. The leadership team at UPS liked this idea. They had also been thinking about how they could engage the children in P6 who were not Prefects and who were deemed ‘naughty’. I suggested that Prefects could be phased out over time and all members of P6 could be given roles and responsibilities that would make all children in P6 feel empowered.
The visit to UPS did make me see things differently at Wroxham with regards to how we could improve our own practice. Currently circle meetings discuss the same kind of issues that are neither pressing nor vital to everyday life. Discussions on ‘what can we do to improve book week’ and ‘how to be kind on the playground’ have left circle meetings tired and stale. And yet, here at UPS, children are dealing with huge issues, such as the Genocide, and Peace education is a big part of rebuilding the country. Circle meetings would be a great way to have these conversations at UPS led by the P6 children. At Wroxham it made me see that we need to have conversations relating to bigger questions affecting children, particularly in a world that appears so scary and seems a very uncertain place for children and, indeed, adults alike.
At the end of the week I delivered a staff INSET about Wroxham and how formative and summative assessment can be used in class. The staff team listened intently and shared examples of good practice that they use within their classrooms on summative and formative assessment. I think that they understand and use summative assessment regularly in their classrooms but simple formative techniques, such as using whiteboards to elicit an understanding of whether children understand a concept or not and would help inform future class teaching, are still not being used to their full potential and could form part of future action planning.
After I returned to the UK, I received an email from Angie with a picture of a child in their P6 classroom proudly showing off their new book area. The P6 teacher, Stephen, had been inspired by my staff meeting and the Wroxham library bus that I had talked about. Although the school did not have the funds for a bus, the children wanted to create a special place to keep their books so built this:
Thinking back to Keith’s advice and my initial concerns about my visit, I think that I had a positive impact and started some new initiatives that will continue at UPS and will help to progress the teaching and learning across the school. It was a thoroughly exciting week and I really enjoyed my time working with Jean de Dieu and Amy who make a phenomenal team; the school is in very safe hands!
I am leaving Wroxham at the end of the summer term and taking up a new post as Deputy Head/ Director of Studies at St Albans High School for Girls Prep. I am very excited by the prospect of the new job and I have already had conversations with the Head of Prep about continuing the link with APIE which she is very keen to do. I will continue to Skype Jen de Dieu and would welcome a return visit to continue the good work that we started. I hope that this is something that APIE would be supportive of.
Wroxham is also keen to continue the link after Jean de Dieu’s successful return visit in May. I know that he had conversations with Dame Alison who was keen to forge forward. I think that Sally Barker, the maths lead at Wroxham and with whom Jean de Dieu stayed with whilst in the Uk, would be an ideal person to take over my role. She already has a strong friendship with Jean de Dieu and is also leading on maths mastery which may be important going forward with improvements to teaching and learning at UPS.
Head of School
The Wroxham School