Learning Without Artificial Walls: Stage not age

By Martin Blain, Principal, Canary Wharf College Glenworth

During the lockdown, we created a really effective system.  In the mornings, we had live lessons and these were followed up by an exchange of work using the virtual learning environment.  Teachers uploaded the work, children completed it, teachers and teaching assistants took it back down for marking.

Depending on what they had done, the children were then guided on their next steps and, to do this, were directed to an online tutorial.  At the appointed time, all those with a particular need, who had experienced a particular difficulty or who needed an extra challenge were directed to an online lesson.  In this virtual room, they met the rest of their group, along with a staff member who had downloaded their completed work and who could direct them very precisely in what to do next.  The groups were small and contained mixed ages according to learning need.

We also had some self-referred help desks running at other times, particularly in maths.  

These lectures and tutorials were like an online university;  it was well-received and engagement was high.  The idea of bespoke groups is one which appealed to me and I wanted to find a way to recreate this in the world of live schools.  Of course, when school is in session properly, the difficulty is that all children need to be engaged in something all the time so there is a lot less flexibility.

After lockdown
Fast forward to the end of lockdown and pupils returned with the much-discussed wider attainment gap.  Some had clearly fared better than others.  

We have always run interventions but struggled to know when to run them.  Maybe a teaching assistant would take children out of assembly or out of a class but pupils were always missing something else, and blocks of time were short.  There was also some stigma in being withdrawn for this.

The leadership team, therefore, devised something completely new to address this problem.  We created two blocks of time in the week when the whole of a key stage stopped the regular timetable and went to their intervention.  We called this their Learning Journey (a working title) and everyone was involved – all teachers, all teaching assistants, all the leadership team.  

The holy grail
Groups were mixed age within the key stage and, therefore, reached the holy grail of stage not age.

The groups studied:
  • times tables 
  • multistep reasoning and problem solving (maths)
  • handwriting
  • basic grammar rules
  • comprehension
  • writing and editing 
  • fractions, decimals and percentages
And the challenge groups looked at:
  • fluency in literacy
  • problem solving maths
  • practical science 
Teachers allocated pupils to these groups depending on their most pressing need, and because we had so many staff involved, we could keep the groups very small with tight objectives.  Light-touch assessment was carried out regularly against these objectives and pupils were moved if we had got it wrong.  

This was a pilot and we have just come to the end of the first trial period.  This should have been half a term, but we were savaged by attacks of Covid and, for a few weeks, it seemed that mixing the year groups was a bad idea.

However, having restarted and now completed the first block, the results are looking good.  Children who struggled to write properly or who had forgotten their reading skills are back on track.  And the advanced groups have done some interesting extension work.  Each group has used assessment against the specific objectives identified when the groups were set up.  

Once we have completed this formal review – along with our normal end-of-term assessments – we can move things around and do it again with phase 2 in the summer term.
Phase 2
In this next block, having resolved a pupil’s most pressing problem, we can allocate them to something else.  Or maybe they need a bit more of the same – but we are reluctant for these things to be seen as ongoing.  They really should have an endgame, otherwise they won’t have worked.
We are also using this as the opportunity to integrate a gifted and talented strand for the next phase.  Those identified with a particular strength, or a need to be challenged, will be gathered into groups for that kind of activity.  

Of course, some children have multiple needs, or multiple strengths, or a combination of both.  This is where the teachers, co-ordinated by the key stage managers, have to make a judgement on what would be most useful at a particular time.  

Assuming we decide to keep running this project – this is early days – then these groups will rotate on a regular basis and needs will be met starting with the most pressing.  We are also investigating the optimal length of the blocks.  Half a term seems sensible, or maybe a fixed number of weeks – eight seems too long, while four too short.  We may investigate next term.  

Addressing imbalances
However, the important thing is that this has started to address our most severe imbalances.  Yes, it takes time out of other lessons, but this is done in a controlled way and the curriculum is replanned to take account of this.  
It has taken the stigma out of interventions.  I told some worried parents on the gate that everyone was doing interventions – all pupils, all staff.  This problem may go away if a new title is adopted.

However, I think the most important aspect – and this is one positive which has emerged from the pandemic – is that we have tried a completely new approach to address a serious problem which was not being sorted by other means.

We have a resilient and flexible staff – for which I am eternally grateful – and a willingness to try new ideas. Here is an example of an excellent new idea which, so far, has really started to improve pupil outcomes. 

Martin Blain is Principal of Canary Wharf College Glenworth. You can also listen to his Primary Podcast in conversation with ASCL Primary and Data Specialist Tiffnie Harris here
Posted: 31/03/2022 10:54:19