Harmans Water, a primary school in Bracknell Forest, had been through a number of leadership changes and was experiencing declining outcomes. Headteacher Alison Wyld brought a commitment to whole education values that the school could unite around. Inspired in part by Ron Berger at a previous Whole Education conference, the school committed to a project-based learning approach.
Alison and Assistant Head Zoe Ayers explain…
In 2016 there was an urgent need to make positive changes at Harmans Water Primary School after a turbulent few years.
- Significant turnover of senior leaders (Alison had just been appointed as the school’s fifth Headteacher in four years)
- Outcomes had been declining with the school’s performance below national averages
- The curriculum was fragmented, and neither delivered the objectives of the National Curriculum nor incorporated our school’s context.
- There was no pastoral support programme, which had led to disengagement and challenging behaviour.
Through a ‘project-based learning’ approach we aim to develop deep, long lasting learning and skills for the 21st century.
Staff have rewritten the whole curriculum around a series of projects called Learning Adventures, each driven by a ‘big’ question which is designed to inspire curiosity and stimulate enquiry-based learning across subject areas.
The curriculum is assessed using our own adaptation of the SOLO taxonomy and is underpinned by ‘Flourish’, our own programme of personal development and wellbeing.
Developing a project-based learning approach:
- The Senior Leadership Team and Improving Standards Team (middle leaders) met to group learning objectives from the National Curriculum into broad themes so we could begin to develop cross curricular topics.
- Inspired by Olympic and Paralympic values, we asked parents, staff, children and governors to nominate 6 values for our school. These would run through all aspects of school life including the new curriculum.
- We also asked parents, children, staff and governors what ‘essential’ experiences children at Harmans Water should have before leaving primary school and designed a programme to provide these.
Working with staff:
- Subject leaders developed progressions of skills for their subjects so that the integrity of the different subjects would not be lost as the topics developed. (Maths is currently taught discretely most of the time – we are wary of including it in projects in a contrived way)
- The whole staff was trained in ‘Philosophy for Children’ to introduce the idea of discussing ‘big’ questions, introducing reasoning and developing critical thinking
- Staff (many of whom only had experience of delivering an off-the-shelf curriculum) began designing their own topics and introduced a high quality text into each one as a stimulus for learning across the curriculum.
- A curriculum team named ‘the disruption research and innovation team’ attended Whole Education training and Local Authority workshops in order to gain inspiration, new ideas and to have our thinking challenged
- We added inclusion tips to the project planning to support teachers with ideas of how to include children with SEND and other vulnerable learners.
Making it stick:
- Topics start with a ‘hook’ event such as a thematic day, a visitor or an educational visit.
- We adapted the SOLO taxonomy for primary children as a way of planning for and assessing deep learning
- Each Learning Adventure is driven by a ‘big’ question. At the end of a project children use the knowledge and skills they have gained from a range of subjects areas to answer the question in their own way.
- We introduced learning celebrations at the end of each project to share what the children have learned to different audiences.
Evidence of success:
In the most recent impact survey, all teachers said the children were more engaged and enthusiastic about their learning.
Pupil outcomes have increased year on year:
What parents said about the project-based learning:
What we learned from what worked (and what didn’t):
- Culture: Changing the school’s culture was key to the success of the project because this wasn’t just about a new curriculum but a whole new approach to school life.
- Being realistic about change: The school had to reevaluate timelines for the Flourish programme to be achievable.
- Resourcing change (staff and funding!): Rewriting the whole curriculum whilst trying to deliver school improvements has meant a heavy workload for staff. The school hired a much-needed part-time curriculum lead, which has stretched the school’s finances.
Our next steps:
- We want to fully integrate RE into the projects and further develop global learning – as our school is in a relatively mono-cultural area, already we have formed a link with a school in Africa and started to introduce global learning into our projects.
- We are also exploring how to increase pupil voice within the curriculum and deepen links with the community.
- Celebrations of learning are limited at the moment. We want to explore ways to make them more varied.
- Continue working collaboratively (through WE and beyond). Local schools have shown an interest in Harmans’ curriculum and requested school visits.
How does the Whole Education network support this work?
Well done to Harmans Water for such an amazing transformation through committing to a real, relevant and engaging, whole education approach. Find out more about the school on their website, and visit our events page to see upcoming opportunities to visit stand out WE primary schools.
What do you think are the key elements to making project-based learning a success? Could it work in your school’s context? Tell us @wholeeducation #wholeeducation!