A group of school leaders visited Oakfield High School as part of the Stand Out Schools Initiative. These school visits use appreciative inquiry to get under the skin of a school’s stand out practice and give them ideas to develop it further.
Below is a range of their reflections and comments on the school’s stand out feature – a sensory approach to teaching, learning and curriculum – and why our ‘seekers’ thought they were successfully helping them provide a high-quality whole education.
Context of the school
Oakfield High School and College – A school that is special
Oakfield High School and College is an outstanding community special school for learners ages 11-18. Situated in Hindley and part of the Aspire Federation, Wigan, Oakfield is ranked within the top 2% of special schools for it’s progress 8 score and specialises in providing an education that gives learners the best possible life chances. The school was recognised by nasen for excellent practice in a secondary school.
Oakfield prioritises preparing young people for the future, helping them to develop the skills and qualities needed to positively contribute to their community. A culture of high expectations combined with varied and rich opportunities to allows learners to:
- Enjoy their learning and celebrate achievements
- Develop as caring and responsible members of the community
- Make good progress in all aspects of their life
- Develop confidence and self-esteem
Oakfield High School’s Ignite Speech
Oakfield’s stand out practice – A sensory approach to transformational teaching and learning
What it is:
At Oakfield, their transformational teaching and learning takes a sensory approach, placing sensory skills at the heart of the curriculum. Academic learning is underpinned by a whole school approach to develop sensory awareness which promotes self-regulation.
If learners don’t understand how their senses work, they struggle to understand and make meaning of an activity.
Sensory processing is the step before information processing, so at Oakfield pupils are supported to process their senses before academic learning begins.
Expectations and aspirations for students remain extremely high, and there is a ‘can do’ attitude across the whole school body.
Individual approaches are taken to support learners who experience sensory overload and those who are under-aroused, and taking a sensory approach to teaching and learning is embedded throughout the school and for all learners.
How does it work?
- Coordination, concentration and/or listening skills are explicitly taught.
- Physical activities are implemented throughout the day to improve sensory processing and allow learners to develop new skills and adapt learnt responses to new situations.
What’s the impact:
Learners make exceptional progress towards their individual targets, resulting in improved outcomes for learners. This includes:
- a greater ability to access the curriculum,
- improved levels of concentration and engagement,
- improved communication and social interaction skills.
- This impacts positively on learner’s individual attainment and ability to successfully complete accredited courses when reaching Key Stage 4.
Why does it matter:
If you are unable to use your senses appropriately to understand the world, then accessing learning, participation and adapting to the classroom environment is difficult. Taking a sensory approach to teaching and learning means that students are better able to self-regulate and therefore more effectively access academic learning.
What Oakfield does:
- Individualised approaches to teaching and learning
- Sensory circuits
- Attention autism
- Jabadao sessions-communication
- Rebound therapy
The schools research questions
How can we build on our strength of a holistic approach to teaching and learning to improve life chances?
What evidence did we see?
1. Sensory Curriculum
During the Ignite speech, Deputy Headteacher David Walker spoke of the sensory overload that many learners risk experiencing at school. During the day we saw that learning environments and lessons at Oakfield were planned to avoid this. Sensory approaches and activities were built in to lessons to stimulate learners, supported by clearly established routines for learning. As a result, the learning environment across the school is calm and purposeful, with staff drawing on trusting relationships, active learning experience and individualised support to move students forward.
Sensory approaches are an integral part of the curriculum at Oakfield, and this was visible throughout the visit. One seeker observed that ‘each class demonstrated the sensory curriculum on different levels and in different ways.’ For one class, this involved finding geography questions hidden in flour whilst another class prepared for learning using sensory bands. Some students worked with a learning mentor who replicated the lesson with a smaller group, showing the careful collaboration that takes place between different members of staff when planning for individual student needs.
It was clear throughout the visit that different sensory needs were catered for, and all activities and planned with the needs of individual learners in mind. Learners are allowed ‘to be’ at Oakfield; they are not challenged for fidgeting but are instead encouraged to understand and respond to their sensory needs. As a result, learners at Oakfield are better able to self-regulate and focus on their learning. This highly personalised approach demonstrates the thoughtful way that Oakfield nurtures each individual learner. As one seeker commented, ‘everything you do is designed for the learners.’
2. High Expectations
The positive impact of taking a sensory approach was visible through the excellent behaviour exhibited by Oakfield students throughout the day. Students were actively engaged in their learning and regularly demonstrated taught skills that had evidently become embedded in daily learning routines. When one learner refused to participate in a ‘pen relay’, no demand or attention was given to him and shortly after he joined the activity naturally and positively. This behaviour indicates the trust that staff have in learners to make the right decisions, and the skill that learners at Oakfield have to reflect, self-regulate and make the right choice.
Seekers also appreciated the high expectations that staff evidently have of students at Oakfield. During one geography lesson we saw, learners were asked to recall knowledge of different countries including capitals and shapes by picking questions from ‘flour castles’. As well as meeting their sensory needs, the activity was challenging for the learners and showed the high expectation that their teacher for them to retain and share knowledge. One of our seekers summarised the combination of challenge; ‘I loved how the sensory elements of the learners were catered for, but the questions were difficult – I loved it!’ Learners are expected to fulfill their potential and the school is fully supportive in this process. For some, this means building valuable life skills such as travelling to school independently, whilst others take accredited courses such as GCSEs.
The high expectations that the school has of learners is further evidenced by the wider curriculum available. Oakfield runs trips to Clitheroe castle and universities, there is a ukulele band, forest school and they can take part in the Duke of Edinburgh award. Staff are passionate about providing Oakfield students with access to a vast array of enriching experiences that develop life skills and build relationships, both with each other and with staff.
It became clear during the visit that Oakfield is home to happy students and staff. We saw strong relationships throughout the school and admired the resilience of learners when confronted with a relatively large group of adults they didn’t know.
What could the school’s next steps be?
Oakfield’s whole school approach to a sensory curriculum that promotes self-regulation is extremely successful, and our appreciative enquirers were keen to find out how the approach is monitored. Oakfield is currently developing a tracking system which will better show the development of learners beyond their academic progress. One enquirer wondered whether using GL Assessment’s PASS Survey might assist in this.
Pupil passports capturing the different curriculum experiences of each learner is also being explored by Oakfield. This would allow both the school and learners to better understand the journey that each student goes through during their time at Oakfield. The Oakfield team also plans to implement GL Assessment’s PASS Survey, to better understand pupil’s attitudes towards themselves and the school.
Thank you to Oakfield High School for welcoming us in to their wonderful school for the visit, and to all our seekers for sharing their ideas and thoughts so generously.