Whole Education is first and foremost a network. We believe in the power of bringing people together, sharing great ideas and helping each other in our shared pursuit to deliver a high quality whole education for all learners in very different school contexts and communities.
Here Rosie Leonard-Kane, who led the design of our stand out schools initiative, shares some of the key things schools sucessfully providing a whole education have in common.
Stand out school practice
What is it that makes a school ‘whole education’? What does ‘stand-out’ whole education practice look like? And, what are the conditions of success needed to deliver a truly high-quality whole education for all students, sustainably and over a prolonged period of time?
We set out to conduct a systematic evidence gathering through appreciative inquiry school visits to answer the above. 14 secondary schools were chosen based on the duration of their commitment to the Whole Education network and engagement over the past ten years. Each school visit was designed to help showcase:
+ One area of stand-out whole education practice in the school
+ Why do they do it and why does it work
+ The principles underpinning the school’s whole education approach
How did it work
The visits used WE’s own Appreciative Inquiry framework. Appreciative inquiry is an approach which builds on positive psychology and storytelling to create an “alignment of strengths”. Instead of starting with a deficit model and asking ‘what is not working?’, appreciative inquiry is about identifying what is already working well and exploring how an organisation can build on these strengths. Our model built on this approach, and the work of experienced practitioners at innovative organisations like The Studio in Liverpool.
Our schools generously opened their doors to peers in the network (and beyond). Through appreciative inquiry, seekers (visitors) captured evidence from presentations, focus groups with staff and students, observations of lessons, mentoring sessions and tours of the school.
We hope that the learning captured from these visits will be an inspiration to other school leaders up and down the country who are committed to delivering a whole education for their students.
We anticipated that there would be some common elements of an effective whole education school. We were surprised to find that it had nothing to do with the practice itself; each school has their own unique approach, frameworks and language to describe their school vision, values, curriculum and teaching & learning priorities. What they had in common were three very simple but effective principles which were expressed in a variety of ways
1. A commitment to positive relationships visible across the school
If one thing was clear across every ‘Stand Out School’, despite their different contexts and approaches, it was the sense of strong, positive relationships across the school community. These relationships were deliberate, developed and discussed.
Deliberate: We consistently saw evidence of deliberate, rigorous and evidence-informed approaches to building strong relationships being deployed across the schools we visited. These relationships were not accidental – they had been intentionally and deliberately curated and stewarded.
Discussed: Importantly we noticed that there was also a shared language around relationships in the school that meant they could be explicitly discussed. Whatever the framework or model – from transactional analysis at Matthew Moss, to BBB at Shenley Brook End – it gave a coherence and consistency to relationships, and gave a set of tools to improve them.
Developed: Building relationships were a key feature in school professional development calendars as well as an active focus in the day to day life of the schools. Schools invested time and money in actively increasing the ability of students and staff to build and maintain strong relationships.
2. Student engagement and ownership of learning
Learning was seen as a shared endeavour in all the schools we visited. In different ways – whether it be through deeply understanding students’ context and destinations, giving them a sense of ownership of the school building, or a range of pedagogies designed to build agency – learning was done with, not done to. This often extended beyond just staff and students to the wider community, and student engagement always started with a deep understanding of their passions and motivations.
XP’s learning expeditions started by engaging students’ passions in the projects. Students in the school reflected back how much the projects helped learning ‘stick’. Shevington’s academic coaching helped students set their own goals for learning. D6 was an entirely voluntary model for a Saturday school that saw two hundred students engaging on Saturdays. They understood their learning, why it mattered, and wanted to take take advantage of the support available.
3. Long term leadership of a vision shared at all levels of the school
We were struck in each school by the clarity of the school’s purpose and vision; the way staff and students at all levels bought into this vision; and the sustainable plan for achieving it over a number of years. The underpinning elements of this leadership that consistently emerged seemed to be…
A strong guiding narrative: A surprising theme that emerged, in part through SOSI visits’ short ‘Ignite speeches’, was the power of storytelling. Leaders without fail had a powerful narrative for why their community needed the whole education they were working to provide. Their vision was more than words on a website; it was a compelling story that took in past, present and future; the context and community the school operated in; and the ‘hopes’ and ‘ambitions’ of our appreciative inquiry model.
Long-term commitment to the vision: SOSI participants had taken a sustainable, long-term approach to leading a whole education in their schools, and stuck with that through often significant challenges. They didn’t view it as a quick fix or look for overnight success. Many had faced setbacks or pressure to change course; all had been guided by their values and recommitted to their vision.
Distributed leadership: The vision or approach wasn’t owned by one person, but distributed across empowered professionals throughout the school. Leadership of the school’s vision was distributed amongst multiple teachers and leaders – with complementary styles and approaches. This diversity meant there was open dialogue, challenge and robust decision making. Across very different schools, leaders created a culture that trusted, empowered and motivated staff to do a fantastic job for their students. This culture resulted in coherence, even in large and busy schools – students and staff were always able to articulate the shared vision of what made their school unique and distinctive.
Thank you to all the schools who shared their practice so generously in 2019-20. WE are looking forward to showcasing lots more stand out practice in the secondary network across 2020-21. Find out more about the secondary core offer.