The pursuit of excellence for every student, every day.
Wilmslow is a large (1,995 pupils on roll) secondary school in Cheshire. They describe themselves as a ‘strong, happy and caring school’. The school is the only state comprehensive in the town (other local schools are academically selective) and the staff are passionately committed to an inclusive, whole education for their community.
Signature feature 1: Wilmslow, a professional learning school
“WE have not graded a lesson in this school since September 2015 – because staff wear that grade. They are rigorous professionals who self-analyse – they grade themselves. I don’t tell people what I think of their teaching – they should know their strengths and weaknesses”.
Wilmslow describe themselves as a professional learning school – aiming to create a supportive culture where professional learning is constantly taking place, at all levels, so that students benefit from the highest quality whole education.
The school trust and support their team to do the right thing for their students, with every member of staff a leader: “These things only work through leaders. And all the adults are leaders”.
The three strands of their professional learning model are of expert subject knowledge (“equipping teachers”) through Developing Subject Expertise meetings; classroom craft (“refining teachers”) through their Incremental Observation and Feedback programme; and engagement with research (“developing teacher”) in Professional Learning Groups.
- Incremental coaching
Incremental coaching involves short (15 minute), drop-in observations to watch a teacher in action, at the end of which the coach and the teacher have a 15 minute coaching conversation.
Coaches have all been through the process themselves, and give the teacher some practical, specific actions to focus on in their practice over the next week and some resources or tips to get them started. These aren’t about subject expertise (staff are paired outside of their specialist area) but the craft of teaching – explanation, questioning and classroom management.
- Professional learning groups
The school’s professional learning groups are relatively prescriptive – and this is deliberate. All 150 staff in the school read the same book (examples include The Learning Rainforest). The school says the choice of text itself is less important than what it symbolises – all staff engaging with theory or ideas, and using any text that is context appropriate to build a common language. It helps staff talk and think about teaching in a unified way.
Signature feature 2: Values-led leadership and systems
Understanding the school’s focus on professional learning is impossible without understanding the unique culture the school has created – starting with their leaders at all levels.
Leaders described transforming the school as taking place at two speeds – with a focus on the ‘long, slow burn, build’: “we don’t do initiatives – if you want to embed something it takes years.”
As a school community they are confident in their values, and confident that if they take the right decisions for their community, they will get the results. They then invest time and trust in getting there – through developing their staff and nurturing great practice.
“We do the right thing at the right time…. We are not corporate, we are a community who talk the same language. Our words are important. We listened to the words that existed already in our community…. And then we built our language.”
Signature feature 3: HITS lessons
The school’s model of high-intensity teaching (HITS lessons) is a key way they provide a high-quality whole education – focusing on great teaching to support as many learners as possible to engage with a broad and rich curriculum.
These smaller group lessons embed key knowledge for students who are struggling in lessons and need extra help. Through high-quality teaching and learning delivered by specialists they are caught up and supported to be reintegrated back into the main curriculum.
The HITS lessons use a mixture of direct instruction, explanation and questioning, guided practice and modelling, repetition, formative assessment (live and responsive feedback), metacognitive strategies, challenging texts and high levels of oracy to create rapid improvement in students’ literacy and/or numeracy/ This develops the skills which enable students to work at same level as their peers and engage with the whole curriculum.
Research question posed by the school:
Does what you see today confirm that we demonstrate our values of providing a Whole Education across our curriculum? And how can we build on this?
What WE saw: Professional learning
Seekers were impressed with the school’s approach to professional learning – both their specific frameworks and the culture of constant development and learning.
Incremental coaching was highlighted by a number of delegates as a powerful vehicle for this culture because “staff and students can improve in a safe and guided way”.
Seekers had the opportunity to speak to a number of staff, and while all were focused on different priorities, all were passionate and reflective about what they did and why it mattered. One seeker was struck by meeting “staff from across faculties talking enthusiastically about T&L strategies”. Another felt that the school’s strength was “bringing all members of the school team together, talking about and seeing the impact of work everyone across one school is doing”.
Seekers thought this diverse range of individual styles and approaches sat coherently within a clearly defined vision for consistent, high-quality teaching and learning. Wilmslow’s professional learning models “promote consistency, ensure that there is a thread which unites all and improves standards” said one; another observed “the fact that everyone talked about the concepts from the same work of research, and how it had influenced their thinking”. This strength of shared professionalism left one seeker feeling that “making effective change is completely doable” because they saw “a considered, careful approach, worked on as a consistent team”.
Evidence we saw: HITs lessons
The culture, values-led leadership and commitment to professional learning at Wilmslow allowed for consistently high-quality learning experiences across the school. As one seeker put it the “’structure’, ‘architecture’ and ‘timetabling’ were constantly referred to and allowed HITS to happen to ensure all can access the curriculum.”
Lots of seekers were particularly impressed by the HITS lessons – an example of Wilmslow providing a high-quality, rigorous, whole education ‘by thinking about what is best for the student (e.g HITS)’.
One seeker said “the evidence I saw of the school’s practice working successfully was…within the HITS class” while another was inspired by HITS ”because staff and students can improve in a safe and guided way”.
Evidence we saw: Values-led leadership at Wilmslow
“The leadership team and the way they work really stood out. All practice and policies and grounded in real research”.
Seekers felt that the success of the school’s professional learning culture started with kind and effective, values-led leadership. Leaders are “dedicated to making relevant changes that will help give their pupils the best learning experiences” and they “reflected honestly about initiatives set up, communicating the opportunities and challenges they have experienced”. One summarised two of Wilmslow’s main strengths as “leadership and shared language”.
The consequences of a culture that seekers described as “kind, supportive, aspirational and ambitious environment” and leaders at all levels committed to a whole education was palpable. One praised Wilmslow’s “leadership, culture, realism.” Another commented “it has been a privilege to spend the day here… with intelligent and driven staff with a clear vision and moral purpose” and that the school was both “inspirational and real.”
No better testament to that work could be seen than the students themselves – “motivated, engaged and happy”. As one seeker said meeting them was “delightful and provided solid evidence that the talk is being walked”.
Why does it work?
Consistently, seekers reflected on how impressive it was that the school had made change happen, sustainably and successfully, in a large, normal school – Wilmslow describe their school as ‘not a revolutionary school….an evolutionary school’. “Amazing – not slick and shiny. Real. Impressive. Authentic” one seeker reflected.
Wilmslow was visibly a school doing things for the right reasons, in the right spirit, and investing time and belief in doing them well. The school’s “total belief in a whole education” was immediately obvious. All of this stemmed from the values-led leadership and culture – kind, trusting, intentional, and committed to ‘that long, slow burn, build’.
For one seeker, returning to the metaphor of the school building and growing, that meant the school was “A learning rainforest! The sun shines bright providing nourishment to all inhabitants. The birds sing and it’s all evolving positively.”
Thank you to all our seekers and to Wilmslow for opening their doors so generously for an amazing school visit. Visit their website to find out more.