A STEM-inspired primary school curriculum

Written by: Paul Keane | Published:
Engaged: Some of the STEM-related activities and facilities at Willowtown Primary, including the 3D immersion room

Pupils at Willowtown Primary in South Wales benefit from a STEM-rich curriculum. Headteacher
Paul Keane discusses what the school offers and how this curriculum has been developed

I started at Willowtown Primary as a deputy headteacher in 2015 and circumstances quickly led to me becoming headteacher. Based in Ebbw Vale in South Wales, our school has more than 450 pupils and 20 teaching staff.

In London I had worked in quite affluent schools where budgets were challenging but not to the extent we see in places in Wales. One of the areas I saw the most potential for improvement at our school was the delivery of the STEM curriculum, but this would also be the most difficult to grow because of the price tag that comes along with resources, technology and equipment.

Professional judgement

The staff that make up a school are the most valuable resource it has, and the way in which a leadership team interfaces with teachers is crucial to productivity. We have nurtured a sense of community which has allowed us to support each other and innovate with the teaching of STEM subjects.

We conduct anonymous staff surveys at the school to identify pressure points and look at the ways we can improve teaching and learning experiences. From an early stage our teachers agreed STEM subjects were an area that had the most potential for improvement and staff put forward their ideas.

Teachers wanted to be able to have more freedom in using their professional judgement to be bolder and more creative in lessons, which I whole-heartedly supported them with. We knew that creating lasting and memorable learning experiences would have a far greater impact on pupil progress.

Overcoming budgetary pressures

Budgetary pressures are likely the biggest single threat to the delivery of an engaging STEM curriculum and sometimes the easiest thing to do is just accept that there is no money for equipment and resources.

We have been successful in many of our applications for funding and grants. Lots of schools apply for large amounts of funding and unfortunately get rejected, it can even happen with small sums. From our experience we have found that applying for smaller amounts – for example, one interactive panel or several tablet devices – has more impact. You can then prove the impact the technology has on outcomes and use this as evidence when applying for more funding.

Technological support: Willowtown primary pupils drawing angles with coding cars

Transforming teaching environments

By securing funding, investing in resources, equipment and technologies, and proving its worth, we have been able to grow our STEM offering considerably. We have been able to install the latest interactive panels in our classrooms which we not only use for a wealth of interactive activities about anatomy, space and coding, but we also connect them to our 3D printers to create models by placing tiny cubes into structures.

We use our tablet devices to mirror work onto the panel for peer assessment exercises and even have cars and robots that can hold a pen and be programmed to draw angles. The most exciting addition to our school is probably the 3D immersion room where touch-responsive activities for a wide range of subjects are projected onto the walls. By integrating technology across the curriculum, we are able to really engage pupils in all subjects.

Technology is a big part of STEM subjects, especially in meeting criteria to deliver the digital curriculum, but there are activities that can be done at a far smaller cost. Our pupils loved learning about angles when we talked about the zip wire on Snowdon. The children discussed lengths and angles when making their own zip wires out of bits of rope and string.

In maths, cooking has been a useful way of teaching the pupils about measurements and time. For younger pupils in the school we place the emphasis on outdoor learning, planting seeds and building structures out of blocks and upcycled materials.

The aquaponic system is probably one of the most unique investments we have made but has captivated the pupils’ attention. The system combines raising aquatic animals such as fish with using their waste to feed the plants and then recirculating the water – even parents are fascinated by how it works. Regardless of age, learning through engaging and fun activities helps the pupils to better retain information.

Sharing best practice

With lots of new equipment and technology it can be daunting for some teachers who are less confident with change. It has been made clear since we started this journey that we will all make mistakes.

We have also committed to external staff training sessions as well as facilitating our own where we help each other and share our knowledge, what has worked well, in addition to what has not had the desired effect. We even have pupils from our coding club who come into our training sessions and show us various activities.

Our anonymous surveys have shown that teachers are finding the training really beneficial. In fact, some of the teachers are so confident in using technology that we have been reaching out to schools in our area to share knowledge and best practice as part of our region-wide Learning Network School role.

We host half-termly training sessions at our school and other times we go out to visit schools requiring support. The support of the Education Achievement Service (EAS) as our local consortium has been indispensable in this and has helped us forge lasting partnerships. We are very grateful for the strategic input from the EAS into our journey.

Conclusion

Three years ago, I had a vision to completely change the way in which STEM subjects are taught at Willowtown Primary. It has been no easy road, and at the time I was not sure how realistic my vision was, but with a positive mindset we have begun to see the fruits of our labour and experience excellent results in STEM subjects. We are now consistently achieving results above the local authority and national average and have become a centre of excellence in our area, sharing learning from our journey and practical skills that will support other schools.

Our school is situated in a former steel town, deep rooted in a heritage of engineering and surrounded by former mining towns. Although the prospects of the steel industry are only a fraction of what they once were and mining in South Wales has largely ceased, by delivering a rich STEM curriculum we can ensure children have the best possible chances of going on to secure successful futures.

  • Paul Keane is headteacher of Willowtown Primary School in South Wales.


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