Case study: An inspirational approach to writing

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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Inspiration is a key priority for Wilmslow Grange Community Primary when it comes to writing. Suzanne O’Connell finds out more

When Ofsted visited Wilmslow Grange Community Primary and Nursery School in April they were impressed by the curriculum they saw and the standards achieved. The school staff described it as the least stressful inspection that they had experienced. Why?

“We just had to do what we always do on a Tuesday on week two,” explained the headteacher Mark Unwin. “It made it so much easier for everyone.”

The school has a very clear approach to planning its three-weekly cycle of writing activities. They teach reading and writing separately, allowing for a very clear focus and an extraordinarily consistent approach across the school.

Consistency is all important,” Mr Unwin continued. “You need to drive consistency across subjects, key stages and classes.”

At the centre of this is the school’s teaching and learning policy which closely supports their vision of “very high expectations of academic success, behaviour, excitement and fun”.

The teaching and learning policy

The policy is the foundation for everything that they do and all the staff helped to develop it. “I provided the broad brush,” explained Mr Unwin, “but it was the staff really who took it to the next stage.”

This wasn’t done with the help of a consultancy or any other kind of external support. Although Mr Unwin and his deputy, Lynette Lawson, were new to the school and it was his first headship, they recognised that there was already enough experience in the staff to create the policy for themselves.

Mr Unwin had previously worked in schools involved in the London Challenge: “We put together the ideas of what we thought made a difference. You need to have a really clear idea about how learning happens. If you have this, you can’t go far wrong.”

The school’s theory of learning is a mixture of the ideas of Professor Carol Dweck and her mindset psychology and the work of Professor K Anders Ericsson. Mr Unwin and his team place a great emphasis on inspiration which is the starting point for their three-week writing scheme: “If the inspiration is strong enough then people will work harder and longer. It’s about high pitch and deep practice.”

Clear lesson criteria

The teachers plan together as a phase and the finished work is seen by the senior management team every week. This could sound like a very structured and perhaps overbearing monitoring system, but in fact this is not the purpose of the scrutiny of work at all. Instead, it works as a method of training and developing teachers, ensuring that they are including the required criteria in each set of books that the children produce. If not, they have targets to meet and Mr Unwin suggests that within eight weeks of this process an NQT’s teaching can resemble that of a highly experienced member of staff. The criteria for effective learning includes that children’s work must:

  • Include the agreed pitch sheets to set stretching success criteria to extend different groups of pupils and that these are stuck in books.
  • Show that sufficient differentiation is evident, particularly to stretch the more able.
  • Show evidence of pupils evaluating their work against the success criteria every lesson.
  • Ensure the topic is engaging and inspirational and shows evidence of inspirational activities to inspire pupils.
  • Show evidence of planning and editing – are pupils “involved” in it?
  • Ensure the marking follows the marking and feedback policy and that children have responded to it.
  • Ensure the work in books shows evidence of adherence to the teaching and learning policy writing structure and that there’s sufficient length and care.
  • Ensure the pupils have made expected progress since the start of the year.

It is this list that the senior management team checks against to ensure that whatever the lesson content for that block, teachers are clearly applying these principles in a consistent way.

The three-week structure

Each block of writing focuses on one genre with important non-fiction genres being revisited annually and fiction genres covered in-between. A pupil voice survey at the beginning of each term helps to inform the planning of topics, as teachers can see what interests the children most.

Week one

The week begins with an inspiration day. Jessica Dolby is upper key stage 2 leader and is also lead for writing: “Sometimes it’s a morning or a whole day and might involve children dressing up as Romans or welcoming a visitor and it fires up their writing. We also try to tie it in with real life experiences and use the children’s interests as well.”

The next day is the planning day and Ms Dolby and her team use Sue Palmer’s approach ( to involving the children in planning their writing: “We discuss with the children the kind of writing they are going to be engaged with. They use the format to plan their writing for the next three days.”

The consistent use of the same planning formats over a period of years means that these are embedded within the children’s learning and don’t need reteaching.

On the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the children get down to business and spend their time writing. Each lesson involves the children writing at length for a sustained period of time and producing a substantial piece of work. Then three lessons link together as the beginning, middle and end of a coherent piece.

Each lesson is given context by the ones that it is linked to and there is a focus on building up a larger, coherent piece of writing each week. “Modelling is an important part of this stage,” Ms Dolby explained. “We also incorporate elements of SPAG during this time too.”

Week two

This week begins with another mini inspiration followed by planning. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are then the writing days and Friday is used for the children to edit and improve their work.

Week three

Week three begins with three more substantial writing lessons but the main focus of this week is the publication of what’s been written.

“Thursday and Friday are publication days,” Ms Dolby continued. “They take great pride in the published work they produce and this is shared with different audiences including younger children in the school, where appropriate.”

Published work is also displayed in every classroom and around the school. There are positive reward systems in whole-school assembly to reward standards of presentation.

Light-touch monitoring

Mr Unwin believes in a light-touch, little and often approach to monitoring. The outcomes in the children’s books are checked every week to ensure that teachers are following the structure and are meeting the criteria that the school has set. Staff are involved in these sessions, along with the senior management team.

“This isn’t a critical process,” he explained, “and it isn’t opinion-based but checks that everyone is doing what they should be. Problems aren’t allowed to dig in deep and are quickly identified. Seeing everything every week means that there is no opportunity for poor practice to build up.”

When Mr Unwin was involved in observing lessons with the inspectors it was the first time he had done so for several months. “We do observe but in a very informal way,” he explained. “Everyone is welcome in classrooms and we no longer do constant formal rounds of observations. We stopped grading teachers on their lessons in 2015.”

Staff wellbeing

Having such a clear approach to planning and delivering their lessons has other benefits too. Mr Unwin explained: “Students new to teaching can think that it’s going to be a bit of a grind. They are usually quite surprised. The consistency and focus makes teaching here much easier for everyone concerned. You don’t need to do observations all the time. The evidence is there when the writing is published of just how good the teaching and learning has been.”

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information

Wilmslow Grange Community Primary and Nursery School is a maintained primary school in Cheshire. It currently has 294 pupils and has a higher proportion of SEN pupils than that nationally. The school was last inspected in April 2017 when it received an outstanding judgement.

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