Case study: Teaching practice – review, analysis and innovation

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Opportunity: The approach to teaching practice and CPD is one of the main reasons teachers want to work at St Michael’s

St Michael’s CE Primary thrives by giving its staff plenty of opportunities to review practice, innovate and take on responsibility. Drawing on the school’s outstanding maths practice as an example, Suzanne O’Connell explains more

St Michael’s CE Primary School in County Durham is a small village school with approximately 118 pupils. It has always been a popular local school but has not taken this for granted. During the 13 years that Lindsey Vollans has been headteacher, there has been a continuous determination to improve its practice. Now, that focus has been recognised with an outstanding judgement from Ofsted.

The village where St Michael’s is located has been both a pit and a farming village and has seen many changes over the years as fluctuating house prices have increased its popularity.

“We are also now seeing children coming in to our school from further afield,” Ms Vollans explained. The reputation of the school has spread, mostly due to word of mouth rather than Ofsted.

“We can see a big difference in those children that come to us from other schools and those that started with us,” she continued.

When pressed on why this might be Ms Vollans is modest about the strengths of the school and having been there for 13 years feels she is not best placed to express an objective view. Instead she calls in her deputy headteacher, Beth Dawson, to give her perspective on why St Michael’s has had the success that it has.

Focus on development

Ms Dawson is clear: “It’s Lindsey’s leadership, pushing the staff, she sees their potential and gives them the opportunity to develop.”

Ms Dawson is herself a perfect example of the speed with which the right teachers can find leadership opportunities at St Michael’s. Within three years of qualifying she was appointed as an assistant headteacher.

The opportunity to develop that the school gives the staff is, according to Ms Dawson, one of the main reasons that teachers are keen to join the school. Recruitment largely comes via those who have trained there. However, Ms Vollans knows that with their limited budget she is unlikely to be able to keep teachers for long.

Instead, the school’s strategy focuses around attracting the best in the first place, enabling them to develop and recognising that they will move on when the time is right. This has created a vibrant environment of enthusiasm and new ideas even if the staff turnover is quite high.

“It’s a lovely place to work,” Ms Dawson continued. “Lindsey never says no to a training request. There’s a real family atmosphere here where you feel part of the management process from the start.”

The school is involved in School Centred Initial Teacher Training and this role attracts aspiring teachers both directly from university, as an alternative to a PGCE, as well as from other professions. The team at St Michael’s, lead Durham’s SCITT initiative and this places them in an enviable position when it comes to training, development and, of course, recruitment.

The teachers who are lucky to apply and be accepted for positions here know that their practice has to be outstanding: “The staff here are driven and enthusiastic,” Ms Dawson said. “We also have an open door policy and spend a lot of time reviewing and reflecting on what we do. If something doesn’t work then we are happy to go back to the drawing board and start again.”

This was what happened when the 2014 curriculum was released. St Michael’s staff began with a curriculum review and worked together to consider what changes they needed to make. Initially, they were teaching subjects separately but soon recognised that this wasn’t working. Instead they decided they would try a topic-based approach.

We’ve spent a lot of time, reviewing and analysing,” explained Ms Dawson. “Everyone is involved. Being a small school we all have subject areas to lead and decisions are very much discussed and talked about.”

The subject leaders have been instrumental in the development of the curriculum. Stuart Houghton is maths co-ordinator and has had a key role in the evolution of the subject at St Michael’s.

Spotlight on maths

Mr Houghton has been given responsibility at a very early stage in his career and has made the most of this opportunity to develop a thriving maths community. Although it is only his second year out of NQT status he has steered the school in innovative directions.

He explained: “We were all very open-minded about curriculum change. I have had opportunity to attend a variety of courses including those led by Mike Askew and I’ve attended Numicon mastery focused professional development.”

These courses have given Mr Houghton some clear views on maths teaching which have led to the whole school using concrete resources to help establish their understanding of maths.

“There are three stages,” explained Mr Houghton. “Concrete first, then it’s applied through pictures while referring to the abstract throughout.”

Deciding on this approach meant changes to the calculation policy: “This method isn’t just appropriate for key stage 1,” Mr Houghton said. “There was a little work to do on changing mindset. These resources are just as applicable in year 6 where they help our pupils to explain calculations. The use of concrete objects brings real understanding to the theory.”

To help the transition from concrete to abstract they are using, for example, bar models: “By drawing using the bars, the children can see more clearly what they’re expected to do to solve the problem. They can use the bars to see the links between the different operations.”

Number beads have been another physical methods of representing numbers that has helped to bring the subject to life for the children at the school.

“We have a mastery focus here,” continued Mr Houghton. “Rather than perhaps touching on one topic several times during the year our long-term plan contains bigger chunks of work. For example, we teach addition in one block. We find this gives our pupils greater opportunity to build confidence and deepens their understanding. We like children to see maths used in different contexts and different learning opportunities – that are relatable to their lives – so we know that they fully understand it. After that they can choose which methods suit them best. Our next priority is to develop this independence further. We want to give our children the tools they need to then work independently and systematically.”

Many of Mr Houghton’s management responsibilities engage him in the tasks most co-ordinators are familiar with. He still monitors maths books, does observations and is engaged in talking to governors about his plans.

But Mr Houghton and his colleagues recognise how the special development opportunities they’re given at St Michael’s have allowed them to grow as professionals: “The focus is always surrounding supporting staff and giving them opportunities to be creative,” explained Mr Houghton. “We appreciate Lindsey’s encouragement and the chance to work in a truly exciting school.”

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


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