Always asking why: Placing pupils at the heart of your school

Written by: Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Child-focused: ‘Children have to be the focus of every action and every decision’ – pupils enjoying life at Sherborne House School in Hampshire

Learning happens when learning is the focus, when learning is valued and when learning is modelled. Everyone at Sherborne House School is on an educational journey – pupils and staff – and they share a common language of learning. Fiona Aubrey-Smith paid a visit

Sherborne House School in Hampshire appears from the outside to be an unassuming mid-sized primary school. But step inside and it is quite simply a remarkable hive of high-impact activity.

As the school’s recent Independent Schools Inspectorate report set out: “Pupils across all ages exhibit very high levels of self-esteem, self-confidence, and resilience, aided by empathetic teaching and affirmation. Pupils of all ages exemplify excellent attitudes to learning. Pupils are highly articulate … by the time they leave, they are highly analytical and able learners.

“Pupils enter the school with average levels of prior attainment (but) achieve well above the expected level for their age and ability by the time they leave the school.”

This kind of effusive praise from inspectors is not given lightly. So what is it that makes this school such a thriving centre of learning?

Mindset and culture

As headteacher Mark Beach told me, it is all about a school-wide mindset and culture that constantly asks “why” every step of the way.

He explained: “Being effective for us is about knowing what you are doing, why you are doing it, and knowing what success looks like so that you know if you are doing it.”

Deputy headteacher Cordelia Cripps added: “This applies just as much to the children. If the children know how to be successful that means they know what they are doing, so those kinds of metacognitive strategies are vital – for every child, every moment of the day.”

But these leaders are not just referring to academic subjects, lessons, or formally timetabled activities – their commitment to children goes much deeper than that. As inspectors found: “Pupils know how to improve their learning due to excellent feedback and teaching of self-editing skills, as well as active promotion of resilience and learning skills. The school’s leadership has been successful at ensuring that a wide range of opportunities for success is available.”

As Mr Beach told me: “A lot of people pay lip-service to pupil voice – but children have to be the focus of every action and every decision.”

Passionate: Children learn more about learning from how teachers teach than from what teachers teach. Sherborne House School head Mark Beach talks to pupils

A child-focused environment

At surface level, this commitment to a child-focused learning environment can be evidenced around the school site – with wide-ranging photos of children learning in a multitude of contexts adorning every wall in every building and a wonderful buzz of excited productivity as you pass each class or outside space.

But it is more than that, as Ms Cripps explained: “If every single decision includes a conversation about ‘how will that affect that child or that group?’, then there is very little wriggle room – the most appropriate decisions make themselves obvious.”

This includes a diligently planned curriculum where engaging themes and disciplinary and transdisciplinary skills have been analysed to ensure subject-specific progress within and across years.

For example, on the first of each month a multi-sensory stimulus provokes simultaneous writing across all year groups. An "unexploded bomb" found in the school grounds or the arrival of two real but very lost Christmas reindeer.

Learning is diligently drawn out of these provocations – e.g. children creating video news reports for the local press or researching what to feed reindeer until Santa collects them. The whole-school stimulus creates a buzz of enthusiasm – discussion continues between children at break as well as in lessons and engages parents at home.

Furthermore, concepts such as identity are embedded and “vertically planned” to facilitate meaningful engagement between children of different ages and stages.

The team has established and embedded a curriculum that empowers children to be successful academically, pastorally, personally, and collectively.

Teachers specifically identify opportunities for each child to experience success based upon their existing strengths as well as nurturing new ones – reaching beyond academic and sporting traditions. Diverse opportunities are provided, such as model train-making, philosophy, share-trading, drama and music performances, mindfulness, spelling bees, gymnastics, national maths challenges, bilingual games, judo and film-making among others. Each of these are designed to meet the needs of the current cohort of children – encouraging interests and engaging children in shared goals.

Elsewhere, the whole school has timetabled “Golden Thread” time where children and teachers work in varied learning teams – e.g. houses, buddy classes, vertical groupings. These focus specifically on school-wide themes and concepts and bring diverse groups together with a shared and purposeful focus for their learning.

Active learners

Mr Beach speaks passionately of his drive to ensure every child who attends the school has an exceptional education. He explained: “Excellence is about culture. It’s about being empowered to try new things, being unshackled from constraints, being freed from a staid curriculum, and removing fears about thinking outside of the box.

“Excellence is about constant reflection – reflecting on practice to improve outcomes all the time. But most importantly, internalising that reflection, thinking: what does that mean for me, what will I do now, what does that mean we can do next? It’s always about moving forwards.”

Meeting staff and children across Sherborne House, it is clear that this approach has been embedded – with teachers and children both being active learners. Metacognitive skills have been learned by children and adults alike and this perhaps is at the heart of what it is that makes Sherborne House such a special place.

Teachers talk about co-existing with the children – empowering them and working as partners alongside each other. Relationships between staff and children are valued, embraced and meaningful.

Children talk explicitly and enthusiastically about how the teacher contributes towards their learning. The language here is important. The children have been taught to “own” their own learning journey and experiences, and they then value the role of their teachers as augmenting that.

This is a school where pedagogy and practice are everyday conversations for every child and adult. The inspectors noted this too: “Pupils show leadership in their learning. Teaching proactively empowers this approach, which has yielded great benefit for pupils. Pupils are effusive in their praise of the contribution made by their teachers.”

This kind of environment, where children and teachers see each other as co-partners in learning, is not something that happens by accident. Nor is it about budget, policy, or national agenda. It’s about leaders and teachers “walking the walk” and modelling their own learning for children to see.

Trying out ideas, making mistakes and learning from them, asking “what if?”, creating great questions and debating possible answers. Ms Cripps added: “Learning happens when learning is the focus, when learning is valued and when learning is modelled.”

Children learn more about learning from how teachers teach than from what teachers teach.

Role-model: Learning happens when learning is the focus, when learning is valued and when learning is modelled. Sherborne House School deputy head Cordelia Cripps reads with pupils

A professional dialogue

As Mr Beach explains, being exceptional is about pushing boundaries so that teaching is always full of energy and engaging, and about keeping momentum going throughout a child’s education.

This leadership team talks about its school with an unapologetic approach to their shared vision. They talk about a commitment to all staff and all children – living and breathing an approach that encourages informed risk-taking, pushing the boundaries of what is possible, high expectations and high support.

It is fascinating to listen to this senior leadership team talk about both staff and children’s learning interchangeably – where every single person at the school is encouraged to be active on their learning journey.

Teachers and leaders talk about different forms of professional learning – apprenticeships, coaching, shadowing, university courses, networks, reading, discussion groups – using the same kinds of language they use when talking about the children’s learning. This sense of everyone being an active learner is tangible and is a key ingredient to this kind of success.

To this end, INSETs have intentionally stripped back their focus on the operational aspects of school life, giving more time to the development of professional dialogue.

And “Thoughtful Thursday’” has been one of the many successful strategies at the school. All teachers bring along something meaningful and of interest to them – an article or thought-provoking piece of reading, an example of practice pertaining to a subject specialism, or something provocative that will be a conversation catalyst.

Staff are then encouraged to share, discuss, debate, reflect and consider the impact of the stimulus on their own practice. Collaborative dialogue considers how those ideas make links between subjects or solve problems being faced by particular students or addressing a particular student’s needs. The focus starts with a stimulus and leads to a student-focused outcome.

What do the children need?

Perhaps most powerfully, when I ask Mr Beach about his vision for the school, he pauses before saying firmly: “I know what I don’t want – and I make that clear.

“But the rest of our decisions and actions, well that’s about looking at the children in front of us today. Each individual child. Then really thinking deeply about what it is that they need. What they need today and what they will need tomorrow. Then it’s up to us to make that happen for them.”

  • Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith supports schools and trusts with professional learning, education research and strategic planning. She is the founder of One Life Learning, an associate lecturer at the Open University, a founding fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching, and sits on the board of a number of multi-academy and charitable trusts. Read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via and follow her @FionaAS

Further information & resources

In the context of this article, the author recommends two education books: Building Learning Power: Helping young people become better learners by Professor Guy Claxton (2002) and Simon Sinek’s 2011 Start With Why.

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