Case study: A values-led philosophy

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Discover: There are five separate discovery areas around Blackfield Primary, each with a theme bringing cohesion to the materials available. These include The Globe, pictured above

At the heart of the schools within the Inspire Learning Federation is a values-led philosophy for lifelong learning. Fiona Aubrey-Smith visited to find out more about their approaches to learning

The Inspire Learning Federation is a small multi-academy trust on the edge of the New Forest in Hampshire. Inspire schools serve a very mixed community. The team at Inspire has earned a reputation for inspiration and innovation. But what does this look like in practice, and how has the team tackled the hurdles that often stand in the way of making such ambitions a reality?

Your school environment

Your school environment reflects what you really think about your children. Anyone who is in the privileged position of visiting schools will tell you that you get a sense of a school’s ethos within the first few minutes of arrival.

Arriving at the largest of the Inspire schools, Blackfield Primary, is akin to walking along the rousing pomp and circumstance of The Mall before arriving at the treasures of Buckingham Palace. From the moment you leave the road and enter the school car park you are surrounded by children’s artwork and displays of projects past and present.

Inspiration: The driveway at Blackfield Primary. The moment you leave the road you are surrounded by children’s artwork

The passion for putting children at the heart of everything continues to be tangible as you enter the building and find yourself immersed in photographs, artwork, creative learning, sports and music trophies, portfolios of work and working displays. There is very little text, but what there is is powerful and profound.

While most schools have an element of children’s learning on display as one enters the foyer, there is something special about the way in which Inspire does this. The precision, the care and the value that is deeply embedded in children’s learning and achievements is abundantly clear.

Photographs have been made into professional photo-books, design and technology artefacts are on display in lit cabinets as if in the Tate galleries, and even the school name on display in the entrance hall is made up from a high-quality image of every single child at the school.

Photos of role-models from all walks of life are found around Inspire schools, with the aim of ensuring that children strive towards becoming humanitarian, academic, sporting, creative, and so forth. Equality and diversity are well represented in these images, and the children provided with deep and meaningful contexts to their achievements.

Questions for your own school

When you arrive at your own school car park or building entrance, what are your eyes drawn to? What does that say to your community about what you value most? Administration, organisation, or learning? Children or adults?

Car parks and reception offices can be awkward spaces – what does yours have that provides an opportunity for learning or is it a place that is unused? Be creative – think about walls, ceilings, gates and fences, plants and landscapes. How could you use “wasted” space to display and share the ethos of the school?

Every Minute Matters: No wasted learning time

What you hear and see at Inspire’s schools are creative and positive ways that enable both children and staff to make the most out of their time at school. The result of this professionalism and dedication is of course great progress and attainment in children’s learning. But, even more importantly than that, the children have the most amazing understanding of, and commitment to, their own learning.

The children knowledgeably and with great perception talk about how they have identified a learning value that they are working on strengthening, or a skill that they are practising. This is embedded into all curriculum projects and the daily life of the school.

Children are celebrated for their achievements in these core beliefs and act as role-models to the rest of the school. A plethora of golden jumpers signifies who from the learning community has been identified by their peers that week.

Executive principal Claire Lowe talks about the “stretch” zone that staff enable children to work within, based on the theory of learning that identifies stretch as a place where we challenge ourselves mentally, emotionally or physically but remain in control.

As with all the learning initiatives across Inspire, the stretch zone is based on robust research evidence, and provides challenge and support hand-in-hand, enabling teachers and the children to assess the depth of learning.

It ensures that regardless of the complexity of the content, that children are always striving to achieve, and their reflections demonstrate a profound understanding of what this means to them. They support one another, challenge through questioning and feedback that encourages their peers to take the next steps and seek ways to manage their own learning.

Inspire schools walk-the-walk when demonstrating how open minded the learning process should be. Teachers use “Learning Hubs” within the school: bare classroom spaces which act as Research & Development zones for teachers to try-out new methods and practices (with moveable furniture, green screen areas, and flexible IT provision).

Particularly for children who find accessing written text difficult, Inspire schools have been trialling the use of video feedback as a form of flipped learning. Children and teachers assess previous learning and record feedback verbally as well as through visual/digital annotations and demonstrations. This one-to-one feedback from teacher to child has provided a huge boost for children as they review work mid-process or as they begin a new lesson.

Libraries and book spaces at Inspire follow a “Discovery Centre” approach. There are five separate discovery areas around the school rather than one huge central library, and each with a theme bringing cohesion to the materials available. These include Krypton, The Globe (pictured above), Wonderland and Gryffindor. They all provide unique learning spaces, resourced with books and IT provision. The books are complemented with sensory experiences (smells, feely bags, sound effects on headphones and activities) that act as extensions of featured texts.

Outdoors, the reading spaces, a stage and the natural Holly Wood area all provide a stimulus for re-enacting the projects, enlivening minds and encouraging learners to explore their imaginations through the natural environment.

At Inspire, pages of the School Improvement Plan are displayed around the staff areas of the school (including on the back of the staff toilet door) – with a powerful message: “How can I, in my role, contribute to this aspect of the SIP?” As well as ensuring everyone is aware of the SIP priorities and actions, this method of engaging adults is important in providing the “little and often” reminders about how each and every individual has a role to play in whole-school improvement.

Questions for your own school

  • Think about the restrictions that might be preventing staff from being more innovative or experimenting – what can you do practically to liberate your staff?
  • At your school, what could you do to provide more effective feedback for children who find accessing teachers’ written marking a barrier?
  • Consider how you could use the texts in your book corners, reading areas and libraries as a starting point for a more sensory experience; how can you bring the books alive for children beyond the words that they read?

Championing the process of learning

It is all too easy, particularly with the current accountability frameworks and political expectations, to focus on the attainment and outcomes of children’s learning. However, as education professionals, we all know that it’s the process of learning that really matters, and which will equip our children to succeed in their wider lives outside and beyond school.

A significant aspect of this is about “Language for Learning” – how we use words and phrases within teaching, learning, leadership and everyday communications. The children and staff at Inspire schools have a shared language, with learning values embedded in every interaction, written and spoken, as well as forming the starting point for actions such as feedback, dispute resolution, professional development and parental engagement. Some great examples of this in practice include the following.

Learning Journeys are used to prompt learning as well as celebrate it. Project plans are explicitly displayed with place-holders such as “What more will I find out about…?” and “I can’t wait to share…”. Children actively use these within lessons so that they always have a clear view of what is coming and how it relates to the past, current and future learning activities.

Classroom walls are used as an extension of children’s work. Floor to ceiling “write-on walls” are being used by teachers and children to model, calculate, reflect, prompt, nurture, mark, support, feedback and challenge. The contents are all handwritten and change with the flow of learning, such that the room evolves as the learning progresses and each step is captured so that there is a continuum regardless of subject, content or skill level.

There is a clear focus on the construction of learning with children able to articulate how they develop – from Apprentice to Journeyman, Secure Learner and then Master. Learning is an active, contextualised process of constructing knowledge rather than acquiring it. Learners continuously test their strength by applied problem-solving at each step, or wrangle with a hypotheses in their reading, and it becomes a process of social negotiation.

Colour-coded learning is used where simple practical elements of classroom practice are used to support Assessment for Learning. For example, children undertake applied tasks in mathematics on yellow paper which gives a clear view on their progress and the extent to which they have accelerated their learning. This form of differentiation is not colour-coded subject outcomes or task management, but to do with the process of learning and the learning skills themselves.

Children tidy their books away in different piles according to where they think their learning is up to at the end of a particular session – a personal affirmation of their progress as well as providing a clear view for the teacher on children’s confidence with an aspect of learning to complement marking and feedback.

As Mandy Hooper, the director of teaching and learning, told me: “The greatest impact has been that leaders are able to carry out work scrutinies with greater ease; evidence of achievement is clearly signposted and progress is absolutely clear, rather than needing to go hunting through books, which means that we can really focus on what will most improve future learning.”

Elsewhere, teachers prepare video clips that expound the learning process so that children can view them at home. This enables parents to share in the learning too and model the language and practice of the classroom. Fluency in reading has increased through this technology as children love to read along with their teacher while sitting at the kitchen table.

Videos are also being explored through a blended learning approach. Children can use the IT-rich classrooms to revisit learning strategies with peers to develop a deeper sense of how learning works for a particular construct before practising for themselves. It encourages independence and a sense of collegiality among learners who then engage in a learning dialogue that supports the growth of understanding.

The beating heart of the school family

Children hold leadership roles across the schools – guiding learning within their classes and across year groups, supporting and challenging staff leaders and governors, enabling others as Learning Guides, and making real decisions about how their school develops.

Inspire has travelled far beyond the “student voice” practices of yesteryear – you won’t find chatty school councils talking about playground equipment and toilets here. Instead, they have educated and empowered these children to understand what leadership really looks like, how to make tough decisions that affect different people in different ways, and how to talk effectively as a team to find solutions to real and challenging school issues. As a result the children have developed lifelong learning skills such as negotiating, presenting, conflict resolution, debating, empathising and rationalising.

Ms Lowe talks about staff working collaboratively across schools – sharing expertise, building aspirations, covering for absences and solving tricky practical problems. The research community at Inspire leads the way for others, working with universities and international figures such as Professor John Hattie, reflecting their belief that learning is a passion not just for the children, but for the staff too.

Complementing the approaches that are in place for children, the Inspire staff are championed by their executive principal to lead national training, try out pioneering teaching practices and research innovative approaches.

Across the Trust, Ms Lowe is growing a kind of Inspire Family Tree, with each generation of children and adults supporting each other. If you have ever wondered what that saying of “It takes a village to educate a child” looks like in practice in a primary school, you might want to pay a visit.

  • Fiona Aubrey-Smith is director of One Life Learning, sits on the board of a number of MATs, and is vice-chair of governors for a maintained primary school. Email her via

Further information

Inspire Learning Federation:

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