09 May 2023

Monday Briefing 9th May 2023: Back chat

principal, teacher, college

Ealing Independent College is in a privileged position to be part of Bellevue Education. Firstly, crucial support is in place in terms of governance for me as Principal. Though all schools have governing boards, not all can call on the wealth of experience provided by a former headteacher, always on hand to offer advice, guidance and support. In addition, termly Heads’ meetings allow leaders across 21 schools to collaborate in order to strengthen the group as a whole - to unify behind a goal of sharing expertise to help one another develop. Perhaps the most impactful tool which Bellevue employs is the Learning Review, something which has been refined carefully this academic year, incorporating the reformed ‘CODE’ structure for teaching and learning, one of those unifying goals referenced above.


EIC welcomed a team led by Sam Selby, a former Headteacher and Education Director with Bellevue since 2016, and featuring Dan Wignall, a Science specialist at Sherfield School, close to Basingstoke and Jonathan Collins, a Mathematics practitioner at Holmwood House School near Colchester. Tasked with looking into how far the College has developed the goal of empowering students to take the lead in their own learning by developing their own questioning skills in lessons, they carried out learning walks, interviewed staff and students from across the College community. The goal was to calibrate our findings. We are fully aware that we are in the infancy of this drive, and, within this context and in congruence with the desire to question well, it was vital to find out two things:

-How could we identify whether this was the right approach? 

-How could we disseminate the successful instances of integration, so that we could maximise the impact of the initiative?

It was great to receive the report last week, following initial feedback which gave important affirmation of our plans. 

I think that when one welcomes visitors to the College, the instinct is to have a deep desire that those visitors feel that their time here was a positive experience: that they felt the warmth which I know permeates the College; that they understand the cohesive nature of the staff body, which strives diligently to move students forward; that they grasp how far the students who enrol here have grown, both academically and in confidence since they committed to the ethos here.

I needn’t have worried.

With the report being complimented by a message thanking the staff “for our hard work and making us (the review team) feel welcome at EIC for the Learning Review last week. It was a pleasure to be around the students and staff in such a calm  and productive atmosphere.”

There has been a great deal of outcry of late given negative press concerning the role of Ofsted as a review body which scrutinises school development. All that one can ask as a Principal is that the team who carry out the review takes the time to get ‘under the skin’ of the institution, with one key aim: to help the school find the means to improve.

They confirmed much of what I felt was understood as a leadership team, asserting that

“pupils are reflective and are willing to look closely at questions to see how they can improve. 

There is a culture of do and review and to analyse misconceptions and mistakes in order to progress. Teachers are focused on ensuring pupils’ outcomes in exams are strong, from both scaffolding and supporting responses and there is an ethic of ‘we know why we’re here’ both from students and teachers.”

I’ve had two meetings with prospective parents this week, and both were forthright in complimenting the ‘quiet purpose’ of everyone involved at EIC. I understand very well that the success we enjoy occurs through the strength of the relationships we seek to build.

The assertion that “relationships between teacher and student have promoted confidence in being able to respond to direct questioning. This has led to many students becoming actively involved and engaged in the lesson. Students spoke of the encouraging atmosphere created by teachers, and the support given whenever required. Students feel motivated to succeed, with staff investment evident to all students interviewed” ensures a sense of pleasure in the fact that we are certainly on the right path in what we do.

Several students come to us somewhat lost in their approach to education. That the review team reported pleasingly of their “high expectations of their own attainment and true willingness to adapt their learning style to incorporate questioning.” makes me immensely proud. Extending this by asserting that “Students feel that the college is very supportive and enables them to feel confident to ask questions if they need support or help and teachers are clearly invested in them doing well. Across the board we saw students who were willing and on the whole the pastoral work to get them to a place of confidence in their learning is solid” leaves me delighted. 

Teachers obviously need to be on board to ensure that such drives are integrated successfully, and implementing effective staff CPD is not an easy task. With this in mind, it was excellent to hear that teachers at the College “felt that they had opportunities for Professional Development around the school’s focus. They thought it had been well led and they could interpret it in a way that gave them autonomy. Staff shared ways in which they have built student questioning into their classrooms including memorable learning linked to their practice. A number of staff felt it would be prudent to keep the focus of pupil-led questioning into next year.”

And we certainly will.

It is critical that we consider next steps whilst acknowledging progress made. We have come far, certainly within the context of the varied student body we have, and bringing them together as one, but thought provoking suggestions of the next steps are most welcome in sustaining momentum. A school should never rest on its laurels.

One piece of guidance stands out for me:

“With that in mind, we felt that there could be more opportunity for students to take risks and take the lead. There is no reason for the teachers not to take risks, as students see where this is effective and their progress is made.” 

This makes it clear to me that we should not doubt the destination we have in mind - and our small class sizes, led by experienced and innovative staff, grounded in a supportive and empowering environment can truly embed a system akin to the Harkness Approach. It is a simple concept: Twelve students and one teacher sit around an oval table and discuss the subject at hand. What happens at the table (and the table is not a must in this, just the layout), however, is, as Harkness intended, a “real revolution.” It’s where you explore ideas as a group, developing the courage to speak, the compassion to listen and the empathy to understand as every voice is important. It’s a collaborative approach to problem solving and learning which depends on trust and a knowledge of how best to structure critical thought through questioning, reasoning and reflection. 

The hard won trust is there - that much is clear. What we need to do now is to develop our approach in order to maximise student understanding and deployment of the skills they need to make the very best of what the approach has to offer.

The point we find ourselves at in this journey is extremely exciting, and the review provided a vital ‘health-check’ in bringing realisation of what could potentially be done next.

Sam and her team closed the report by explaining that: “I hope that the report celebrates the work that you are doing with the students to help them develop, as well as some useful points to consider and move forward with. I know that all of us also took things away from what you do at EIC, too and that’s the power of such a collegiate approach to LR.”

It’s important to me that we contribute to Bellevue as part of the group: to the discourse around what makes a student the best learner he or she can be; to discussions around how best to develop staff so that they feel autonomous whilst contributing to a united purpose; to demonstrate approaches which can facilitate growth in our own distinctive way.

It’s wonderful to see these contributions grow.

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