How research-based training transformed a whole school

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Date published 14 February 2023

Pennyhill Primary School has been on a determined journey to an Ofsted ‘good’. Michelle Williams, Deputy Headteacher, tells us how the Transforming Teaching programme helped their school become a hive of lively learning – both for children and staff.

It’s 5.00pm on a Monday evening. The classrooms are empty, the corridors quiet. But there’s a buzz of excited voices coming from the main hall. Over 70 teachers and teaching assistants are sharing ideas, trying out new ways of teaching, and remembering how good it feels to learn.

This is a fortnightly twilight training session, part of the Ambition Institute’s Transforming Teaching programme. The school started the programme in September 2019 when it required improvement. Four years later, the school is not only ‘good’ – it’s thriving.

The value of a whole school approach

“The school had been rated as ‘requiring improvement’ for a long time – before the head and I joined the school,” says Michelle. “So we knew that we needed to make a difference for the children. We have 650 on roll, many from disadvantaged backgrounds in the West Midlands, and they just weren’t getting what they needed.”

“We had to make whole school change, so it was really important that we had a whole school approach,” says Michelle. “And that’s why we really liked the Ambition programme. We’d tried other subject-specific training in the past, when staff would go away and learn something new. But bringing that back to embed into the whole school was always difficult.”

The programme felt collaborative right from the start. Michelle recalls how they took one of the Ambition Institute Transforming Teaching team on a learning walk round the school, to sense if they’d be the right fit. Right from that start, the staff were open in their thinking, and it felt like a partnership when choosing their three modules: science of learning; effective exposition – direct instruction; and principles of planning.

Randal Cremer_classroom portrait2

Getting whole school buy-in

For the programme to make a difference, all staff had to buy into it. A sense of collaboration and unwavering enthusiasm from the senior leadership team (SLT) helped to get everyone on board. Because everyone, from the headteacher, to the SLT, to teachers and teaching assistants, were all in the same boat and personally invested in it.

Having support staff complete the programme alongside teachers was powerful. Back in the classroom, if support staff were working with small groups of children, they’d be using the same strategies as teachers working with the whole class – bringing consistency and reinforcement to everything staff were learning.

And the whole school approach helped to build a strong collective belief in what they’re doing, as well as a renewed excitement for learning.

The impact of research-based learning

Transforming Teaching is based on the latest research and proven best practice. This had a big impact on staff, and rekindled an excitement about learning for many.

“Our tutor was Steve Walton. He was incredible and I can’t praise him enough. He was personable and hugely knowledgeable. I think that goes back to the programme being research-based. Because he knew the research, he was confident in what he taught us. And the staff picked up on that instantly.

“The teachers and teaching assistants were certainly helped to empower themselves, by listening and looking at the research. Some started buying research books themselves, something that they hadn’t done for a long time. It really sparked a lot of excitement, and a sense of being part of the bigger education picture.

“The science of learning is our bedrock now. We teach through our understanding of cognitive science and research. When Ofsted came in, even the children were able to explain to them all about retrieval and articulate how their working memory works. It’s that level of understanding that has made a huge difference to our teaching, and children’s learning.”


Modelling how to teach brilliantly

The way the programme was taught modelled the way teachers at Pennyhill now teach. For example, a training session would start with retrieval – reminding themselves of what they’d learnt the previous session and adjusting class content accordingly. This is now mirrored in the classroom.

“Steve would model the practice of expert effective teaching. He’d show us a next small step we could take to improve our teaching by modelling it to us, so we’d experience for ourselves how it felt to be taught in that way. We’d all know exactly what we were aiming for and how to achieve it, and had lots of time to practice it for ourselves. And because we knew the current research behind why that’s the best way to teach, it really made an impact. It was so exciting for everybody.”

This expert modelling continued into the training ‘teacher educators’ element of the programme, in which a small group (two teachers and two members of the SLT) learnt how best to support others with professional learning. This 1:1 support helps staff make granular changes, because small changes made quickly, make a bigger difference over the long term. For example, it might mean supporting a teacher with some quick techniques to help children transition easily from one activity to another.

The teacher educators are now helping the whole school to revisit the programme modules – refreshing everyone’s knowledge, and getting new members of staff up to speed.

A community of confident learners

“The programme helped us to completely shift our culture. Ofsted picked up on that and commented that − ‘Everyone loves to learn at Pennyhill Primary School’,” says Michelle. “Our school and staff are now confident, empowered and enlightened. Walk into the staffroom and you’ll overhear them talking about current research or retrieval practices and sharing what they’ve found works best in the classroom. They’re excited about teaching.

“And that filters through to the children. We’ve developed a climate for learning in which the children know its okay to make mistakes. They’re confident now, and they’ve bought into learning. They can talk not only about what they’re learning, but how they’re learning.

“I think we, as adults, came into this profession because we like to learn. And we understand that learning is the key to success. So we know that if we continue learning ourselves, that will bring us more success.

“Because education doesn't stop with children, does it.”

Visit our programme page to find out more about our Transforming Teaching programme.

Michelle Williams
Deputy Headteacher, Pennyhill Primary School

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