Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Not right (angled)

One last insight from Leigh Technology Academy was this:
so many of the schools we have seen that are leaping forwards in ambition and performance have a certain "wow factor" when you walk in - it is part of the self esteem growth that you always see in the students. A big part of that  "wow factor" comes from an absence of what the US calls "cells and bells" - the ld boxes of the factory school era.

Not only are the tiny boxes missing (Leigh Technology Academy teaches a lot of classes in groups of 60 in big spaces, but with three or sometimes four adults present) but one feature that stands out is the complete lack of right angles! It seems like a small thing in design terms but the impression it gives is of a series of interlinking agile spaces that are a very long way from boxes.

And watching the teaching and learning that results, reading the research too, it clearly works. Not that we will do everything we see and hear - but all these ideas do help to inform our Portland choices.

Human Scale

Being shown round the remarkable Leigh Technology Academy at Dartford today were headteachers from The Grove and Royal Manor Arts College who found much to confirm the directions we have taken with the new Portland institution.

Like others, and indeed like we will be, Leigh Technology Academy is subdivided into much smaller units. They call them Colleges - and these are very autonomous. They are schools in all but name, with their own heads and staff and a unique version of the overall uniform. We were shown round by two highly articulate young men, George and Josh - both head boys within their own Colleges (selected after a gruelling interview and presentation process!). Both told us so much that was useful - and had a pride in the whole institution that was quite remarkable, but well placed. They explained clearly how the smaller units led everyone to behave better, to be proud of their achievements, to support each other and it clearly lies at the heart of the amazing progress the whole institution is making. The colleges are mixed age, and in technology we heard confirmation of what George and Josh had told us: youngsters chase after the role models of older students who in turn respond so well, and work better, with the responsibility of helping the younger ones.

So many little surprises: we asked Josh about work experience - ah yes, he said, he'd done his in India. We asked if they did student lesson observations - yes they said, Ofsted have helped train us to know how to do them. In technology they were building Karts - how are they doing? we asked - to be told they were 4 od the nation's top 10. And so on. Amazing, but attainable. It really is all about ambition and detail. We only saw one item of litter - a can - but as soon as we saw it Josh picked it up and binned it. Pride indeed!

We took away a mass of those details - and they held onto one or two of our ideas too. This relationship with other successful institutions already a little way down the road we are following helps us to be clear about the decisions we make in developing our Portland institution. We caught up with Chief Executive Frank Green at the end of the tour - they have Ofsted tomorrow and he was relishing having them see the progress they had all made! Frank further helped us to understand the detailed processes that had worked so well for them before they got their new building.

So much detail to remember! But we will stay in touch with our friends at Leigh Technology Academy...

learning plazas

Second October visit for heads and governors of our participating schools was to New Line Academy in Maidstone. New Line have now begun their new building, but before they did they built a "learning Plaza" to explore large group teaching and then built another - with some extra help from Microsoft who were very interested in how effective these plazas were.

Once again a helpful and wonderfully articulate head told us so much about the journey they had enjoyed and what they had discovered on the way - including the effectiveness of these portable little seating tiers (which they call their bananas) which they designed but which were made in Dorset! Here we are sitting on them and having seen them in use with children it is remarkable how well they work at gaining the attention of a quite large group just by standing close up to them. But of course there is much more to New Line's new approach to learning than just bananas and they took us through the complexity of their whole process - every detail matters: these are shoe-off spaces for example, staff and children.

The school were very helpful too about the way that planning and organisation worked for a large triple-group of children who spend around half their timetabled lives in "their" plaza. The big story they had to report of course was about how their performance had improved and was still improving rapidly.

Learning from others

As we promised, we will be bringing the best ideas and "ingredients" for learning home to Portland to build our unique 'recipe" for learning, and that means seeing, sometimes, for ourselves what other like minded schools are doing. We learn from them.

Today heads and governors from our participating Portland schools visited the nearly-built (they move in in July 2010) St John's School in Gravesend. It was so encouraging to stand in an entirely corridor free school - and confirm just how much extra space it creates for learning, but also to stand inside the three separate  "Communities" where St John's children will spend most of their time - rather like out "home bases" or whatever we finally call them. And mixed age groupings are a big part of the learning evolution at St John's.

Best of all was to be able to hear headteacher A J Stanley and staff articulate their vision - and to hear how excited staff and children are about moving in. We were excited to see just how much space they had created with slightly less children than we have, but instead of feeling like a BIG school, the intimacy of their small communities, with their own learning spaces and children staying in them for much of the day really made it all feel very comfortingly human scale. Exactly what we are seeking.