The Wonder of Willingham…

No, not THAT Willingham, for once – but Willingham Primary School in Cambridgeshire!

We’ve been lucky enough to benefit before from the lessons they’ve learned in recent times – with not one but TWO blogs about their art curriculum.

However, there is a lot more to the school than their (brilliant) art, so we asked their Head, Dave Morel, to tell us a bit more about the journey that he’s taking the school on…

The school:

Willingham Primary School is a medium-sized school and pre-school in Cambridgeshire. The school was judged as Requiring Improvement in December 2015 and then judged Good in January 2018. The school began its Knowledge-Rich – memory-based learning journey just 4 days before the last Ofsted and has now been on that path for 5 terms.

There are currently around 300 children on the roll in the school and around 50 enrolled in the pre-school. The school’s academic outcomes have not been below average for some time in terms of attainment and progress and across phases. However, in 2019 the school achieved 81% GLD for EYFS and 91% pass rate in the Y1 phonics screening check.

The area:

The school is situated in the rural outskirts of Cambridge and serves and ever-more diverse community. Pupil Premium numbers are relatively low at 16%.

The people:

Dave Morel became head in January 2018, having previously been Deputy Headteacher at Cottenham Primary School where, with James Kilsby (Headteacher), he had begun to implement a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum over the previous few years. As a psychology graduate, Dave believes passionately in the power of using what’s known about Cognitive Pyschology and how memory works to transform pupils’ lives through teaching a clear and cogent curriculum. Dave spoke at the PTE Wonder Years Conference earlier this year about a knowledge-rich art curriculum, which he believes Willingham has the best example of in the country (a bold claim, but one that is difficult to argue with when you see the outcomes that the pupils achieve).

Q & A

How did you seek to make an immediate impact in the school?

The first thing that I wanted to change was the culture and ethos in the school. By giving the teachers the understanding of basic principles of cognitive psychology, it empowered everyone to look at what we were doing and why we were doing it. This led to some pretty dramatic and swift changes in teaching style and a far stronger emphasis on knowledge across all subjects. The first term’s worth of PD sessions (weekly) were almost entirely dedicated to me teaching the staff about what learning was defined as within psychology (a relatively permanent change in Long Term Memory (LTM)) and about cognitive models of Working Memory (WM); the limitations of our WMs and how we can adapt our curriculum and pedagogies to reflect what we know.

I also thought that we’d just be able to pick up the curriculum that we’d created at Cottenham and implement it here, with a few tweaks, but quickly realised that part of ensure that staff can deliver what your aiming for, means that there has to be a cultural understanding of what this – an investment in building it – it’s taken a lot longer than I thought it might and we’re now 5 terms into a revised 15 term plan.

What do you do to maintain pupil and staff wellbeing?

The biggest thing that we do, and something that the staff believe sets us apart, is that we always spend time considering what we do and why we do it. It’s becoming part of the culture that we question everything and use a simple litmus test whenever we do so – will it improve the pupils’ outcomes. I know most schools would say they do this, but we’ll discuss the science behind it and the staff know that if I can’t give a clear and evidenced answer if they ask why they have to do something, then they don’t have to do it. To be honest this doesn’t tend to happen though as we will have spent PD time considering the cognitive science and how to apply it before we change anything anyway.

For teachers, I’d suggest that more than reducing workload per se, we’ve reduced ‘pointless’ workload so that teachers, for example, can spend less time marking books (we don’t) and more time designing and sequencing their lessons. Some things that we’ve introduced takes more time, but when people understand why it might work, they are more eager to do it – one of the school values is ‘Hard Work’ and the staff definitely embody that value.

The school is a positive and happy place; 100% of staff say that then enjoy working at the school – with enjoyment and alignment to what we’re doing, I believe that wellbeing can be maintained.

What have you done to curb bad behaviour?

We have just kicked off the new academic year with a new Behaviour Curriculum and, although it’s early days, I can genuinely say I’ve been amazed at the initial results.

The school’s previous behaviour policy was heavily focussed on the use of a restorative approach – in itself a noble and well considered idea. However, pupils, parents and staff all had an issue with certain aspects of the approach and I felt strongly that the culture in the school could be further enhanced with a slightly more radical approach. So now, we have a behaviour curriculum that is split in 2 parts. The Self-regulation section develops character, educates and supports pupils in becoming great human beings. We have an Emotional Support Assistant working 35 hours a week, whose sole role is to ensure that the mental health and wellbeing of the pupils is as good as it can be. We have a house system that we are promoting to develop our pupils strong sense of community and family – pupils are placed in Houses in EYFS and will stay in that same House throughout secondary school if they choose to attend our catchment college. We have 3 times daily ‘Appreciations’ after morning, lunch and afternoon break line up to celebrate successes and ensure that the positive messages are over-communicated. And the pupils line up with their right hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them before a final whistle so that they are not in each other’s ‘intimate’ space – unsurprisingly, we haven’t had a single issue in the line ups since introducing this. Later this year we will be trialling and moving towards family dining to continue to develop this culture. We continue to use a variety of restorative discussions and actions to focus on ‘making this things better’ when pupils behave badly, but only when any victims are happy to be part of the action and only after an appropriate sanction has been agreed.

The second part of the curriculum focuses on behaviour management, pure and simple. We have gone into serious detail to set the expectations of how pupils line up, how the walk (silently) down corridors, how they stand behind their chairs, how we line up, how we answer questions in sentences, and how we sit. We reset after every session, but the warm/strict approach has allowed us to reduce the noise levels across the school, resulting in a calmer environment and reduction on the cognitive load of our pupils. No class’s (or Headteacher’s) attention is distracted by another class walking past, indeed often you don’t even notice that they are passing your door. And yes, our EYFS pupils are managing perfectly happily. In fact, happy is a good word to describe it because the whole school is a happier place as a result of the clarity and consistency in expectations.

How important is the focus on knowledge in the curriculum to everything you do?

It’s the foundation. The knowledge-rich curriculum is the only way (I believe) to ensure that the principles of cognitive psychology are enacted the school. You can’t create from nothing, but creativity is a desirable goal. As is analysis and problem solving. The problem is that all these things happen in the WM otherwise you’re just remembering – and the WM is easily overloaded. So, knowledge is the foundation, the hack, the only way to release a pupils’ potential. You can’t build a Lego model of the Taj Mahal without any Lego bricks.

What is your extra-curricular offering? Do all pupils participate, and if so how?

We took part in over 60 competitive out of school sporting events last year and every one of our KS2 pupils competed at some point in the year. The events ranged from football to adaptive curling and from orienteering to archery. We are, this year, implementing a SHINE programme for our Year 6 pupils to celebrate their extra-curricular successes; just like the House system, if our pupils achieve their Bronze award with us, they can go onto achieve their silver, gold and platinum awards at our catchment secondary school.

We have knitting clubs, dance clubs, a choir, an eco-club, and any number of other opportunities for our pupils to develop in a broad range of subjects. We have a mantra that at Willingham Primary School, we just keep getting better so that we become the best versions of ourselves.

What next?

We will continue to unashamedly steal ideas from other schools (Cottenham Primary School, Dixons Trinity Academy, Bedford Free School to name but 3) and continue to develop our culture; what we do here. We are currently rolling out a new English Curriculum based on brilliant works of literature and a new History Curriculum that will support our pupils in the disciplinary skill of essay writing and develop both detailed and longitudinal substantive knowledge that is well-sequenced and cogently planned. We are implementing a new Maths fluency curriculum and contuining to work on memory-rich pedagogies We are empowering and developing our subject leaders by getting them to work with fantastic curriculum thinkers that we brazenly beg to help us improve and once we’ve done what we’re working on, we’ll start the next bit. It’s never finished, nothing’s perfect and that’s why we do the job.