Trip Report: Cottenham Primary School

At PTE we like to visit schools up and down the country. We feel it’s important to get a feel of how schools work in certain areas, what unique challenges they face, and how they are doing great work in their own way. In turn, we want to highlight some case studies that show things that we’ve learned about how to run a great school, and what facets of that are replicable across England.

The school:

Cottenham Primary is a three-form entry primary school in Cambridgeshire, situated 5 miles northeast of Cambridge. They currently have around 550 pupils on our roll, and were judged ‘Good’ by Ofsted two years ago. They are in the third year of designing and delivering their knowledge-led curriculum, with the positive impact leading to the school being above the national average for all headline metrics from EYFS to KS2.

The area:

The school’s catchment area is a large village, with a population of 7000. Around 15% of their pupils receive the Pupil Premium, and they have 65 pupils on the SEND register. There has traditionally been a large number of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils at the site – as high as 9% of pupils two years ago – but this number has dropped since due to high mobility on Cottenham’s large traveller site.

The people:

Cottenham is run by the Headteacher James Kilsby, who has previously written a blog for us titled How an Ofsted Judgement Became the Catalyst in our Curriculum Journey. James describes his team as “a fantastic group… really committed to delivering on our curriculum vision. They are extremely hardworking, with an appetite to keep improving.”

Q & A – with James Kilsby

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

I spoke about this in my previous blog for PTE. I came in over a decade ago now, but it was only much later that I truly started to understand the importance of curricular development and all that comes with it.

What do you do to maintain pupil and staff wellbeing?

For both staff and pupils, I feel it is about keeping things as simple and as consistent as possible. Curriculum is king, and we consider every planned interaction that takes place in a pupil’s 7 years here to be a part of that. That includes things such as the PSHE programme, trips and visits, behaviour systems, assemblies, House Days – everything. Once this is acknowledged, consistency becomes a powerful driver for maintaining improvement, and promoting the wonderful sense of achievement that I believe is experienced by everyone involved with the school.

We have a number of high-needs pupils, and we work hard to ensure they can thrive within this curriculum. At times the provision for these pupils obviously must differ at times to what other pupils receive, including adapted timetables and specialised clubs, but we try to keep them included in the core curriculum wherever we can.

We also place a lot of emphasis on targeted professional development for our teachers. This has included sessions on maintaining and improving mental health (such as early morning staff fitness sessions, a weekend work embargo, and ring-fenced weekly professional development time). I believe this helps to contribute to our low rates of staff absenteeism and mobility, as well as a positive atmosphere at the school.

What have you done to curb bad behaviour?

We have a very clear behaviour policy, which is linked extremely closely to our curriculum aims, and promotes good behaviour at all times. Children are given a very clear message about the expectations we have of them, and how they will be required to endeavour to be the best version of themselves, to give something back, demonstrate great manners, and never give up. SLT members visit all classes on a daily basis to check on behaviour, supporting their colleagues in the process, and children who fall foul of the first step of sanctions lose time from their next break. Parents/carers are also informed of these occasions during any parent consultations.

More serious breaches of the policy lead to a potential range of sanctions, including fixed term exclusions. As a result there is a high standard of behaviour, with pupils demonstrating motivation and pride in all that they do.

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

It is at the centre of everything. There’s nothing else to say!

How important is creating the right culture, and how did you do this?

It’s vital, and it takes a lot of time to get right, involving many different elements, some of which I have discussed already. The most important thing is having a group of individuals who share one vision for the school.

On the teacher side, we are very targeted in our recruitment. Every person who looks to apply to one of our roles is asked to come visit the school first, and then I make time to have an individual chat with each of them. Then we ask for an application that specifically refers to what they saw and why they would fit in with us. We then ask them four key questions:

  1. Do you believe in the power of a knowledge-rich curriculum?
  2. Do you want to teach like a champion?
  3. Do you want to commit to being part of a group of incredibly hardworking individuals?
  4. Are you committed to your own professional development?

Increasingly, we are finding that more people are responding to this and to our wider approach. We still tend to get a small number of formal applicants for each role, but they are of an incredibly high quality.

The aforementioned focus on professional development means that teachers are, hopefully, feeling more empowered and in touch with their subject. Many now lead specific areas of professional development within their domains, and we are beginning to see some teaching assistants also play a role in curriculum design and delivery for their own areas of expertise.

We’re a pretty large primary, with around 30 teachers. They all work incredibly hard for the pupils, and to try and get to a position of deep understanding of both their own classroom practice and the ownership they have of their own curriculum domains. We map out what we want the pupils to know in their 7 years at our school, and then work backwards, setting where we want pupils to have progressed to at each stage; I think this makes it easier for teachers to look at things from a whole-school perspective rather than just their year group, which benefits us as well.

So, the culture is really defined by the curriculum, and how everyone – pupils and staff alike – engages with it. I think the school is in the best shape it’s ever been in now, and that is down to the culture the team has developed.

What is your extra-curricular offering?

We have a wide spread of clubs and activities that run before, during and after the school day. Some examples of clubs are triathlon, cross country, rugby, netball, dance, chess, computing, French, Lego, social lunches, art, piano, guitar and lunchtimes in the library. These clubs are attended by a large number of pupils, and where we can we pay for any fees that would be incurred for disadvantaged pupils through Pupil Premium funding. The Inclusion Lead for the school is very active in signposting pupils to specific clubs, and the PE Lead and SENCO are also highly aware of the need to ensure our most vulnerable pupils experience sport, leading to targeted sporting clubs and bespoke inter-school SEND competitions with some of our local schools.

How long do you think it will take to have the school where you want it to be? What are the next steps to getting there?

School improvement is a never-ending journey, and I love the challenge it presents. It precludes you from complacency or laziness; everyone can always improve.

That said, I’m delighted with where we are now. We recognise that our current challenge is being able to accurately judge the efficacy of our curriculum – and this is probably the biggest challenge for anyone implementing changes in their curriculum design. You need to do your homework: read extensively, shamelessly steal ideas from others, have a few sleepless nights and work with the team of teachers, TAs and governors around you to shape the school. Our model is still in the prototype phase, but I think it’s a pretty radical one, and I’m very excited about how it’s going to play out.