Bright idea? Stick it on the wall

Name: Barnwell school School type: 11-18 comprehensive Improved results: from 20 per cent of pupils gaining five or more A* - C grade GCSEs in 2002 to 44 per cent in 2004.

Percentage of pupils eligible for free meals: 13 per cent

A school reversed itself out of a dead end with a novel way of sharing good practice. Martin Whittaker reports

In a corridor at Barnwell school is a fake brick wall covered in scribbled messages from teachers. But it is not there to help staff let off steam - it is to share good practice.

Whenever they successfully try out a new idea in the classroom or change their teaching style to suit a student, they jot the experience down on cards, colour-coded for each department, and stick it on the wall.

There is barely an inch of space left as they vie with one another to put up notes.

This began two years ago as research for one teacher's Masters degree.

Jackie Johnson, an advanced skills teacher (AST) and the school's head of PE, wanted to explore how differentiated learning could help raise standards at Barnwell.

The approach has really motivated staff, she says. "All the time we have staff walking by and putting ideas up on the wall that you can then transfer to your classroom, so you're sharing good practice without having to go into each other's lessons."

Her project followed a decision by the school's leadership team to boost research and professional development among Barnwell's teachers. The decision has paid off, bringing a huge improvement in exam results.

Barnwell school is an 11-18 comprehensive in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. In the mid-1990s, when Richard Westergreen-Thorne became head, it was low on parents' lists of preferences compared with neighbouring secondary schools.

Today the school is a specialist business college and is oversubscribed.

The head says one of the school's biggest challenges has been boosting aspirations. Many local families are on low incomes and 13 per cent of pupils claim free school meals.

In its last inspection in 1999, the Office for Standards in Education said insufficient attention was paid to raising standards and ensuring that full account was taken of the learning needs of all pupils.

Its exam results were poor, hitting their lowest point in 2002 when only 20 per cent of pupils gained five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C.

But since then Barnwell has seen a dramatic improvement - this year 44 per cent of pupils gained five or more A* to Cs.

"We took the view that if you do what you've always done, you will get what you have always had," says Mr Westergreen-Thorne. "There was no point carrying on doing things the same way."

One change was to start a research and development group for teachers.

Subjects for research have included the school's assessment policy and rewards and sanctions, and research findings then go on to inform school policy. It has, for example, led to a policy change on marking.

Barnwell also links with Cambridge university to offer staff a Masters degree in education and a certificate of continuing professional development, which both involve action research in school. So far 20 teachers have taken the qualifications.

Mr Westergreen-Thorne believes these research and professional development opportunities have helped the school to keep good-quality teachers.

Unusually for a secondary school in the South-east, Barnwell has had no staff recruitment and retention problems.

Jackie Johnson has just completed her Masters. Her research was into profiling students' learning preferences and adapting teaching styles to suit them. She says another Hertfordshire secondary school had tried learning preference profiling, but it stalled because it was done by a teacher working in isolation.

At Barnwell it was run as a whole-school project, fitting into the infrastructure for staff research and professional development. And when Jackie asked for volunteers nearly all the staff stepped forward.

She and a group of fellow ASTs were given a reduced timetable to manage the project. All key stage 3 pupils were surveyed to identify their most and least-preferred styles of learning, and profiles were written down to highlight learning styles in each class.

Then teachers looked at how they taught. "You tend to find that teachers get comfortable with things they like doing," says Jackie Johnson. "This was about getting them to think again."

Students were also asked to fill out evaluation forms, asking which activities they liked and why, and what could be done differently.

"The students appreciated that the teachers were trying to help them. The project relied on dialogue between the student and teachers about learning."

Learning preference profiling is now used right across the school, and Hertfordshire education authority wants Barnwell to help promote it.

Mr Westergreen-Thorne says: "We wanted teachers to teach things differently, to take risks. And if people take risks we accept that things will go wrong.

"So if someone has a chaotic lesson on a Friday afternoon and it doesn't work, it doesn't matter because they have tried something different."

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