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The primary school where teachers are students, too

Why an East London head urges his staff to take master's degrees

It is past 4pm at Highlands Primary School, but learning has not quite finished for the day. At least, not for the teachers taking a master's degree in education, who are gathering for their weekly study session.

Among the teaching staff at the school in Ilford, East London, the vast majority (17 out of 24) are on the degree programme; another three are considering joining.

Directing the students to a nearby room - and dispensing Rich Tea biscuits - is headteacher Kulvarn Atwal, who is working towards a doctorate in how teachers learn and the impact this has on children.

To have so many teachers studying for postgraduate degrees is "unheard of", says Mr Atwal (pictured, left). He feels that all too often schools discourage staff from undertaking academic work. In fact, as a newly qualified teacher he worked towards his own master's "in secret", after sensing disapproval from senior colleagues.

Risks and rewards

The master's programme Mr Atwal has introduced at Highlands has links with the University of East London. Students include new teachers as well as those with many years of experience, and staff fund their degrees themselves with the help of a subsidy.

Explaining why he encourages so many of his employees to invest in their own learning, Mr Atwal says: "Our best practitioners in schools are those who are the most reflective, who engage with research, who innovate and take risks in their practice."

The head believes the school's approach to teacher learning has played an significant role in its growing reputation. He was invited to share his research with former schools minister David Laws, and Highlands is also attracting interest from educationalists overseas (see panel, left).

Mr Atwal thinks the programme has contributed to a rise in the school's Ofsted rating, from "requires improvement" when he joined in 2012 to "good" in 2014. The local authority, Redbridge, judged the primary to be "outstanding" after a visit in March, describing it as a "self-improving school which drives its own destiny".

Mr Atwal, who was once a pupil at Highlands, says of his leadership strategy: "Effort leads to success, not ability. I never put children in ability groups."

Today, the school has 705 pupils, most of whom speak English as an additional language.

Classroom doors are largely left open to reinforce Highlands' collaborative, informal approach to teacher learning. Mr Atwal compares this to the way he learned plastering skills from his father: by watching and picking up techniques that would have been difficult to master on his own.

The idea is for teachers to see lesson observations as an opportunity, rather than a threat.

"Often a teacher doesn't want to be collaborative, they don't want to be judged," Mr Atwal says. By contrast, he says he can go into any classroom and teachers "will just smile" - a claim borne out during the TES visit.

One teacher we pass in the hallway is on her way to interview a pupil for her master's research. She has arranged lesson cover with the office staff, who are authorised to take many decisions on Mr Atwal's behalf.

This approach stems from one of the head's earliest moves after taking on the role. He imposed a flat management structure, removing the tiers separating him from the rest of the teaching staff. This gives teachers more autonomy, as well as allowing him to spend a third of his time in the classroom.

`Anyone can teach better'

Pupils wave, chat to and occasionally embrace the ebullient head - including a sobbing boy who will shortly be leaving the school. "The fact that children come up and give me a hug is a sign they understand I care about them and their development," he says.

Mr Atwal adds that he would not tolerate any member of staff shouting at or intimidating a child. And he believes this softly-softly approach would also work in a school where more children had behavioural difficulties.

Equally, he would never sack a teacher whose skills needed improvement but who had a positive attitude. "Anyone who isn't teaching well enough can be helped to teach better if they're motivated to do it," he says.

But Mr Atwal fears that a narrow focus on inspection may be preventing other schools from adopting the same method. "Our education system doesn't either encourage or promote high-quality teacher learning," he says. "We've missed a trick, because the best education systems in the world invest in their teachers' education."

International interest

Highlands Primary School's efforts have attracted interest from around the globe.

In 2014-15 alone, the East London school played host to the entire teaching staff of an Oslo school, as well as officials and teachers from Amsterdam, Sweden, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In September, headteacher Kulvarn Atwal (pictured above) is flying to Oslo to work with the Norwegian government.

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