Kate Myers visits a very special school where everyone from the head down is regarded as a learner. Just as pupils' achievements at Addington School, Reading, are recorded in their records of achievement so do staff, from head to teacher assistants, use personal development portfolios to record their learning. Certificates, photographs, videos, witness testimonies and sometimes personal reflective pieces on professional practice and issues are all included.
Everything at Addington is geared to improving children's learning, with considerable emphasis on staff development and self evaluation. Sammie Armstrong, the head, wants the school to become self-inspecting. He believes OFSTED is a necessary mechanism but that an external, summative, four-yearly report is of limited use to a school. He also thinks that the system disempowers teachers and that it's time heads, teachers and pupils took more control of what is going on.
Every teacher and teacher assistant is consequently allocated eight days every year for their professional development; one-third for their subject responsibility, one-third for personal professional development and the other third for school evaluation. A topic is chosen for evaluation and two teachers, one classroom assistant and the quality assurance manager decide how to go about this task.
Jan Beats, a curriculum co-ordinator, was involved in the first exercise which looked at speaking and listening across the curriculum. They decided to look at group work and involved colleagues by asking them to video their own practice or offering to do so for them. Jan believes that evaluation exercises where the topic is identified by the school, carried out by the staff and seen as a continuous process in-built in the system, complements inspections.
She feels the school learned a lot from the exercise (including that they need to be more specific about the focus). She values the opportunities offered for her development regularly.
Zoe Meeson has been a teacher assistant at the school for six-and-a-half years and hopes to train as a teacher in the future. She appreciates being treated like a professional, expected to pull her weight, encouraged to go on courses and progress in her career. She likes the portfolio system and finds being part of the pilot peer appraisal scheme with another teacher assistant rewarding.
Addington focuses on pupils' attainment and assessment and emphasises putting them in charge of their own learning. National curriculum targets have been broken down so that progress is continually noted. In English, for instance, 21 different points are assessed between levels one and two. Individual targets are set for each child at an annual review and progress is assessed. Pupils are encouraged to reflect on and be proud of their achievements. Six-year-old James Trigg, about to move schools, patiently showed me the work he had helped his teacher collect to take to his new school and read me his contribution to his annual review. From an early age pupils are invited to contribute andor attend these reviews.
Parents are seen as important partners. As well as being invited in for informal coffee mornings, each term they discuss a programme and targets with their child's tutor and agree what is appropriate to do at home.
As the pupils get older and involved in this process themselves, parents are sent the individual programmes in the core subjects, humanities, art and design, and personal and social development.
For Jeanette Nettleton, the secondary curriculum development leader, this means completing 53 programmes each term in her own subject of science, and 12 for her tutor group in personal and social development. It is time-consuming but the pay-off in parental support and involvement makes it well worth the effort, she says.
Eighteen year-old Nicola Maxwell - one of the Addington 210 pupils with a wide range of learning difficulties including emotional, profound and multiple learning difficulties - proudly showed me her record of achievement portfolio which includes photos of her at her work experience placement in Shire Hall. She explained the importance of witness statements in this record and how she had gone about getting hers.
Addington's vision statement says there are "no limits to the improvements we can bring about". Mainstream schools could learn a lot from very special schools such as Addington.
Kate Myers is an associate director of the International School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre, Institute of Education, University of London, and co-ordinates its school improvement network