Schools share their expertise...

24th July 2009 at 01:00
.and take star qualities to the next stage

News of Welsh education's best-kept secret - the school effectiveness framework - is spreading as those in the trial project polish up their act

Elliot Phillips has ambitions to become Assembly Member for Merthyr Tydfil. But for now, the Year 5 pupil is busy helping his school to strive for perfection.

Elliot is living proof that the school effectiveness framework (SEF), a government plan to raise flagging academic achievement in Wales through the sharing of good practice, is for real.

As team leader of a group known as Space Buddies, he has been asked to consider, along with like-minded peers from five other schools in the neighbouring county of Caerphilly, a very salient question: what exactly makes a school effective?

In similar meetings, teachers in the SEF network have been asking the same thing with one common goal: to ensure their school has the best teaching practice for their pupils.

SEF has been called "Wales's best kept secret" as little is known about its progress in those schools taking part in the pilot scheme.

The Assembly government announced earlier this month that the framework would be compulsory in all schools in Wales from September 2010, but trials are already under way in almost 100.

In these schools, the simple idea to communicate and share best practice between heads, teachers and pupils across local authority boundaries is working wonders.

Teachers and children from various schools are starting to control their own destinies and co-construct a first-class curriculum by using the best practice gleaned from other schools as part of the effectiveness network.

At Twynyrodyn Primary, two days a week - Magical Mondays and Fun Fridays - are now set aside for learning outside the set timetable.

The children cherish these days because they own them. Network members at different schools share ideas on Wiki space and a pupil messenger board.

Twynyrodyn pupils are also keen on "pair and share", in which children respond to teachers' questions as a group rather than putting their hands up to answer.

Under Michelle Jones, headteacher of Twynyrodyn and Assembly government SEF associate, the school has found itself at the forefront of a revolution in which traditional standalone schools and teachers spoon-fed by local authorities will soon be confined to the history books.

Michael Fullan, a leading authority on school effectiveness, has offered his services after hearing of the school's success, and plans to visit the school next May.

The special adviser to the premier and minister of education in Ontario, Canada, is the pioneer of tri-level reform - the quest for government, local authorities and schools to work together to share ideas in order to perform better.

Steve Marshall, the former director of the department for children, education, lifelong learning and skills (Dcells), based the effectiveness framework on Professor Fullan's writing, but in the early stages it was largely government dogma. Teachers were initially sceptical.

Only now, in schools such as Twynyrodyn, is this system being given a lease of life and finding favour across the profession.

Teachers from the network regularly sit around a table to share their expertise and learn from each other. Those involved decided to focus on peer and self-assessment, an area that all schools in the network were keen to develop.

At the beginning of the year, Ms Jones enlisted the support of Alma Harris, pro-director of leadership development at London University's Institute of Education.

An expert in distributive leadership, Professor Harris told TES Cymru: "The SEF may seem like the best-kept secret in Wales, but it has the potential to put Wales at the top of international league tables.

"The SEF is based on the best evidence we have about how to raise educational attainment for all young people in all contexts.

"It is more than just a framework: it is a catalyst for transforming teaching and learning in the principality; it is a means of securing higher standards and higher performance. This is a real opportunity to lift performance in our schools and classrooms to new heights."

Distributive leadership was the reason why pupils at Twynyrodyn were able to take charge of their end-of-term presentation day last week.

Dubbed "Twynwood" - a twist on Hollywood - children received "Oscars" and the teachers were encouraged to "glam up" as their big-screen idols.

According to Ms Jones, SEF is all about putting children first.

"A phrase I reiterate day in, day out is `children first'," she said. "At the heart of SEF is pupil wellbeing and improved outcomes for all children in Wales.

"The SEF has the potential to be the most important policy that affects the lives of children in Wales. It has the ability to bring about tri- level reform for real."

Ms Jones's role is all-consuming, but in her absence deputy head Elaine Murphy is more than prepared to take charge, along with the school's two assistant heads.

"I believe distributive leadership - including pupil participation - is a major strength of the school and we have shared this knowledge with the SEF pilot schools," Ms Jones said.

"We are also a `thinking school' - all staff have been engaged in research to develop thinking skills from nursery to Year 6. However, the biggest thing we have shared with the other schools in the project is our openness and willingness to share our expertise.

"We are frequently visited by schools from all over Wales and England who comment on the outstanding practice of the school and the sense of close teamwork they observe."

Ms Jones was keen to point out that there had been no resentment about her presence in other schools and notes that the sharing of good practice was mutually welcomed.

She has recorded a DVD to help schools around Wales to be better informed about the SEF and its possibilities under her associate approach. Some areas of Wales fall under a consortium.

Paul Samuel, head of Cwm Ifor Primary and also part of the network, appears on the DVD to talk about his school's advances.

Cwm Ifor now organises learning walks in which visitors are taken around classrooms to see good work in progress. There is also a greater focus now on teachers' professional development, and more time and resources have been found so that staff can carry out their own research.

When it was launched, critics said there was not enough money for SEF to succeed, but Ms Jones believes the framework must become self- sustaining.

"It must be considered how other sources of funding could be realigned to support the workings of SEF," she said.

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