On the day that I first met Lisa Hesmondhalgh, the headteacher of Peover Superior Primary School, she was pale, clearly tired and worried. A term after starting her first headship at this idyllic village school in the Cheshire countryside, Ofsted had rung. Two intense days later, the verdict was in: special measures.
This was the summer of 2014, and I was new in post as the director of literacy for the newly established Aspire Educational Trust, of which Peover Superior was a part. Lisa and I were about to embark on a difficult task: leading a truly evidence-informed approach to school improvement.
Anyone who has worked in a school in trouble knows how hard it is. It’s tough to have to face the view that what you are doing is inadequate. It is easy to criticise, condemn and wallow in “what ifs”. It’s even easier to be influenced by the myriad solutions and pieces of advice that get thrown at you.
This is where research can help. Used to guide decisions, research is a non-judgemental companion, an objective lens through which practices can be scrutinised. When you are following the evidence, the question becomes not “what should we do?” but “how should we do it here?” and then “how will we know what success looks like?”
Lisa and her team have truly championed this approach. So, how did we do it?
Step 1: Scrutinise what you already do
On my first visit to Peover Superior, I asked to see the materials that they were using to teach reading. In one classroom, I found a reading scheme – held together with Sellotape – that had been published in the 1960s. Neatly arranged in another cupboard were 10 lever-arch files containing short texts with lists of comprehension questions. Everything was ready for a fresh start immediately.
I took the reading scheme and the files, and chucked them away. The next day, I turned up with an assortment of books gathered from other schools in the trust, a collection of diagnostic assessments and an overview of the research about how to teach reading comprehension.
I spent the day working with children, analysing their difficulties and showing teachers how to administer some of the tests that I was using; Lisa and her team quickly became experts at using the York Assessment of Reading for Comprehension.
Step 2: Review research and select approaches to trial
Building in time for supportive CPD is really crucial when it comes to effective use of research, as you can’t expect staff to automatically be up to date on the latest research in a particular field.
At Peover, I led a session on reading comprehension, offered some practical advice on implementing a reciprocal reading approach, and gave the school a copy of Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension by Jane Oakhill, Kate Cain and Carsten Elbro, to give them the background knowledge they would need to make judgements about which strategies to implement.
We then went on to discuss not only what might be effective, but why. We looked at some of the assessments I had made of the children and highlighted the challenges for them in relation to the research we were discussing. It was hard; the gaps were clear.
The next day, all the teachers from Year 3 upwards started to trial new approaches, based on the research.
Step 3: Refine over time
Over the coming terms, we refined our new approaches, always coming back to the evidence, the assessments and the progress the children made. It was important to stay faithful to all the evidence and not just to the easy, palatable parts. Once these new approaches were established, we followed the same steps to begin to improve the teaching of writing and spelling.
We used research by Harris and Graham, publications from the What Works Clearinghouse in the US and the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) 2014 report Improving Writing Quality (bit.ly/ImprovingWritingEEF) to develop a cycle for teaching writing, again refined over time, which enabled the teachers to teach writing as a process, not an outcome.
Similar approaches to the teaching of spelling followed. We started with a review of how children learn to spell, informed by work by Morag Stuart and Rhona Stainthorp, Louisa Moats and Rebecca Treiman, and then analysed the spelling errors of the children who were finding it really hard. We looked for patterns, worked out the bits that were hard to learn and then returned to the research to look for pedagogies that might help. Over time, the teachers developed a toolkit of approaches they now regularly use, including teaching spelling through word sorts and word study, inspired by the work on morphology by Jeffrey Bowers.
The effectiveness of any changes to practice was measured by the effect on the children and continual reference to the research.
Step 4: Self-sustain
Finally, we moved on to handwriting. By this time, the Peover Superior team were becoming experts in translating evidence into practice. With this came an increasing self-reliance, a determination to succeed and a sense of self-efficacy.
A research-informed assessment of the children’s handwriting across the school was conducted, and the school team was able to set in motion a complete rejuvenation of the way they taught handwriting, which had an enormous impact.
It’s important to point out that this school-improvement journey isn’t something that has been “done to” the staff at Peover Superior. It is a journey they have embarked upon themselves. Teachers have been given opportunities to learn and to work together, to consider new ideas and to plan the steps needed to deliver and sustain changes – quite a challenge for a small school with a restricted budget. Without knowing it, they have embedded the cycle of school improvement highlighted by the EEF report Putting Evidence to Work: a school’s guide to implementation.
But what of Ofsted? Well, after two-and-a-half years of furious development, the school was ready for the inspectors to return. The team excelled as they shared the progress of the children, justifying their decisions with a depth of understanding built by their engagement with the research evidence. They explained what they do, for whom, when, how and why. Their dedication to doing the very best for the children shone through.
The new Ofsted verdict? “Outstanding” in all areas.
So, what made the difference? Apart from the sweat, grit, tears (plenty of those) and chocolate, the research evidence was, without a shadow of a doubt, what helped us to achieve this result. The published report was wonderful, a true validation of the dedication and skill the team at Peover possess.
You might think this was the end of the journey, but no. It is the start of a new one. With the wealth of research available at our fingertips from organisations such as the EEF and Institute for Effective Education, we have everything we need to sustain and spread evidence-informed approaches to school improvement even further.
And at Peover, we now have several more pairs of evidence-informed eyes to bring a fresh perspective to new challenges.
Onwards we go.
Megan Dixon is director of literacy at the Aspire Educational Trust