Fostering a learning culture to future-proof our young learners

Elizabeth Winton, head of Amherst Preparatory School, discusses the importance of learning cultures that focus on building core skills from communication and language development, to confidence and other social skills

I wasn’t surprised to read in Ofsted’s recent report that the pandemic has affected young children’s communication and language development. Language-rich environments, improving school libraries, Talk4Writing and all manner of other whole school projects, interventions and ideas are jargon that many of us will be familiar with and have been talking about for some time.

Working in the independent sector, I feel very fortunate to have been able to provide online learning for children of all ages, including daily live virtual phonics lessons for our youngest pupils – right from day one of the pandemic in 2020. However, while I am not pretending that the time away from school did not impact academically on the pupils in our care, I was very aware that the thing we needed most to focus on, upon their return to school, was the children’s personal social and emotional development.

The importance of soft skills

I believe that there may be fundamental errors in our sector if we cannot get prep-aged children working to where they should be academically by the age of 16, ready for their GCSEs. But the ‘soft’ skills that you pick up through modelling, osmosis and practice – from sharing and waiting your turn to build resilience and understanding the rewards of effort – are even more important because they are so hard to develop later on if you have not acquired them during these formative years.

We practise ‘process praise’ and are passionate believers that all children, regardless of their academic profile, can and should feel success

For us, the heart of ‘Minerva’ – our learning culture, aptly named after the Roman Goddess of Wisdom – is the conscious effort to ensure that all our pupils have plenty of opportunity to experience and practise these ‘soft’ life skills both explicitly and implicitly.

But for academics like myself and others, the question we have to ask is what is going to make the biggest impact? Is it extending the school day? Is it providing tutors for younger children? In my opinion, I don’t believe either of these two responses fulfils the required needs of our pupils today. Instead, ensuring they have access to a broad and rich curriculum that develops confidence, a growth mindset and skills that will last them a lifetime are the true ways to support improving attainment, while helping to future-proof those individuals to be valued members of society.

Perhaps most importantly, I have real hope that this will ensure that our pupils have a broad palette of EI (emotional intelligence) that will make them successful in whomever and whatever they choose to become.

Challenge and reward

Amherst School is a through-school, which means that we have pupils from the ages of 4 to 18 on our pupil roll, and this presents both a challenge and reward. The preparatory school very much views itself as that: preparing the pupils for the next stage of their education to ensure that they achieve their best long-term. Working with and alongside teachers who are senior-trained often leads to rich discussions on pedagogy and, I would recommend that, if you don’t have a close working relationship with a senior school, it is a collaboration that can bear much fruit. Our aim is that, as a 4–18 school, the infamous key stage 3 ‘drop-off’ should be non-existent for our pupils.

We also seek to ensure that our children do not view themselves as competing against anyone but themselves. And, in a similar vein, we practise ‘process praise’ and are passionate believers that all children, regardless of their academic profile, can and should feel success.

However, success must be earned and pupils are now well-versed in the understanding that if learning isn’t a little difficult, then it isn’t learning. Equally, there is a place for memorising things; training our brains to hold information is something that takes practice – embedding these habits at prep age means that all of this becomes, hopefully, second nature by the time these children are facing challenges such as GCSEs and other real-life hurdles.

‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’

As a school, we very much adhere to Peter Drucker’s statement, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” For us, culture and environment have been a large focus over the last year. The pandemic gave us the opportunity to ‘relaunch’ in this regard. The culture of the school from a staff perspective is a vital part of this; I want our children to see staff who know them – a staff body who are real humans (which means we do sometimes get things wrong even though we were trying to make things better) and who enjoy their work. This is possible if we model in our daily lives all that we want to see from our pupils – a willingness to try, openness to feedback for development, a habit of collaboration and a sense of joy.

The Reggio Emilia approach of the classroom, or ‘environment being the third teacher’, is a familiar one for many EYFS teachers (Early Years Foundation Stage) and so much good practice can be found by stepping in and observing the youngest pupils at their business of play. For us, classrooms are our pupils’ environments and should provide the tools needed for learning. It is vital that our young learners can independently access books and other resources related to the work being studied, make use of working walls and work within a space that celebrates success.

Pupils are now well-versed in the understanding that if learning isn’t a little difficult, then it isn’t learning

We are also in the process of revitalising our playground, seeking plenty of pupil feedback about their ambitions for the look, feel and use of the space. Pre-prep and preparatory pupils are regular attendees of Forest School. Extending the creativity of our pupils’ play experience and using many of the Forest School principles on an even more frequent basis is a key focus for us. I still often wonder if we don’t prioritise play enough in our education system when the benefits of it are so clear, and I hope to see this attitude more widely adopted in the sector in the future.

For Amherst Prep, in particular, I will be closely monitoring and tracking the impact that this development has over the course of the next 18 months to see if we need to further change our curriculum design to better suit our young learners.

The pandemic, undoubtedly, had an impact on us all, and some of the effects will be felt for years to come. What I can see from my experiences at Amherst is that our pupils are happy, that they are putting in effort every day and that each one of them gets to celebrate frequent personal milestones of success. After the last two years, these are achievements that should not be taken for granted.

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