Healthy, happy relationships really begin in Early Years

Children’s learning about relationships, personal agency and emotional wellbeing is the responsibility of the whole community from infancy onwards, writes the Head of Junior School, Claire Boyd

It has been eighteen months since the Department of Education made the teaching of RSHE (relationships, sex and health education) statutory in all primary schools. Informed by a recognition that “today’s children and young people are growing up in an increasingly complex world and living their lives seamlessly on and offline”[1], it is now expected that, by the end of Year 6, children will be able to recognise diversity of family set-ups, appreciate the tenets of caring, respectful relationships and understand how to navigate life online safely. 

Following closely behind these changes to RSHE, Ofsted also published its Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges in June last year. A sobering read, the report found not only significant failings in the robustness of safeguarding frameworks in many schools, but also suggested that the teaching of Personal, Social & Health education frequently fell short of its intended purpose. The findings for girls were particularly concerning, with high numbers stating that they “do not want to talk about sexual abuse…even where their school encourages them to”, due to a fear of not being believed or being ostracised by their peers. Others worry about how adults will react and feel concerned that they will lose control of the situation in which they find themselves. Although most of the testimonies collected by the review focused on children of secondary age, children aged 11 and under were referenced as victims of sexual abuse and harassment in schools, often describing similar preoccupations as older girls about the implications of speaking up about their experiences.

Rising to the challenges

With these changes and recommendations from the DfE and Ofsted fresh in our minds, in the Junior School we have begun to evaluate the impact and efficacy of our approach to helping students navigate relationships. We are attempting to measure our success against broad and subjective statements, including whether a child is able “to recognise who to trust and who not to trust”, can “judge when a friendship is making them feel unhappy or uncomfortable”, and can “manage conflict [and] seek help or advice from others, if needed”[2].

Whilst there can be no doubt that high quality, systematic teaching of RSHE is imperative for twenty-first century schools, at WHS our reflections have led us to believe that real progress relies on much more than the rewriting of curricula and the upskilling of teachers on their safeguarding responsibilities.  Certainly, a nuanced, proactive approach – evident, for example, in the innovative Wimbledon Charter (the WHS-led response to Everyone’s Invited) – is urgently needed, and ultimately, sustainable and far-reaching change must start with the earliest childhood experiences.

A wholesale and deliberate realignment of how we – teachers, parents, families and communities – nurture our children from the Early Years onwards is essential. If the gold standard we want our young people to attain is self-knowledge that can be communicated with confidence and agency, then we must ensure we embed these skills in their everyday contexts from infancy. We must ensure that we place the principles of character development, emotional resilience and autonomous decision-making in the foreground of everything our children experience both at home and at school. This requires parents and teachers to fight the inevitable urge to smooth over and fix difficult situations for the children in our care. It means we must resist speaking on behalf of our young people, and must consciously fight against the gender biases related to the stereotypical behaviours of ‘troublesome boys and compliant girls’.

Schools as leaders and allies

Our ambition to release future generations from power imbalances such as those reported on by Ofsted depends on schools leading the way. Schools must support parents and families to engage, wholeheartedly, in giving agency to our girls to become comfortable with quiet assertiveness from a young age. We must prioritise opportunities to develop the skills which allow them to resolve conflict for themselves, even if this runs the risk of them experiencing some discomfort along the way. If our young children have not developed the voice to say no, to set their own boundaries and resolve the conflicts they have experienced during early childhood, how can we expect them to do so as teenagers and adults?

What our young people – and our girls in particular – require from us is the bravery to lead a step change; one that sees teachers and parents walking alongside them, coaching and empowering them to develop the resilience and character to be happy, successful and productive members of society.

[1] N.Zahawi, Department of Education, 2021, Statutory Guidance by the Secretary of State,

[2] Department for Education, Relationships, Sex & Health Education (RSE), Statutory guidance for governing bodies, proprietors, head teachers, principals, senior leadership teams, teachers, 2019, p20 –p22,

The hurts and highs of play: how can promoting play help children process the pandemic?

Ms Claire Boyd, Head of Junior School, considers what we have learned about young people since schools reopened on 8 March 2021.

It is just over two months since schools reopened their gates to pupils and, some semblance of normality, returned to classrooms across the country. From next Monday, the mandatory requirement for face coverings to be worn in schools expires and trips and visits will also be able to resume. Planning for ‘in-person’ events is now underway and many schools now look forward to rounding off the academic year by welcoming parents and guests back into school halls and auditoria. In short, it feels like the cloud of covid, that has loomed large over our schools for the last 18 months, is slowly passing with sunnier days forecast ahead.

Like all school leaders, alongside the practical and logistical implications of running a school during a global pandemic, one of my biggest preoccupations has been working out how best to respond to the impact covid has had upon the development – both academic and social – of our children. Whilst much has been made of lost learning, digital deficits, growing inequality in pupil experiences and a deterioration in mental health and wellbeing, far less has been made of how we can best react and respond to what we have seen and what our children have experienced.

In the short term, like many schools, we have worked hard at WHS to devise a bespoke programme to respond to the full opening of schools and support pupils through the aftermath of an unprecedented period of closures. Launched back in March, Relate, Reconnect and Restore, reflected an acute awareness that the third lockdown affected families in different ways; it resulted in our girls feeling a range of emotions about returning to normal routines after so long at home and such limited opportunities for social interaction.

Watching Relate, Reconnect and Restore unfold across the Junior School over the past few weeks has been affirming and, in many ways, humbling. The seemingly infinite capacity of children – in this case, our 340 girls aged 4 to 11 – to adapt and adjust to new expectations, routines and ways of working together has shown us that few barriers stand in the way mixing up way we teach and learn if the desire and willingness to flex is there.

In many ways, it is still too early to quantify the impact of these new initiatives on development, progress and attainment; they have only been up and running for a short period of time and school-life continues to be curtailed by the need to ensure covid security. Nonetheless, from a qualitative point of view, there are already early indications of the impact these new approaches are having upon our charges. Observations of our girls in action in the around the school, alongside discussions and conversations from with girls and teachers from across the Junior School, suggest there is one stand-out factor that is making a real difference: play.

Play; the act of engaging in an activity for enjoyment or recreation, sits at the heart of the experience of childhood. Universal in its reach, the act of play transcends cultures, continents and time. The impulse to play is innate; it is a “biological, psychological and social necessity, and is fundamental to the healthy development and well-being” (King & Sturrock, The Play Cycle, 2020) of both individuals and communities. It requires nothing at all except a willingness to engage; either with those around you or just merely in the spectre of your own imagination. Since returning to school on 8 March, the profile and prominence of play across all our Junior School year groups has been remarkably – and gloriously – high. The extension of play time for all, and the extension of the school day for our youngest girls, has provided more space and time for social reconnections to take place. The return of peer-to-peer interactions has stimulated an appetite for play, both structured and unstructured, adult-led and pupil-intimated.

Reflecting on it now, it seems eminently logical that, after a period of disruption and upheaval, where social interactions have been so very limited, that our children are using play as a way of recalibrating and reestablishing themselves as individuals beyond the home environment in which they have spent so much time.

Where formalised programmes of targeted teaching and learning can deliver valuable academic yields, play and the act of playing cultivates an important way of ‘being’ which, over time, shows “superior developmental gains from social, emotional and cognitive perspectives” (King & Sturrock, The Play Cycle, 2020). It provides the opportunity to be lost in the ‘flow’ – the holisitic sensation that people feel when they act in total involvement – of invention, improvisation and adaptation and creation. It generates a helpful landscape to explore the more formal experiences, skills and concepts of the classroom in the free and unstructured landscape of the imagination.

It also provides fertile – and sometimes febrile – ground to learn to navigate friendship and negotiate challenges with a broad range of peers and their personalities. The playground often acts as a microcosm of what lies beyond the school gates and Michael Rosen writes emphatically about what play can do to “help us cope with change and learn flexibility…[as] our lives, our ‘fates’, are always wrapped up with the fates of other, whose lives are constantly changing too” (Rosen, Book of Play, 2019). It seems, after so much time away from the forums of social play, children are instinctively seeking out this the time and space to explore the social order around them.

Play promotes both adaptability and order; it opens up pathways for discovery, for opportunity, for greater self-knowledge and understanding of those around us. In the formative years of a child’s life, it is a big part of how we define ourselves. In essence, it is the hurts and highs of play that gives us an understanding who we are and how we want to take up space in the world around us.

As we continue to seek to carve a strong and steady path out of the experiences of the last year, let us not overlook the art of play and its intrinsic capacity to toy with ideas and feelings, to form new connections, ask questions and find answers. Whilst we can devise programmes to provide catch-up and systems to gap-fill, space and time must be preciously ringfenced for all children to play, to be playful and luxuriate in their own imaginations.

Adventum: our new Junior School curriculum

Claire Boyd, Head of Junior School, reflects on the process that brought about the inception of Adventum, the new Junior School philosophy-led academic curriculum.

Education, like so many other areas of life, is not immune to the comings and goings of fashions and trends. What is en vogue one decade can be reviled the next. When qualifying to teach back in the early 00s, my evangelical tutors waxed lyrical about ‘The Literacy and Numeracy Hour’, the golden bullet, as they saw it, for guaranteeing educational success in classrooms across the country.

When it was launched in 1998, this highly prescriptive minute-by-minute approach to teaching daily Maths and English lessons, provoked the then-Education Secretary, David Blunkett, to promise to resign in 2002 unless “80% of 11-year olds met the expected level in their end of Key Stage 2 SATs tests”[1]. Alas, by 2010, when I was mentoring new teachers through their training myself, the tide had turned – rather unceremoniously – against the Literacy and Numeracy Hour, and nothing as rigid and straightened as that has earned a trainee teacher their stripes since.

Just a few moments scrolling through the most popular Edu Twitter accounts today will lead you to believe frequent retrieval practice, regular low stake testing and knowledge organisers hold the key to success that Blunkett’s beloved Literacy Hour did, twenty years ago.

When it comes to deciding how to craft a curriculum imbued with the integrity, longevity and depth to withstand the test of time (or least see a good few cohorts reap its benefits), you need something that will not only deliver exceptional educational outcomes but something which will also stand resolute as other trends come and go around it. Between September 2019 and January 2021, this preoccupation loomed large over my team and I, as we sought to overhaul our curriculum and breathe new life into what we teach and how we teach, as well as, most importantly, consider why we teach what we teach.

Launched to our pupils at the start of the Spring Term 2021, Adventum (named in tribute to the spirit of adventure that rests at the heart of the Junior School) is the net result of this process in action. Over the course of four terms, we went from asking ourselves where the value lay in what we had been teaching and which aspects were delivering excellent outcomes to what we wanted for the next generation of our Junior School learners.

Wimbledon High – Reception Class

Our curriculum building process began at the end, rather than the beginning, by considering what we wanted the legacy of our curriculum to be. What did we want our pupils to take away with them when they finished seven years engaged in our bespoke curriculum and its related lessons? By no means an easy question to answer, we worked through a range of iterations of legacy statements before asserting that we will aim to instill our learners with a love of wisdom, integrity of thought and the social awareness to act with compassion, confidence and agency; leaving our girls filled with a desire to grapple with and overcome the challenges presented by the world in which they are growing up.

With this in place, we then felt a close and immediate connection with the potential a philosophy-led curriculum could provide. Exploring existing research on philosophy driven curricula drove us to agree emphatically with the Lipman that “every subject seems easier to learn when its teaching is infused with the open, critical spirit and logical characteristic of philosophy.”[2] It is only by fostering a curriculum that elevates thinking rather than the transmission of knowledge will we truly equip the young minds in our care, with the skills and abilities to use the knowledge and skills they acquire to meaningfully contribute to shaping the world around them.

When considered alongside both the capabilities and abilities of our eager learners, Adventum began to take shape around a foundation of provocative thinking, intellectual disruption, critical questioning and increasing levels of self-knowledge. Rather than being tied to closely to a means of delivering content over time in an efficient and sufficient manner, we worked hard to look for ways that the discovery of knowledge and skills could be fused together to help strengthen connections and schema building whilst responding naturally to the innate predisposition all children have for asking questions, for challenging and seeking out possibility. We looked for a practical way to take the structure and progression of the National Curriculum – in which we recognise inherent value – and align it closely with a programme which gives space and breadth for the thinking, contemplation and sequence of discoveries that relate directly to reasoning; there is indeed “no point in teaching children logic if one does not at the same time teach them to think logically.”[3]

So, half a term into the implementation of Adventum, what are our girls experiencing? Each sequence of lessons is rooted in a philosophical question that provides a focus to the learning for that term. The questions posed simply yet designed to offer perplexity of thought when engagement levels are high.

Adventum begins by introducing first providing an introduction to meta-physics (understanding ourselves), moving through to develop an understanding of aesthetics (appreciating the natural world) and culminating with the complexities of ethics (wrangling with the moral dilemmas of life).  This term sees Reception wonder what makes a good character, Year 3 ask if colour plays a part in our identity, Year 6 consider who decides the status quo around us. With the humanities, science, art and music interwoven into the exploration of these questions, high quality and ambitious texts provide the important context required to interrogate the big questions being asked of our bright minds. Where the aim of philosophy writ large is to cultivate excellence in thinking, Adventum has been crafted to spur our girls on to examine what it is to think historically, musically and scientifically.

Whilst we do not expect Adventum to exist in a pedagogical vacuum, unchallenged and unaffected by the progress in education and child development, it is hard not to feel that the providence found in the quest of thinking that has gone before sets us in good stead. So here is to the adventure of asking big questions of big minds and inspiring big thinking from Early Years onwards.


[1] p.1 After the Literacy Hour: May the Best Plan Win, Centre for Policy Studies, 2004

[2] Philosophy Goes to School, M. Lipman, Temple, 1988, p.4

[3] Ibid p. 6

Teaching and learning Gem #23 – Socratic questions

This week’s Friday Gem comes from James Porter, Experientia Scholarship lead in the Upper Junior School and English specialist.


Experientia Scholarship forms part of the weekly timetable for all girls in Years 3-6. It is an ambitious programme which considers the contentious issues that affect our daily lives and introduces pupils to the concept of critical thinking and the art of Socratic discussion.

James’ WimTeach article brilliantly shows the importance of asking questions. He writes that “open-ended questions [are vital] as part of the Experientia programme, so that arguments are dismantled into their constituent parts which can then be evaluated, and the implications considered.”

He uses the table below, which is from ‘The Thinker’s Guide to Socratic Questioning’, to show the types of questions that are integral to the Experientia ethos.

The Thinker’s Guide to Socratic Questioning – Thinker’s Guide Library, Richard Paul (author), Linda Elder (author)
Paperback (01 Jan 2016)

From Socrates to Stormzy: introducing the Experientia Scholarship

What is art?

Mr James Porter, Specialist English teacher and Experientia Scholarship lead, reflects on the first half-term of a radical bespoke curriculum project that aims to introduce the Upper Junior School girls to the concept of critical thinking and the art of Socratic discussion.

What does academic achievement look like in 2020?

 Fionnuala Kennedy, Head, began this academic term with an address to staff in which she spoke of a ‘new epoch’ in education. In this time of truly unprecedented crisis the core business of schools has very much been thrust into the public spotlight, and, with circumstances necessitating a ‘back to basics’ approach, there is now a very prescient need to look closely at the fundamentals of teaching and learning and to ask – how can we do the basics better?

Nationally and globally, the lives of children have been turned upside down and the education community has been rocked by profound and severe crises, the implications of which many observers hold will be felt for years, if not indefinitely. Take this summer’s public exam fiasco and the ongoing uncertainty around this type of assessment as just one example of the domino-like impact that the COVID crisis will continue to have on the core components of the British education system. Naturally, this is leading to a renewed impetus in the search for change.

Above: The Media

The need to explicitly address the social implications of the crisis in school planning is widely acknowledged. It is this principle that Barry Carpenter makes central in his proposal for a ‘recovery curriculum’ model for the Autumn term, which addresses the holistic development of pupils in response to a deficit that is perceived as having emerged during the period of school closure. [1]

However, there are those who propose that times of profound uncertainty be met with more divergent thinking that is far broader and deeper in scope:

In more turbulent times, a radical vision of education may emerge from cultural trauma, as it did in Reggio Emilia in northern Italy at the conclusion of the Second World War. A whole society pulled together in revulsion at the ease with which they had embraced, or tolerated, fascism, and vowed to raise young people who would not make the same mistakes. [2]

Further, a growing discourse in British education reflecting a broad spectrum of society has seen this crisis as the catalyst for their calls to end what they perceive to be an inherently problematic public assessment regime, the most eloquent of these coming from Michael Rosen in a letter to Gavin Williamson published in The Guardian. [3] Their calls to replace GCSEs with alternative models cite the established practices at Bedales School who introduced “richer, more expansive courses” that “encourage creativity, autonomy, and enjoyment of learning for its own sake” as a ground-breaking example of a successful alternative. [4]

While some have drawn equivalents, I am not comparing the gravity of our present situation with the fall of Fascism at the end of the Second World War (this weekend’s election result not withstanding). However, at no time since the Second World War has it been more important that we support the holistic development and emotional intelligence of our pupils through considerate planning that addresses emerging needs while focusing on the development of skills and maintaining disciplined academic rigour.

What is the Experientia Scholarship?

Inspired by dramatic developments in education and tasked with developing a radical new curriculum programme in the Upper Junior School, I wanted to address the challenges of 2020 and beyond by creating a programme focused on rigorous academic pursuit and the development of higher-order thinking.  The programme also needed to be responsive to the needs of pupils through engaging, thoughtful, and sensitive planning that makes the habits of effective discussion and learning explicit, building on the psychological development model proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943:

Above: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Since September, the girls in the Upper Junior School have been immersed in a bespoke curriculum programme which considers the contentious issues that affect our daily lives and introduces pupils to the concept of critical thinking and the art of Socratic discussion.

Above: The Experientia Scholarship

The Experientia Scholarship, which forms part of the weekly timetable for all girls in Years 3-6, exposes pupils to a range of learning experiences which challenge their view of the world. Comprising of a range of short courses, pupils explore elements of both classical ‘enlightenment’ and progressive ‘modernist’ units of study devised to grow cultural capital, cultivate divergent thinking and enhance preparation for success in a globalised and digital world.[5] 

Underpinning this are three pillars which guide the ongoing development of the programme:

  • Academia: A community concerned with the pursuit of knowledge, always seeking to find truth and assessing all available evidence to make logical conclusions that are not based on opinions or emotions;
  • Fraternity: A feeling of friendship and support within our community, being kind and supportive, understanding that we never discount the person; we challenge their conclusions based on our understanding of the evidence;
  • Culture: We learn about, respect and show tolerance towards all no matter their background, geography or beliefs. Understanding that high culture is not limited to high art, we embrace eclectic tastes across a broad range of disciplines, from Schubert to Stormzy.

    Through weekly Socratic discussions based on a thought-provoking reading, pupils engage with a cycle of themes that introduce them to a range of critical topics.

Experientia Scholarship – Autumn Term
Year 3 Has technology made life easier? Can machines replace human beings?
Year 4 Does Hollywood need to change? Who makes the news?
Year 5 What is art? Is art inclusive?
Year 6 How much influence does the media have?

The pupils reflect on their position throughout the discussion cycle and are encouraged to conduct their own research into the topics of discussion and to set their own questions for future discussions.

In the lessons, the teacher prepares discussion-based activities that ask a series of open-ended questions specifically targeting the different ways of thinking about a topic. Arguments are dismantled into their constituent parts which can then be evaluated, and the implications considered.

Above: Questioning to Promote Higher Order Thinking Skills

The benefits of the Socratic approach to learning have long been espoused by those who have studied it:

“[…]Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others. They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly” [6]

The scholarship culminates in a formally assessed public speaking activity in which pupils explain and justify their thinking around the topic of their choice before being awarded commended, highly commended or distinction, aiming to reward metacognition and the process of learning rather than just linear attainment.

What have the lessons been like?

Above: The Experientia Scholarship

I will share one example of the impact that I have observed of the Socratic approach with a Year 4 group.

The first discussion in the Year 4 unit on ‘who makes the news?’ is an introduction to the concept of fake news and an examination of the people who could gain from spreading misinformation. In a follow-up discussion, pupils look at the idea of censorship and consider the occasions when they believe it is justified before reading a text about president Xi Jinping who, it is reported, censored Winnie the Pooh in China after memes emerging online mocking supposed similarities between them offended him.

The girls had decided that there are circumstances in which censorship is warranted. They gave the examples of internet blocking on their devices at school and people sending offensive messages as times when it would be right to censor. I was fascinated when the implications of their reasoning were applied to the example of Xi Jinping. While there was broad agreement that offensive communication should be censored, a vocal group of girls emerged who came to the conclusion that presidents, being in a unique position of influence and power, were to be treated differently than the general population, and in this case the rights for the people to criticise the president should be defended.

The ability of the girls to form critical connections when introduced to reasoning in this way was powerfully illustrated to me recently with the same group while watching Newsround coverage of Trump contesting the presidential election count. Pupils were immediately able to identify this as misinformation, and crucially were able to articulate the motivation for Trump to do so, as well as identifying the dangerous implications.

Teachers from across the Junior School have also commented on the impact they have noticed the Scholarship having in other areas of the curriculum. In an English lesson, Year 5 girls were able to articulate their thoughts around intrinsic gender bias and the etymology of words, citing the example of ‘female’ being the negative form of ‘male’, and explaining that this issue had been thrown up in discussion with Mrs Walles-Brown about whether art is inclusive.

I asked the girls to share their thoughts describing what their Experientia lessons have been like. This word cloud formed from their responses neatly summarises the general consensus felt after the first half term of the Experientia Scholarship in the Upper Junior School.

Above: Summary of The Experientia Workshop

Further Reading

Carpenter, B., A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and Life for our children and schools post pandemic, Evidence For Learning [online], 2020,

Israel, E., “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.”  In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions in the English Classroom, NCTE, 2002

McConville, A., Bedales: Rethinking Assessment [online], 2020,

Rosen, M., Dear Gavin Williamson, here’s how to avoid more exam catastrophes, The Guardian [online], 2020,

Wells, G., and Claxton, G., Learning for Life in the 21st Century, Sociocultural Perspectives on the Future of Education, Blackwell, London, 2002


[1]Carpenter, B., A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and Life for our children and schools post pandemic, Evidence For Learning [online], 2020,

[2] Wells, G., and Claxton, G., Learning for Life in the 21st Century, Sociocultural Perspectives on the Future of Education, Blackwell, London, 2002,

[3] Rosen, M., Dear Gavin Williamson, here’s how to avoid more exam catastrophes, The Guardian [online], 2020,

[4] McConville, A., Bedales: Rethinking Assessment [online], 2020,

[5] Boyd, C., Experientia Vision Statement, Wimbledon High Junior School, 2020

[6] Israel, E., “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.”  In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions in the English Classroom, NCTE, 2002

Wimbledon High Junior School: Reflections on 16 years of Junior School Leadership

Ms Kate Mitchell, Head of Juniors, retires at the end of this academic year after 16 years as Head of Juniors. Here she explores some of the changes that have occurred that have enabled the WHS Junior School to go from strength to strength.

Above: From here…

Above: …to there!

Wednesday January 8th 2003: from this, my very first day, I wanted so much to get it right and be the best Head I could possibly be. Who would have predicted heavy snow? Not everyone made it into school that day and nothing could have been considered to be normal for those first few wintery days of my first term. What a very strange way indeed to begin to get to know your staff, parents and girls. I got to know them very quickly, as we played outside, built snowmen and had lots of fun together. What did I learn? The great Monty Python mantra which has stayed with me throughout, ‘always expect the unexpected’!

The very first Year 6 production I saw was ‘Bring Dad Home’. Performed at The Polka Theatre, the girls had the weekend to rehearse in the theatre and it was performed twice on the Sunday – matinee and evening. I then brought things ‘in house’ and for a few years, we used the Junior Hall for our shows, until the Rutherford Theatre was built in 2007 – hurrah for that!

In 2003, hockey, cross-country and tennis were not on the curriculum. The girls simply played netball throughout the autumn with rounders and athletics in the summer. Our only strength was in swimming. My first meeting with parents concluded with them asking me to address the perceived mediocrity that existed in sport. I’m not going to describe to you what you know exists today (take a look at our many recent triumphs detailed in High Ways) but you can see that we have come a very, very long way, in terms of variety and excellence in sport.

Referencing sport leads me to reflect on how the House system has changed. At least in the Junior School, we had a House system; it wasn’t introduced to the Senior School until 2005. Named after four famous women, the girls meet fortnightly, compete in lots of different arenas including sport, music and chess, raise funds for chosen charities and generally make inter-year friendships that last throughout their time in Juniors. A great development in recent years is the cross-fertilization with the senior school where we have the same colour house days and house captains lead house assemblies together. This has become a major part of our vision to create a truly unified school where the playground is not the metaphorical divide between seniors and juniors.

I can’t emphasise enough how important residential visits are in the lives of children. The range we offer to the girls is, as you would expect, carefully matched to the taught curriculum but more importantly, the girls are learning the skills of being away from home. From Year 3, these are stepped up age appropriately in length of nights away from home as well as distance! I included Bushcraft knowing that it is a truly formative experience for all involved – including staff. This complements the recent introduction of the Outdoor Ed programme in Year 6 which leads to national certification. In addition, for Years 5&6 we offer a biennial ski trip and we are about to launch, in the alternate years, and in response to parental demand, a sports tour open to all.

It is what goes on in the classroom that is fundamental to girls’ learning. However, when I meet ‘old girls’ who are now beyond university, it is all of the above that they recall fondly and speak about, rather than the day they learnt their 6x tables.  Why is this? I believe co-curricular activity relies on the strength of the human relationships which inspire the girls to develop and grow their confidence and creates happiness from within. Of course, none of this could be achieved without the dedicated staff who are prepared to try new ideas, give their time and support the myriad of opportunities open to the girls; and it is through the strength of these relationships that deep learning takes place.

I too have been on a learning journey which has been rewarding, fulfilling, exciting, sometimes scary and above all great fun. As I now prepare to stride out I know that I am leaving behind a Junior School which is in truly great shape. I feel privileged to have been at the helm for 16 years and am very proud of all that we in the Junior School have achieved together.

Kagan structures: creating an engaging environment to promote effective learning

Beth Ashton, teacher of Year 5 and 6 English in WHS Junior School, investigates Kagan structures and how this methodology helps to create an engaging classroom atmosphere focused on promoting effective learning.

“When teachers use Kagan structures they dramatically increase both the amount of active engagement and the equality of active engagement among students.”

Kagan, S. Structures Optimize Engagement. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Spring/Summer 2005

There is no doubt that creating a climate of active learning in the classroom contributes directly to the success and lasting impact on children’s development educationally.

As children progress through the key stages, the curriculum shifts in balance from skills to a more content-based approach. This can result in diminishing opportunities for lessons to be delivered with practical content. As a result, ensuring an active learning climate can be challenging.

Passive learning places focus on the teacher to dictate the learning environment, acting as the locus of control and knowledge within the classroom. Research has demonstrated that this approach results in poor knowledge retention and lasting issues for students in terms of taking ownership over their learning.

In terms of personal growth and the development of a lasting relationship with learning, this can result in pupils lacking the autonomy and independence to sustain their own studies.

With a whole-class ‘hands-up’ approach, pupils’ perception of their own ability can also be damaged.

“If the teacher has students raise their hands and calls on the students one at a time, students learn to compete for teacher’s attention. They are happy if a classmate misses, because it increases their own opportunity to receive recognition and approval”

Kagan, S. Kagan Structures for Emotional Intelligence

However, when time is of the essence and teachers are required to deliver a dense and complex curriculum, finding practical solutions to avoiding passive learning and ensuring active engagement in lessons can be difficult.

“The first critical question we ask is if the task we have set before our students results in a positive correlation among outcomes. Does the success of one benefit others?”

Kagan, S. Structures Optimize Engagement. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Spring/Summer 2005

In order to combat passive learning in the classroom, Years 5 and 6 in WHS Juniors have been using Kagan interactive learning structures in English lessons to promote inclusive and engaged dialogue when engaging with texts. Over the course of the year, girls have demonstrated an improved ability to move between social groups easily within lessons. Focussing on social awareness and the ability to converse with their peer group effectively has meant that teachers have been able to reward a multitude of different skills, rather than just praising those girls who put their hand up.

Kagan is a system of cooperative learning structures, based on using peer support to engage pupils. Using a series of variety of different interactive structures, pupils are placed in mixed ability groups of four. Constructing these groups with an awareness of social dynamics and learning styles is vitally important.

Kagan structures require every student to participate frequently and approximately equally

By encouraging students to work as a team, teachers are able to remove the elements of competition and insecurity within the classroom, replacing them with a culture of collaboration and mutual support. The ‘hands-up’, whole-class approach to lessons is removed and replaced with pupils learning and discussing questions as a group, and feeding back to other groups around the classroom. This is achieved by swapping different numbers and using strategies such as ‘round robin’ and ‘numbered heads together’.

For example, when analysing a poem in English, girls would work in mixed ability groups, trying to identify the use of symbolism and looking at its effect. After thinking time, each number would be given an allocated time to share their thinking. This could be organised with the most able student sharing last, so that they don’t automatically lead the conversation. In order to ensure the lower ability pupil remains engaged, they could be pre-warned that their number would be responsible for reporting the outcome of the group discussion to the rest of the class.

The round robin structure described above ensures that each pupil:

  • has a role
  • is given allocated and structured time to share their views
  • is listened to by their peers

Importantly, the conversation is not dominated by one particular student. The option to opt out is also managed effectively by the teacher, by ensuring that pupils are aware of the high expectations around their engagement and contribution to class discussion.

“Group work usually produces very unequal participation and often does not include individual accountability, a dimension proven to be essential for producing consistent achievement gains for all students.”

Kagan, S. Structures Optimize Engagement. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Spring/Summer 2005

By using the Kagan interactive models, unstructured group discussions are removed from the classroom environment. Strategies such as ‘Timed Pair Share’ give discussion a scaffold. This means that pupils who usually demonstrate a dominant approach and tend to speak first, are able to develop the capacity to listen. Equally, students who tend to take a back-seat are guided through the process of sharing their thinking more readily.

The teacher is also able to allocate roles within groups with ease and adaptability according to the pupil’s number within the group. This ensures that dominant pupils are not able to control team discussions and feedback time, and less engaged pupils are drawn into participation through interaction with peers.

“If students in small groups discuss a topic with no ‘interaction rules’, in an unstructured way, often one or two students dominate the interaction. If, however, students are told they must take turns as they speak, more equal participation is ensured”

Kagan, S. A Brief History of Kagan structures.

As well as academic participation, Kagan can be a vital tool in improving social awareness and skills. The format of structured discussion time within class, results in clear social strategies being delivered to pupils through lesson content. Providing discussion in class with a framework also increases confidence and promotes risk-taking. These skills translate to the playground and, ultimately, the students’ life outside school and into the world of work.

Research shows that there is a strong correlation between social interaction and exchange of information. Generally, higher achieving students tend to form sub-groups within a cohort, creating enclaves where information is rapidly exchanged, and excluding those students they perceive as ‘lower ability’. This can result in those students who struggle feeling isolated and excluded, and ultimately disengaging from their studies. By using Kagan to scaffold and structure the sharing of information between children of different abilities, we can ensure that pupils of all abilities are gaining access to the social interactions which will ensure they make excellent progress.

A whole-class approach to questioning is proven to disengage a significant proportion of the class, whilst placing strain on the teacher. By passing ownership of the lesson to the students, through posing questions and allowing them to answer collaboratively, the teacher is able to take a step back and observe the learning process, taking feedback from each child through listening to their discussion.

By providing the teacher with the time and mental space to observe the lesson as it progresses, changes are able to be made over the course of the lesson, adapting to pupils needs. By using Kagan structures when tackling new learning, students are guided through the stages of learning through peer support. In the first stage of learning, pupils are able to work as a larger group, obtaining a significant amount of team support. Following this, pupils are then able to take on the problem in pairs, and finally, individually.

Using this format provides the more able pupils with the challenge of articulating their thinking to support their peers and provides those with barriers to learning with support of multiple different kinds within a lesson. Using established interactive structures means that the structures themselves are transferable across subjects, allowing them to be applied to all lessons. Having a readily available, student-led body of cooperative learning strategies embedded in the curriculum means that differentiation through discussion and peer support avoids a system of creating worksheets and allows pupils to ensure they are constantly being challenged, stretched and supported.

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Transitions: stepping in to Year 7

Head of Year 7 Jenny Lingenfelder reflects on encouraging emotional agility during the ‘transition’ phase from Year 6 into Year 7.

We prefer ‘Stepping In’…… I fondly call my new cohort of Year 7s on their first day (or should I say term?), ‘turtles’…. their backpack has their life in it and appears to dwarf them as they wide-eyed, set off down school corridors navigating their way around what will be ‘home’ for the next 7 years.

Even for the majority who are eagerly awaiting the increased independence and exciting changes ahead, transition from primary to secondary school is well known to come with its challenges – both academically and emotionally. One aspect we have been focusing on in the Year 7 pastoral team is that of emotional agility and how to resolve conflict when the ‘friendship issues’ emerge once they have settled in. These are a common and developmentally crucial feature of adolescent life and so our focus is primarily how to navigate them effectively.

Brene Brown’s research into shame and vulnerability over the past twenty years is insightful and brings a wealth of authentic guideposts which can be easily adapted for pastoral care. The crux of her book ‘Daring Greatly’[1] focuses on how we build shields up to protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable such as perfectionism, foreboding joy, playing the victim or the Viking to name but a few. Traits we as adults can all recognise but which start to emerge when we are in the playground. Her strategies to break down these shields include practising gratitude, appreciating the beauty in the cracks, setting boundaries, cultivating connection, being present and moving forward all of which resonate deeply with our pastoral vision at WHS for our young girls in today’s society.

All well and good but how does this work in practice?

Nicola Lambros’ contribution to the GL Assessment Children’s Wellbeing report[2] this year clearly lays out the correlation between wellbeing and impact on learning. Whilst genuinely complimenting schools on their support for the mental health of their students, she compares some of this help to that of taking paracetamol for a headache – whilst alleviating the pain, it doesn’t help uncover the underlying causes. She has a point. So how do we avoid putting a plaster over these issues? How do we bring about a deep, raw and authentic cultural shift in how we manage teenage behaviour in an ever increasingly sexualised, intrusive and pressurised society where comparison is the killjoy of creativity? How do we go about ensuring the girls develop emotional agility from a young age? And develop self-efficacy which is authentic and whole-hearted, a firm foundation for the teenage years and life in general?

Big questions, but ones we relish in the Year 7 team, especially with the knowledge that scientific research has now proven that the teenage brain has a further burst of growth at this time allowing for the reprogramming of those learnt behaviours which were previously thought of as hardwired and unchangeable. With this understanding, it is an exciting prospect to know we can equip our girls from an early stage with the tools on how to be emotionally agile throughout their teenage years and beyond.

Here are some reflections outlining where we are seeing some fruit:

  1. Practising proactive intervention. When a friendship issue arises, at times getting those involved around the table for a mediation is the best option. It’s uncomfortable (initially) but that vulnerability enables authentic conversation, breaks down walls and provides a way of moving away from blame and forging a pathway forward. Another strategy we have used is the ‘Support Group Method’ which encourages collective responsibility: with the individual’s permission, spilt the form into small groups, share what the problem is and ask for ideas on how to move forward. Getting students to write down their ideas and pop in a box enables more freedom of thought.[3]
  2. The not so nice emotions and how we describe them. Psychologist Susan David in her TED talk ‘the gift and power of emotional courage’[4] maintains ‘tough emotions are part of our contract with life’ and more poignantly ‘discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life’. Enabling girls to experience this on their level with a friendship fallout is crucial in helping them develop emotional intelligence. She also stresses that we own our emotions, they don’t own us. So, rather than ‘I am stressed’ using the phrases ‘I’m noticing’ and ‘I’m feeling’ can help embed emotional agility in the long term.
  3. Use of coaching methods. Whether in PSHE lessons or pupil meetings these can equip girls with tools to reach their full potential and prevent bad habits from setting in early. Top performance coach Sara Milne Rowe’s new book ‘The Shed Method- Making Better Choices When It Matters’[5] is illuminating on this topic. She maintains ‘mind energy is the fuel that fires our brilliant human brain and is at the heart of building any new habit- be it a body habit, mood habit or mind habit’ and provides practical examples of how to set goals and achieve them; strategies which can be translated easily into the school setting.
  4. Listen to pupil voice. Whether it is touching base after the first couple of weeks, canvassing opinions on the Year 7 PHSE programme or at the end of a term, we ask our Year 7 girls for feedback regularly which helps enormously to know what is really going on during this phase. One notable occasion is asking the girls to nominate who and why they want to give the Speech Day ‘Grit’ Awards to in the year group. Reading the nominations has each year brought me both to tears and chuckles and reminds me that we wouldn’t have known about the small acts of kindness or bravery that happen on a daily basis unless we asked our girls to tell us.
  5. Thinking creatively. We took Year 7 to see Wicked this year and have incorporated the story into how to approach friendship issues and ideas around acceptance in the wider world. The staff enjoy this just as much as the girls!

It’s an organic and evolving process and one that excites me greatly. Sometimes ensuring a smooth transition process does require a paracetamol or a plaster. However, building emotional agility takes time and effort to adopt as a habit. It is not (as is often perceived) the case of putting on resilient armour reading for battle. Vulnerability is at the core of this approach and that takes real courage. But it is worth it and I feel privileged to work in a place where girls and staff are willing to give it a go.

Jenny Lingenfelder

Head of Year 7

[1] Brene Brown ‘Daring Greatly. How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love and Parent and Lead’, 2012

[2] GL Assessment Children’s Wellbeing: Pupil Attitudes to Self and School Report 2018

[3] See Ken Rigby University of South Australia for more detailed information on different intervention approaches, March 2010

[4] Susan David TED talk ‘The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage’, Nov 2017

[5] Sara Milne Rowe ‘The SHED METHOD Making Better Choices When it Matters, 2018