What does an effective learning environment look like in a school?

“Nine tenths of education is encouragement” Anatole France

 “The freedom to make mistakes provides the best environment for creativity. Education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t” Anatole France

 “When educators model extraordinary passion and enthusiasm for learning, it causes students to value the learning too”  David Geurin

I had the privilege earlier this month to be invited to speak at the launch of the Cabot Learning Federation’s (CLF) new teacher training and leadership centre at the City Academy in Bristol. Over the last few years a considerable number of aspiring and existing school leaders from Wyedean have matriculated here on the NCTL’s national leadership qualifications, and this has had a considerable impact not only on the professional development of those individual school leaders but also on the change in the leadership culture and ethos of the school. It has also led to an exposure to different school cultures and learning environments along the M4 and in Bristol for so many Wyedean colleagues. I undertook my own NPQH as I prepared for Headship a few years ago from the CLF and have been invited back on a number of occasions to Bristol to speak to subsequent cohorts of aspiring Heads and Principals about my experience and the impact it had on me as school leader. When I spoke at the launch to an assembled audience of the “great and good” of the South West’s educators, school leaders and policy makers it was with complete belief that my own training, the training of colleagues and the wider association with the CLF has made a significant impact on the success of Wyedean. We are very proud to be associated with the good narrative around education in Bristol and the South West that is a result of so much hard work by passionate and dedicated people working in education here. One of the most important lessons I have taken away from working with the CLF is their strong belief in an effective learning environment in schools. When I first heard the original founder of the CLF and now National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, speak a few years ago he placed the very strong emphasis on having a purposeful and consistent school culture that sets the effective environment in schools for students to learn.  This echoes strongly with a New York City principal’s message from a lecture in the States which I attended a while back. She made it very clear to her students when they came to school from all sorts of tough and challenging backgrounds that the one consistent was going to be that here in school they get the chance to learn and gain an education.  She was uncompromising on that but one of the most compassionate school leaders I have ever come across.  She went on to say how her students were told by her directly that she couldn’t change skin colour, or backgrounds or put families back together again but in school she could teach them how to be confident, have ambition and self belief and resilience, to be articulate and develop their skills and knowledge that would take them on further out of poverty and into colleges, universities, careers and to develop into decent human beings with strong values and a desire to give back to the very communities they had left.  If I get asked what exactly the “transformative power of education” means I think about this speech from a New York High School principal and the incredible work of educators in Bristol giving the children of their communities hope. This all springs from an effective learning environment both within the school community and out to the wider community supporting each other in partnership.

Reflecting back over this term all the way back to January with the Easter break just around the corner I have been thinking a great deal about the importance of the learning environment of school not just in the context of what the atmosphere feels and looks like in corridors and classrooms but also about the relationships between everyone associated with a school. I know that one of the significant factors in the way Wyedean has changed is the emphasis on positive school culture and ensuring relationships are positive in school and the wider community.  This is not always easy especially when we have such a large community.  For example, we were hit this March with an unprecedented two “snow days” due to an unlikely alliance of the “Beast from the East” and “Storm Emma”.  Deciding to close the school is probably more stressful than the OfSTED “24 hour notice call”.  Well, certainly up there for school leaders.  You are never going to please everyone and the ultimate balance in the decision-making is between not losing precious learning time against the safety of students and colleagues travelling through snow and ice unnecessarily.  They certainly do not teach you much about this on the NPQH course.  Social media and more immediate communications makes the snow day call easier on one level but also it means there are hundreds of messages on Facebook and Twitter when the first flurries arrive.  What I appreciated in March when we had to close the school for the snow in the Forest of Dean, South Wales and even over Bristol was how supportive, patient and helpful the entire wider school community were as we made the decision not to be open. Digital learning was particularly helpful to extend the learning environment as work was set for all students on ShowMyHomeWork.  I am sure all students resisted going outside and playing in the snow and settled indoors to work.  Although, departments set some really interesting pieces of work for example Art suggested on their Twitter feed for students to go outside and take pictures of the landscape, whilst Maths, looked at the geometry of snowflakes.  Much as I wanted to sit in my warm cabin-study at home and read the books suggested by the English department, I took my three young children sledging on Pomphrey hill along with the rest of North Bristol.

We were lucky enough to be asked by the British Council if they could come to Wyedean in January to see the school and hold a photoshoot showing the learning environment and our global learning in action. Unfortunately, our OfSTED call in January meant this was postponed and instead they came on a very bright and sunny day at the end of February.  It also coincided with the visit of our partner school from Japan, Reitaku Junior High School, near Tokyo and a Skype classroom session with our great colleague, Tatiana Popa and her wonderful students from Heritage International School, Chisinau, Moldova.  I see the learning environment at Wyedean every day and I see other schools so I know what we have in Wyedean.  We do not believe in our students walking in deadly silence down corridors to class or students sitting in rows learning in rote.  That isn’t an effective learning environment in Wyedean.  I stand at the foot of the main stairs in the school, with other school leaders, at the start of the day, lesson change over, breaks and walk around the school and I adore the fact that  our students smile, say hello,  tell you what they are studying or ask you if you have seen a particular teacher.  At the end of the day as the buses, cars and bikes leave the campus they wish you a good evening or a good weekend.  We are an effective learning community because we believe  in the transformative power of education and a positive school culture.  This was all put into sharp focus to separate the mundane from the profound with yet another school shooting in the States in March. What parent or educator has not been proud and moved to tears at the wisdom, courage and leadership of the students of Parkland, Florida following the senseless shootings of their teachers and classmates a few weeks ago. I know arming teachers in a school is definitely not part of an effective learning environment and these young people are right to challenge the people who make laws and decisions at the national level about the basic fundamental right of being safe in school.

When John Rolfe and his colleagues came to visit Wyedean in February, this is what he had to say about Wyedean and our learning environment: 

…just a few lines to say a huge, and greatly appreciated thank you, for such an enjoyable, interesting and inspirational day at your wonderful school! It was great to be able to meet the students, visit classrooms and the wider school environment to learn more about your fantastic inclusive vision for education and to see so much high quality and motivating teaching and learning. Rob, we are all so proud and delighted to work with you and to learn from you and your profound commitment to outstanding and inclusive teaching and learning and we want to warmly thank you and everyone at wonderful Wyedean for being such a great hub of excellent work; it was particularly inspiring to be part of the critical thinking class and the VC with Moldova…    Thanks for all your time Rob; and for your commitment, energy, brilliant professionalism and for being such an incredible Headteacher…” 

John visits a huge amount of schools in the UK and abroad and was recently honoured by the Queen for his services to education and global learning. We were very flattered and pleased that John saw our community at work, experienced our learning environment, and wrote such kind words about the school. John’s words reflect what the OfSTED inspectors saw in January and the Challenge Partner reviewers saw in October and what the governors, parents, visitors and prospective students for Year 6 and 12 that they see every day they come to visit Wyedean – an effective learning environment in a vibrant inclusive school community. This is what I proudly told the CLF audience in March and how the leaders and leadership culture work relentless around the school to make sure students want to come to school, are engaged and enjoying the challenge and the opportunities available in their educational offer.  These are the characteristics of an effective learning environment.

I have been reading a lot recently about the Finnish education system and in particular the work of the great educator, Pasi Sahlberg. Sahlberg’s work is heavily based around looking at how establishing the right learning environment and culture in schools is not just about linking this to attainment, but more importantly the wellbeing of young people and our colleagues. Put crudely, if schools get this aspect right then upward trajectories of attainment and progress will naturally follow. Finland’s record in education as measured by the OECD/PISA speaks for itself. Sahlberg despairs of the tired educational leadership mantra he has encountered in many school systems as “…if you push the system harder, it will move” (1). This is characteristic of the approach towards schools by politicians of all the main parties in the UK for the last 20 years.  Sahlberg goes onto say, “…how many politicians have such a narrow and technical view of education and how to improve it in a comprehensive, systemic way”.  To go back to another of Sir David Carter’s mantras “it’s not the structures but the outcomes”.

We have had a very long term through the winter and at last, we have made it down to Spring and a break for the next couple of weeks. I had a look through the school twitter feed as we finished the Spring Newsletter for Wyedean – copy of the link below. The richness of school life just flows and encapsulates a creative, innovative, engaging and compelling education we are all contributing towards to give our students the best life chances as possible.



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