Let’s start with a question. (If you were a pupil at Heywood Prep, that is, in fact, how you would start each lesson.) What does outstanding learning look like to you?
If it is an important question for any parent to consider, it is a critical one for Heywood Prep’s Head Rebecca Mitchell and Deputy Head (Academic) Leonora Martin. It is a question that has been at the heart of the development of Heywood’s newly launched Futures Curriculum. I say launched, but this isn’t so much the start of something entirely new as a crystallisation of what defines and fires an education at Heywood Prep. ‘Our aim,’ explains Rebecca, ‘is to provide children with a range of skills that will open up the doors of learning ahead, whatever that is. To develop enquiring minds.’ In a nutshell, this is a style of learning that is discovery- and not knowledge-led, focused on developing learning skills, not on memorising facts.
Children’s brains are sponges. Sitting passively and being drip fed information, they will learn. We did, after all. But this is a different world, where change is gathering speed. Feeding our children information that may not be relevant in 10, or even 5 years’ time is limiting. Besides which, you give a child a fact, and you shut enquiry down. You ask a child a question, and the subject opens up. In a world where any answer is just the touch of a smartphone away, the challenge is to teach children to how to ask the right questions, how to establish what they don’t know or need to know, and how to go about searching for the answers.
And that’s just the beginning. ‘As a first step we want our children to be proactive in discovering knowledge for themselves,’ says Leonora. ‘But then they have to interpret that knowledge, hypothesise, evaluate. All critical skills that they will use for the rest of their lives.’
That question at the start of a lesson is a marker, an indication that learning is a proactive choice, a skill you can hone like any other. Reception children may be set to wondering how we know dinosaurs ever walked the Earth. Year 3 pupils walking into a Maths lesson could find a series of numbers written up on the whiteboard, with the question, ‘What’s the link?’ Science might kick off with ‘What does a plant need to grow?’ As the children get older, the questions, and subjects, become more challenging. ‘After the horrors of WW1, why did Britain enter WW2?’ They are asked the question and the lesson develops from that point of enquiry.
It’s easier, of course, to simply feed a pre-planned list of information into receptive ears. It is more of a challenge to give children agency in their learning and requires careful scaffolding. But it expands learning exponentially, because it is the children who are setting the boundaries, and the teachers who stand alongside, supporting, encouraging, challenging. Occasionally, Rebecca admits, running to catch up. ‘We love it when children push our own knowledge to the limit. It keeps us on our toes, curious, enquiring. Everything we ask of them.’
‘Staff need to think on their feet,’ agrees Leonora. ‘Our brilliant staff can do this this and welcome the possibility of adapting their lessons on the go. It ensures that teaching is fluid but with purpose.’
The whole structure around those learning spaces encourages independent learning. In a Year 1 Maths class, children choose a sheet of problems of varying difficulties. I watch a child read the first question and immediately say to the teacher, ‘Miss Parker, I can’t do number one.’ ‘Go back and read it again,’ was the response, ‘and then maybe talk to a buddy.’ This gentle resistance was all that was required. The girl retook her seat, read the first question again and immediately wrote down the correct answer. When I mention this to Leonora, she smiles and says, ‘Yes, we encourage the children to explore other avenues before asking the teacher. It gives them an opportunity to realise they are resourceful and able. So they’ll be ready for the next challenge.’
If pupil-led learning seems a bit free for all, be reassured. Just because your child is fascinated by bugs to the exclusion of all else, this doesn’t mean they will be able to restrict their education. ‘We have a rigorous approach to delivering a comprehensive curriculum,’ says Rebecca. ‘Discovery-led learning reveals a child’s existing knowledge, and then we can expand it. But we are piggybacking off their own enthusiasm.’ Strength in the core subjects, English, Maths etc, is a given, but it is supercharged by the children’s willingness to engage with them, and the knowledge that they have the skills they need to get there.
As I arrive to watch Year 6 work on a series of percentage problems in Maths, the teacher is saying ‘OK, everyone, where do we start?’ There are a number of places to start, as it turns out. ‘Can we think about multiplication and inverse operation? You can look at it from any direction you want.’
Hands fly up. Different approaches are put forward.
‘So, which is the right way to do this?’
‘All of them,’ they chorus promptly.
‘That’s right. All of them.’
The Yearly Investigative Project
A natural extension of the Futures Curriculum approach is the focus on topic-based work, where a theme is explored across a range of subjects, in much as the same way as STEM is the interplay of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. ‘It’s about children drawing connections. Getting those enquiring minds firing again,’ explains Leonora. ‘It wasn’t until university that connections between other subjects really opened up to me. Historically, education has kept subjects distinct and separate. We want to break down the barriers for Heywood children and enable them to make these connections from an early age.’
General topic-based learning in pre-prep develops into a yearly investigative project from Year 3 upwards. For this, children are invited to ask a big question, to set their natural curiosity to work, to explore and discover and then report back. In Year 3 the project is well-structured, with lots of support from the teacher, and themed around something that they are already learning – this year projects are based around work on Ancient Egypt. Each subsequent year, the teacher steps back a little more until, by Year 6, they are all doing a completely different discovery-led investigation, on anything they like. They may carry out elements of research, or experiments to prove or disprove hypotheses, such as the spread of germs. It may be more academically based – how women won the vote, for example. Either way, it’s all their own work, and how they present it is up to them too, from traditional trifold boards, to models, videos and Ted-talks. When they are complete, all Heywood parents and children are invited see and explore this phenomenal body of work. What an opportunity!
Stepping up to the next challenge
‘We talk about skills for life,’ says Rebecca ‘but our immediate role is to prepare children for their move onto secondary schools.’ And, she says, these projects are key to that.
‘It is hard for parents to understand that shift into senior school, how comparatively alone the children are at Year 7. The projects represent a great deal of effort. Children have to stick at it, and manage a significant workload. It’s a chance for children to develop and hone the skills that will support them when they reach senior school, when they need to be much more self-reliant.’
Having key skills already under their belts makes all the difference a child’s approach to senior school and all the opportunities opening up. ‘They don’t need to feel guarded when they embark on new subjects. They don’t need to spend time and brain space getting up to speed. They can be alert to what’s on offer, and ready to grab new opportunities.’
The success of Heywood’s approach translates into comments fed back from senior school Heads, who describe Heywood children as ‘ready for anything’, ‘independent’ and say they ‘don’t need to develop learning skills’. In a nutshell, they are ready to fly.
All this is the end result. The Futures Curriculum is not a catchphrase, or a vague ethos that flavours the school’s approach to learning. It is a combination of vision, and an enormous amount planning, structure, as well as drawing down on the creativity and enthusiasm of an incredible team of staff. This is what defines Heywood Prep, I think. A commitment to identifying outstanding learning, and then putting the structures in place that allow the magic to happen.
Where would it take your child?