Index linked: joining the dots of school improvement at Colman Infant School
At the start of a recent interview, Angie, Class Teacher at Colman Infant School, opened up a hefty file titled ‘history of the Index’. As she took me through it, I was impressed by the range of initiatives that the school have undertaken since they started working with the Index in September 2011. I was even more impressed, however, by Angie’s belief that the Index’s values and approach were changing the way the school operates – and that it had helped them bring together a range of other initiatives and priorities into a coherent framework.
As with many other schools, Angie said that the questionnaires had been invaluable in giving them a place to start. They were used to gain the perspectives of parents and children, and helped the staff choose what to focus on next. Staff were happy to see that there were many aspects of the school that were greatly appreciated: its diversity, its care for the children, and the fact that they were generally happy in school. There were many useful suggestions for improvement, however, that spurred staff to promote further collaboration (Indicator A1.5).
The school’s Index working group first set up focus groups of parents and children to explore some of these issues and find new ways forward. This in itself revealed something interesting: that parents and children were happier for groups to be led by other parents or governors rather than by teachers or assistants. This suggested that teachers’ perceived authority is still a barrier to free communication with parents.
In the spirit of Indicator A1.1 (“Everyone is welcomed”), several focus groups were held with parents of new arrivals to gauge how well their children were adapting. In time, this led to interviews with parents of leaving children also. This capturing of experiences from across children’s school careers led to invaluable suggestions about how to welcome and include them further: parents' calls for a virtual learning environment and a texting service were answered, and these facilities have proved very popular since.
Another issue raised by both parents and children was behaviour and activities in breaktimes and lunchtimes. Several children suggested that the open field was daunting, and that they would like the option of more structured activities with an adult. They also felt that behaviour was worse at these times. For inspiration in meeting these needs, the Index team looked to Indicator B2.6 (Questions h and i), which promote reflection on the underlying causes of difficult behaviour at these times, and B1.11, which talks about the design of communal spaces that enable all to participate. This led to two initiatives: zoning the playground into different themed areas such as a book area, and introducing optional staff-led games. It also led to a changing of staff ratios in breaktimes to help students feel more secure.
Having gained these insights through questionnaires, the Index group realised that they could also use the Index in a more targeted way to help with their current priorities. For example, Angie talked about the school’s pride in having achieved a Level 1 award as a UN Rights-respecting School; she and her colleagues felt that, rather than running in parallel with their work on the Index, these initiatives went hand-in-hand. In looking to build a rights-respecting culture, the Index group focused on relevant indicators, such as A2.8 (“promoting non-violent interactions”) to help achieve this. Realising it was also relevant to their anti-bullying policy, the group used indicator 2.9 (“Bullying is minimised”) alongside further student focus groups to rewrite the school's policy. These were good examples of how work with the Index was integrated into other initiatives rather than run separately – it was becoming a ‘go-to’ companion for school improvement.
The Index can also help schools recognise their areas of strength, and build on them. For example, the school’s work with B1.11 on school grounds mentioned above got Angie thinking about the successful community garden, and indicator B.13. Where did the organic waste go? It was currently going into landfill, which made her uncomfortable. A wider survey of waste was undertaken that led not only to green bins, but also to a reduction in photocopying, saving money for the school. It also inspired other initiatives, including a competition for children to bring the least possible packaging in with their lunches. Finally, this fed back into the classroom, informing work on healthy eating and work on materials: “What happens to a yoghurt pot when it’s discarded?”
As a Hub school, Colman Infants is also taking the lead in inspiring and coordinating other local schools’ involvement with the Index. They are approaching this with the same level of commitment and positivity, using their experiences to help others get started. The possibilities for schools working together towards shared objectives using the Index is very exciting indeed, and is at the heart of the current Norfolk project.
I’m really looking forward to visiting again, and sharing more stories on Colman Infants’ work.
Index for Inclusion Network Research Co-ordinator