Essex is home to Russell Brand, Blur and The Prodigy – three very different but equally seminal artists. It is also the abode of two fantastic schools that we were fortunate enough to visit. Another early start, but with much more agreeable traffic than our last adventure, we arrived in the beautiful town of Coggeshall with enough time for a quick coffee before visiting the high achieving (and over-subscribed) local secondary school, Honywood Community Science Academy.
We were given a very warm welcome by Lou Sanderson, Assistant Head and Apple Distinguished Educator, whom I had met briefly before in Cork at the ADE institute earlier this year. However, at the Fota Island Hotel, I did not have the opportunity to hear about the remarkable journey that both her and her school had been on – this was my opportunity to catch up! Honywood has a unique and inspiring approach to education. It is a learner focused school that is proud of its growth mindset. It encourages all its learners (not pupils/students!) to challenge themselves on a daily basis and see what they can do with the curriculum. Testing is kept to an absolute minimum and upon joining the school, no notice is taken of previous test results and classes are set randomly, there are no ability groups to be found anywhere. The focus at Honywood is firmly and proudly fixed on learning, not on grades. Yet sadly enough, it is still with grades that Ofsted and many others judge schools, so how have Honywood’s GCSE results shaped up? Well, in 2012, 72% of all pupils attained five GCSEs grade A* to C; an increase of four percentage points since 2011 and 14% above the national average.
This visionary and successful approach to learning has also embraced technology. Following a survey, the learners themselves selected the iPad to supplement their learning and it was those same learners who then took us on a fascinating, impromptu tour of the school. We saw music, art, English, drama and ICT lessons and saw children working individually, in pairs and in groups. Furthermore, in the overwhelming majority of cases we saw learners that were motivated, focused and enjoying their work. We took the opportunity to speak to the children and one comment that particularly resonated with me came from a Y7 student; “we feel independent here, we don’t just get told what to do”. As Dostoyevsky famously wrote, “To go wrong in one’s own way is better then to go right in someone else’s” and that culture of challenge, independence and enquiry was evident throughout the whole school.
Our second visit of the day took as to Flitch Green Academy, a Primary school in the heart of the local community and with an impressive and exciting story to share. We were met by the Headteacher, Nathan Lowe, another ADE who had begun his headship in 2012. Flitch Green had decided not to go down the 1:2:1 route, instead having a bank of 10 iPads available per class. Like the learners at Honywood, the children at Flitch Green did not see the iPad as a novelty, it was simply part of their everyday learning experience. Another similarity between the two schools was the emphasis on thinking and challenge. Nathan and his predecessor had been extremely impressed by the work of Chris Quigley and therefore ensured that their curriculum was creative and vibrant and explored the “why?” Technology was simply a cog in this innovative approach. There is no doubt that learning at Flitch is enhanced by the use of Plasma TV’s, Apple TV and iPads, but they merely form part of the overall vision of ensuring that, upon leaving the school, children are empowered with relevant life skills that build confidence and potential.
Our visit to Essex was inspiring in many ways; visionary teachers and wonderful children that were genuinely proud of their schools. The learners were filled with enthusiasm and effortlessly used cutting edge technology to facilitate the learner-focused pedagogy that underpinned the success of both educational establishments. The Christmas break will now allow us time for further reflection and provide an opportunity for our plans to develop and progress, as we continue to make positive steps forward.