As More Able Coordinator at the Osborne Cooperative Academy Trust, Philippa Buckingham has introduced a fresh approach to more able workshops – running whole-day immersive experiences which leave learners engaged, enthused and excited about the prospect of making the transition from primary to secondary school. In this blog post, she shares seven key steps in the process…

More able workshops can sometimes be underwhelming, expensive (especially if using an external agency) and difficult to measure in term of impact. It is for this reason that for the past three years I have attempted to create stimulating, feasible and impactful more able workshops, run at St Clere’s Secondary School for Year 5 pupils from across the Osborne Co-operative Academy Trust.  

Below are the seven steps I took to create effective more able workshops:

Step 1: Research

I strongly recommend schools conduct their own qualitative research to ascertain the views of learners and practitioners towards provision at a localised level, and then use this to plan effective programmes of learning for more able pupils.

I conducted eight focus groups in my secondary school from a cross-section of year groups and also met with the headteachers of the primary schools in the Trust.

The following areas were identified for improvement:

1) Learners felt they did not know why they were attending certain workshops. Often, for example, their specialist area was not reflected in the day, while other students who excelled in certain subject areas were resentful at being overlooked.

2) Learners were often annoyed that they lost valuable “free time” and wondered why the event couldn’t have been better embedded in the curriculum.

3) Primary headteachers felt the level of practical organisation needed to transport the students to St Clere’s was not justified for short sessions. They were also often unclear about what the students were learning and how this complemented the primary curriculum.

I used this research to serve as the backbone of planning for future more able workshops.

Step 2: Identification

Selecting learners to take part in more able workshops can be a contentious issue. The fact that some students felt resentment at not having been chosen for more able days in subjects they excelled in boiled down to a solely data-driven approach to more able identification.

Students who are high achievers in all subjects often make up about 1% of the population, so it is not reflective to use the same learners for each session (although I acknowledge data plays an integral role). Furthermore, CAT scores are not always an accurate measure of ability for all; often more able learners underperform. Empowering teachers to use their expertise to nominate students means the more able identification process is more accurate and thorough.

I asked our primary feeder schools to nominate more able learners using teacher nomination, data and work ethic. I believed this changed the make-up of the enhancement workshops and made them much more conducive to learning.

Step 3: Communication across KS2-3

One of the integral processes that must be followed for purposeful learning workshops is clear and effective communication with feeder primary schools. The transition period from KS2-3 is often in need of much greater and effective bridging. I established a reciprocal relationship with the primary schools to discuss:
  • What learners know
  • What they need to know
  • The impact of the workshop on learner performance
Enhanced communication between all participating schools means that we learn from each other as practitioners and challenge the children adequately within the Trust.

Step 4: Organising whole-day events with a storyline

Rather than use an afternoon or holiday for the more able workshops (in response to student feedback) I communicated with the primary schools and organised whole-day events where learners would attend St Clere’s on an agreed date during term time. This meant we had the learners for a period of four hours. I used this time to plan theatrical narratives that engaged the students throughout the day. Two examples of our English workshops are below:
  • The first piece of interactive theatre involved the Queen of Hearts locking Wonderland (the school) as nobody was able to articulate how beautiful her roses were. We pretended the school was locked with vines and tape and that we had to smuggle the students in. The English staff dressed up as key characters whilst the students snuck around the school learning a new writing technique from each character, before being caught by the Queen and having to save themselves by reading their poetry. The entire school and all staff were able to get involved as they had to pretend they were angry at the students trespassing when we passed their lessons.
  • The most successful workshop involved a mysterious man (Richard III) breaking the Queen's heart (based on Dickens’ Miss Havisham) and the Queen imprisoning the students until they could figure out what had happened to her. I used extracts from Great Expectations, Carol Anne Duffy and Shakespeare interwoven into the plotline so the students were dealing with challenging works of literature and engaging characters (teachers dressed up) – they loved it.

Step 5: Creating an unforgettable learning environment

One of the most effective approaches I have found to get students engaged with their education is by creating an environment they find memorable. We often remember things that are different: troubling, exciting, strange, puzzling, curious, personalised, fun… It’s only after writing such a list that you comprehend how school can sometimes be the antithesis to this.

With the aforementioned in mind I decided to use the school space but turn it into Alice in Wonderland, a site of curiosity and wonder, to deliver a memorable and inspiring day. Turning an educational site into an open performative theatre may seem like an expensive and daunting task, but it needn’t be.

Start by thinking big, then work out what is feasible and practical. For example, for the main learning venue I used the drama theatre, but I placed vine leaves, posters, roses, arrows and clues on route to give the impression the event covered a much wider area. I used the school’s reprographics department to create theatre programmes, badges and merchandise, having designed my own artwork, to give a professional and memorable feel to the day.

Choose staff who are enthusiastic and willing to dress up! I selected a team of staff members who were very supportive and open to acting as well as teaching. As for the rest of the school, I made them part of the theatre by giving them strange phrases or questions to use on the Year 5 students if they encountered them. For really shy members of staff I just asked them to eye the students suspiciously as they walked past. All of this gave the workshops a very special atmosphere and encouraged secondary colleagues to work together and become part of the event.

Step 6: Using stimulating texts

Often students can be quite reluctant to engage in texts such as Shakespeare and Dickens because they feel the vocabulary is indecipherable (or at least they use this as an excuse) and dismiss great writers. I used key texts but approached them theatrically – for example recreating Miss Havisham’s mummified wedding cake, or literally giving the students onions as per the line in Duffy’s poem Valentine.

Not once did the students complain that they didn’t understand the texts or couldn’t engage with them. This is because they were used as they were meant – as a story, as a performance, to enthuse and engage. Running creative workshops affords you this possibility and I believe has greater implications for teaching in general.

Step 7: Measuring and reflecting

Assessing the effectiveness and impact of the more able workshops – tracking engagement and learning – is one of the hardest steps in the process, and for me this is still ongoing. I initially started with a questionnaire for the students, qualitative feedback from teachers (to notice if the students improved) and assessment of learners’ work created on the day alongside their projected levels.

Thus far the feedback from staff and learners has been positive. It was important for me to ensure the workshops were inspiring and pushed the students in their learning and I believe they achieved this. Some of the feedback received is below:

Feedback from learners:

“The characters made us feel like we’re actually there which gives us a bigger understanding and creativity within our writing.”

“The most enjoyable part of the workshop was the venue and the props. It made you feel like you were really there so it helped us work harder and think more.”

“I enjoyed the effort everyone put into the characters, the kindness and also meeting new people from different schools.”

Feedback from primary staff:

“Taking part in the workshops has given the children a real confidence boost and their vocabulary, language and ideas are much more adventurous.”
– H. Lyhne, Assistant Head and Year 5 Lead, Thameside Primary School

“Our pupils enjoyed the day and described it as problem-solving through English and drama. One of them reflected, ‘It blew my mind – it was not what I expected at all, but every aspect of being there was amazing.’ The experiences are helping to raise aspirations and identify tangible next steps for them.”
– D. Emmanuel, Deputy Head, East Tilbury Primary School

“The children had a fantastic time attending the literacy workshops at St Clere’s. The children said how fun and exciting the activities were and how they would love to go to St Clere’s. The workshops have had a great impact on the children's imaginations and descriptive writing techniques.”
– Helen Hill, Teacher, Horndon-on-the-Hill Primary School

Feedback from secondary staff:

“Through the activities the students were able to explore their own creativity and use this to stretch their knowledge. As a teacher, I found this helped me to explore techniques that I can use in the classroom to challenge and bring learning to life for the more able.”
– L. Brooks, English Teacher and Teacher in Charge of Progression and Provision KS3, St Clere’s Secondary School

“I found the workshops really helped open up my eyes to the positive effects of ‘thinking outside the box’ in teaching; the pupils were clearly engaged and keen to stretch themselves, fully appreciating and responding to the innovative sensory learning experience. As a result, the sessions have had a lasting impact on my own practice in that I am keen to use the techniques I learned in the session in future lessons and continue to explore innovative approaches to teaching.”
H. Lebeze, English Teacher, St Clere’s Secondary School

“The Alice in Wonderland day helped me to develop my confidence as a practitioner using creative approaches to teaching the more able. The pupils absolutely loved it and were able to access texts like Shakespeare without any of the usual fear: they were too busy having fun to notice how many higher-level skills they were developing!”
– L. Smith, English Teacher and Teacher in Charge of Progression and Provision KS4, St Clere’s Secondary School

“I found this to be an extremely worthwhile experience for both teachers and students alike. It was refreshing to enjoy the passion, flair and creativity of prospective students.”
– Mrs C. Curran, Second in English & Head of Media Studies, St Clere's Secondary School

“This has been an excellent opportunity to work creatively with younger students and bridge the curriculum across KS2 and 3. The children gained confidence and skills during these workshops, which can now be applied to all areas of the curriculum.”
– A. Hughes, Headteacher, St Clere’s Secondary School

As a trust we are currently working on establishing common more able identification criteria and sharing tracking and monitoring of more able learners, which will further improve the measurement of impact.
Developing the more able workshops has led me to experience some of the most extraordinary moments in my career. I have witnessed students excelling through immersing them in an environment that is conducive to learning. There is also something empowering about undertaking a major project within your institution and demonstrating that school buildings are places of learning – and of wonder.
Philippa Buckingham is the More Able Coordinator for the Osborne Cooperative Academy Trust. She has taught English Literature for 11 years, worked as a Head of Department, is undertaking her Doctorate in Education specialising in more able provision, and consults in teaching and learning with a specialism in challenging more able learners. 
Does your school, trust or cluster run workshops for more able learners? Get in touch to share your experience.
Monday, July 2, 2018