The Leading Magazine for Primary Educators
The School Feels Like a Lovingly Curated Museum
Main Subject: CPD
Subject: Outstanding schools
Author: Jacob Stow
More than most schools, Fulbridge Academy is offering children a journey into imagination and a diverse range of learning opportunities beyond, says Jacob Stow...
From outside, Fulbridge Academy in Peterborough seems normal enough. It’s larger than average, split across two sites to enable an in-progress switch to four form entry, with a shiny new building dedicated to Years 5 and 6 to show for it. Not so remarkable. Make it past main reception, however, and things start taking a turn for the unexpected. In the space of a minute’s walk through the corridors you’ll likely stumble across a volcanic fissure, torn artistically in the floor, pass through a throng of superheroes and wind up in the shadow of a small street’s worth of Tudor dwellings – when you look up and catch sight of a sign on one saying ‘Pudding Lane’, you’ll almost be able to smell the smoke. It’s at this point, as various associated sound effects kick in, drifting from the ceiling, that you’ll wonder if you’ve accidentally stumbled into some manner of local attraction, and whether staff are going to collar you for a fee on the way out.
Fulbridge’s learning environment really is something special – the examples mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg; walking around the school does feel like touring a lovingly curated museum – and this is to say nothing of its equally feature-packed grounds, or the brand new performing arts studio. Principal, Iain Erskine, vice principal Ben Erskine (yes, that’s a father-and-son team) and their staff have pulled out all the stops in creating what they, drawing on advice from creativity consultant Roger Cole, describe as a “place that makes us long for childhood”. What makes it even more impressive is that all this, and an Ofsted ‘outstanding’ rating, has been built upon the shaky foundations of Special Measures and a state of anarchy more commonly associated with the Bash Street Kids…
1. Changing direction
“There were fights, children climbing out of windows and hiding behind trees so they didn’t have to come in after lessons – you’d spend ages going to search for them. We had an Ofsted inspector who had visited during special measures come back a few years later; he walked down the corridor, looked out of the window and said, ‘and that’s where the riots took place’.”
When Iain Erskine took over at Fulbridge Junior School something needed to change. He was already head of the successful infant school next door, and when a year of Special Measures had come and gone without improvement, he was asked to preside over a newly unified institution to turn things around. “At first I spent my time in the corridors, trying to get children back into class. It was awful, there were no structures in place,” he tells us, but after the initial fire-fighting was complete, a rather more fundamental switch in the school’s approach to learning began to take place.
“Roger Cole kicked us off,” explains Ben, who joined the school as a teaching assistant shortly after it emerged from Special Measures, before qualifying as a teacher and, more recently, stepping up to the senior leadership team. “He asked us whether we knew a place that ‘made us long for childhood’ and we took that as the driving force for the changes we made to the school. We took the whole staff down to nursery, to look at the way the children there learn through first-hand experiences and practical learning. We thought, how can we use that across the whole school?”
“Physical and emotional involvement leads to better learning,” Iain sums up the philosophy. “If you’re sat at a desk with a worksheet or textbook then it’s very sterile. You’re not living the learning as much as you can. It’s rooted in the early years, but the research shows that children learn in the same way, whatever their age. The key thing for us has been developing children’s imagination. Part of the thinking for the corridors was ‘let’s develop a really imaginative environment that will get them talking’ – and it does. Young children develop incredibly quickly, and the more experiences and the more talk they have, the better.”
2. Corridors of discovery
It’s not hard to believe that Fulbridge’s corridors get kids talking – the challenge probably comes in getting them to stop. Walk past the Foundation Stage classrooms and you’ll find story-themed areas based on The Gruffalo, Dear Zoo and Red Riding Hood, as well as a leafy forest linked to nursery learning on animals. In Year 1 it’s Toy Story, then a time machine that transports children to an authentic-looking Victorian classroom and parlour, packed with artefacts to explore and discuss. Other historical eras are equally well represented elsewhere, with the Egyptians, Romans, Saxons and Vikings side by side with the World Wars, the former represented by a tomb and the latter by sandbags and an commendably authentic-feeling bomb shelter.
There are displays based on Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs, Funny Bones and Dr Seuss, while a Harry Potter area comprises a castle and common room, plus a train and track emerging from the side of the corridor. In one spot a local artist has painted a healthy eating gallery onto the wall, featuring interpretations of famous works of art; in another the topic shifts to Pirates of the Caribbean complete with decking under foot and a ship’s wheel.
These displays are as striking as they sound, but they’re not just eye candy. As Iain says, “We loved creating a nice environment, but the focus is all about the learning – the environment has to lend itself to lots of learning opportunities.” Thus the corridors are not just a means to navigate between classrooms but learning areas in their own right:
“It’s not a corridor when the children walk into a space; the atmosphere and experience transform it into a role play area,” Ben explains. “So when they’re studying the war topic, even though the children have already walked through the Anderson shelter a lot, we’ll take them there, close the doors off and put the sirens on…”
“Or staff might be sat by the sandbags pretending they’re in the trenches, re-enacting, and the children join in,” Iain adds.
It’s a similar state of affairs outside: an area dubbed the Shire, for example, features a hobbit hole, which children visit to immerse themselves in a story; then there’s Geppetto’s workshop, which is used as a venue for D&T activities. There’s even an artificial caving system linking a series of huts: “We’re using it for phonics – ‘Cave Man Dave, who needs to shave’, that kind of thing,” Ben says.
3. Expert support
Underpinning Fulbridge Academy’s amazing environment is its curriculum. Part of the Cambridge Primary Review’s core group, the school has adopted Robin Alexander’s ‘eight domains for learning’, which are taught in place of subject headings from the Foundation Stage through to Year 6. “We were surprised when we looked at the review how well it fitted with what we were already doing,” Ben says – but while the introduction of the CPR didn’t mean wholesale changes at Fulbridge, it has led to a honing of practice and a focus on key areas of learning.
“One of the eight domains of the CPR is Language, Oracy – speaking and listening – and Literacy,” Iain explains. “Oracy, in particular, is the foundation of learning, and that was something we definitely thought we could improve on. We’re getting into the dialogic teaching that Robin Alexander has done a lot on, and David Reedy, from the UKLA, is also coming in to support us, to make sure we’re questioning and talking. As we’ve focused more on talk, we’ve noticed a huge difference. That’s a direct impact of the CPR because it emphasises a broad and balanced curriculum, with talk at its heart.”
The CPR has also played a role in shaping assessment at Fulbridge. With the eight domains in places across the Foundation and Key Stages, there is now more consistency in the way children’s progress is tracked, and the school has based its bespoke system upon this framework. “The biggest change for us with assessment is whereas before we would assess how much the children could do, and they would jump up steps in order to get where they needed to be, now we’re assessing how well children can do something,” Ben says of Fulbridge’s approach. “Our teachers can look at our assessment grids and decide whether a pupil is just beginning to understand something, whether they’re developing those skills, whether they’ve embedded those skills, or whether they’ve mastered those skills. So it’s not about always moving on to new content; it’s about at what level a pupil understands a skill.
“It makes everything that little bit easier, too,” he says. “Whereas before teachers would be planning from the curriculum, teaching it in the way they felt best and then assessing the outcomes using a completely different grid, they now plan, teach and assess from the assessment grid. It means that while they’re teaching, they know what learning to assess.”
4. Striking a balance
Having a broad and balanced curriculum is important for those in charge at Fulbridge, though Iain and Ben acknowledge the inescapable need to prioritise core subjects in a world of SATs. PE, dance, drama and music all enjoy a high billing with specialists employed to provide experiences that classroom teachers might struggle to deliver.
“We’ve always had a strong PE team who are not qualified teachers,” Iain – whose own background is in PE – says, “but we’re also developing an arts and creativity team that’s going to deliver a higher quality of performing arts to all children. Paul Collins, from Blood Brothers, came in to open our dance studio recently, and he said he’d never seen our level of performance in a school – and that’s because we have the right expertise. Sam, who is heading up our arts and creativity team, isn’t a qualified teacher, but he’s so good at teaching drama. We have a couple of staff, Emma and Amy, who are great at dance, but we were lucky enough to be spotted by a guy called Jordi Guitart, who has been a West End choreographer. He’s come and coached us as well. That expertise makes such a difference to the children.”
As with Fulbridge’s learning environment, providing these kinds of opportunities is all about broadening children’s experiences, but, Iain tells us, it pays dividends across the curriculum: “One comment we had from Ofsted was how good the relationship between staff and children is here, and I think the dance and the drama and music play a big role in that. You’re doing something for them – they’re getting a lot out of it and reaching a pretty high level. You’re building relationships the whole time and that helps when it comes to something a child is finding difficult. You can say, ‘Come on, you can dance like a 16-year-old, you can do maths!” They start to believe in themselves.”
As you’d expect for a school with a passion for creativity, Fulbridge’s inventive approaches to teaching don’t end in the corridor. Regular ‘experiences’ or celebrations mark the beginning and end of terms, kicking off and concluding topics respectively in an engaging manner, while enthusiasm is maintained with the help of ‘truffle moments’ – mini experiences, involving, for example, a visitor, a trip out or role play; Ben picks out the example of military training on the field and the recreation of a hospital and canteen for those learning about war.
A particularly memorable topic, on crime, saw children and staff recruited to the FDA (Fulbridge Detective Agency), and those staff who weren’t relegated to the status of suspects. A simulated hit-and-run outside the school, amongst other felonies, prompted children to write crime reports and eliminate potential culprits using Venn diagrams, before a court case was staged to bring the guilty party to justice (turns out it was the former member of staff who had returned from time spent travelling with a suspiciously bushy beard whodunit.)
Meet the staff
Alison Barnes, Year 5–6 teacher
“Oracy is key; unless you can say it, you can’t write it. It’s about getting children to engage with and talk about projects. When you build interesting areas, children can go out and see and feel different textures, talk about them and incorporate that into their writing. We make sure that we’ve spoken about things, and that there’s time for everyone to feed back.”
Yvonne Hatchell, Year 4 teacher
“I originally came here to get experience of a school with high EAL. One of the things that stood out to me was an experience room: the children were studying nocturnal animals, and the staff had brought in branches and trees, and floored the whole place with bark chipping. There were soft animal toys and atmospheric sounds. It was incredible.”
Rose Edwards, Year 3 teacher
“Our topic at the moment is Harry Potter. On the first day of term, the children came in as though they were arriving at Hogwarts and we used the Harry Potter area of the corridor. They learnt Quidditch skills in PE, and made potions in science. We even had the caretaker come in covered in burn marks, looking as though he’d been attacked by a dragon!
Faye Attwood, Year 2 NQT
“You always want to link up learning, and the CPR brings this to the front of your mind. We’re turning some lessons upside down and having a lot more exploration at the beginning, rather than direct teaching. This leads to more purposeful talk – with maths, for example, we might pose a question and ask children to work together to come up with a solution.”
Isha, Year 5
“We do a lot of dance; sometimes we use it to tell stories, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We looked at Charlie Bucket’s life and we each had a different section to perform. It’s a good way to experience the story.”
Esha, Year 6
“I liked the Tudor topic: we had to decide whether Sir Francis Drake was a pioneer or a pirate. The teachers dressed up as Queen Elizabeth, the Spanish king and Drake’s crew. We found out different facts and had to write a balanced argument.”
Moyes, Year 6
“I like coming to school because you have no idea what’s going to happen. It could be something really random. You want to come in because you don’t want to miss anything.”
Angela, Year 6
“I joined the school this year and think it’s really good, especially the corridors. It’s very different to my last school. I like the Tudor area because you can see how things were different then compared to what we have now.”
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