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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 8

From England / Inquiring and Collaborating at an Exemplary School

The social system of an entire school community—including parents as assistants—encourages students to excel academically, socially, and emotionally.

In a "Comment Book," the parents and teacher of 5-year-old Jessica share their observations during the first week of school at Hempshill Hall Primary School in Nottingham, England: Sept. 4, Teacher: Jessica has chosen some books to share with you, The Greatest Show on Earth, Brown Bear, and Not Now, Bernard. She could just concentrate on one or read them all equally. She can keep these as long as she wants—I will probably discuss them with her next Monday.Father: I read The Greatest Show with Jessica and her brothers, Jeroen and Dylan. We discussed the story and tried to find out what was happening from the pictures. Jessica enjoyed the story and understood all the pictures.Sept. 5, Mother: Jessica read Dylan and me the Brown Bear book without much help. She also read Jeroen's book The Red Fox.Sept. 6, Teacher: Thank you. Jessica now has her poetry folder and a poem to share with you.Sept. 9, Mother: Jessica and her younger brother, Dylan, read the poem, and she showed us how to shout "all join in." They both enjoyed it, so we read it a few times. She also read us the Brown Bear again.Teacher: I am pleased Jessica and Dylan enjoyed the poem. Also, it is interesting to learn what other books she is sharing with you. Jessica read Brown Bear with me, and she had remembered it really well. She is bringing home two new books to share.
Comment Books like Jessica's go home with every student at Hempshill Hall all year long, as parents and teachers communicate about their common objective—helping the child become a successful reader. The teachers feel that the interchanges help extend the influence of the school into reading/writing activities in the home. The parents feel that the process keeps them in close touch with the student-teacher-parent triad that makes education work. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Jessica's mother:The comments make a real difference. They are one of the best things about having my daughter in Hempshill Hall. It really keeps you in touch and also keeps pressure on you as a parent. You feel that you have to read with the children every day because the teacher comments so regularly. It also is interesting to see how Jessica is learning to read. Yesterday, when I asked her about reading her newest book, she said that she could read it "because all the words were in my head." What we do now with Jessica adds about three hours a week to her concentration on learning to read.

Hempshill Hall

We visited Hempshill Hall Primary School during a recent trip to England, where we worked with several school improvement networks affiliated with the University of Nottingham. Because people kept talking about this school, we knew we had to go there and interview the staff—and parents—about the students and program at this public school.
Students. This school, operated by the Nottingham Educational Authority, serves about 350 children from the working-class community of Bulwell, Nottingham. About 60 percent of the children live in the immediate neighborhood, a post-World War II development. Within the district, most families are two-parent households. Most mothers do not work outside the home.
About 40 percent of the students commute from a public housing project outside the neighborhood. The majority of these children come from single-parent households, and few of their mothers work outside the home.
About 30 percent of the children in the school receive free (government-subsidized) lunches.
School staff. The school has a head teacher, 10 full-time teachers, and 4 paid teaching assistants. In addition, 5 parents are assistants-in-training, participating in a job-training program that benefits both parents and school. Also, at least 6 student teachers are usually present. An auxiliary staff is composed of the 60 parents who volunteer at school for one or two days each week. The school has capitalized on the nature of the community, drawing in those parents who have the willingness and time to be a major part of the school community. The school policy is:You must be totally inclusive. Lots of people can help out if you will only provide the avenues and make them welcome.

The School as a Social System

Hempshill School has generated a thorough process for building a system in which school staff, parents, and students share responsibility for excellence in academic, social, and personal development of the children.
Here are a few dimensions of the Hempshill social system.
Orientation. Parents and students become acquainted with the school before the children have reached school age. In the fall of each year, the school staff holds meetings designed to build the student-parent-school partnership. In addition, neighborhood parents of children not yet in school are invited to bring their children to the school on Thursdays—to "Thursday Club"—and they can attend every Thursday if they wish.
Parents as teaching assistants. Parents are welcome at Hempshill. Parents can enter and leave the school at will, are likely to be involved in whatever activity is going on, are invited to help with the children, and are asked to work with their children at home, as shown by Jessica's Comment Book. Many parents become teaching assistants—approximately one person from every six families is successfully recruited for this crucial job.
Multiple school assemblies. Not just once, but two or three times a week, the entire student body gathers at an assembly, led by Stuart Harrison, the deputy head teacher. Students often present plays, many of which involve a considerable amount of improvisation and emphasis on values as students decide on the moral of the story. These assemblies bring students together as a school community; provide opportunities for learning to be a civil, polite audience; and, incidentally, mean that each year students are participants in or audiences for about 70 plays. The OFSTED Report comments on this theater experience as "spiritual development":<BQ>Spiritual development permeates the life of the school in a pervasive yet unobtrusive manner. Opportunities are taken to bring out spiritual issues during lessons, as they occur. Regular, well-prepared school and class assemblies take place, often using stories that illustrate values or have a moral content. The assemblies contribute effectively to the school's overall ethos and values.</BQ>

Integrated and Individualized Learning

Holistic learning is not limited to assemblies. All staff members try to help students feel that they are capable and that each is responsible for the learning of all. Learning to cooperate, to live democratically, and to collaborate as inquirers—as scholars—fit together in a comfortable whole.
The curriculum framework. The curriculum is academically rich, and staff members emphasize literacy. All teachers, not just those specializing in language arts, teach reading through real (trade) books, both fiction and nonfiction. School subjects are divided into units that are approached as experiential and reading/writing inquiries. The curriculum is organized around related concepts, not around topics. From a letter to parents: [Our curriculum] is based on the programmes of study in the National Curriculum Core Subjects of Mathematics, Science, English, and Technology.
Collaborative inquiry. Staff and students investigate material in the core subjects and identify problems to be solved. Then students, organized into groups, delve into the material and problems. Thus, collaborative inquiry is the hallmark of the teaching/learning process; but individual students have responsibility for many strands of learning, and teachers closely monitor individual differences in achievement.
The school's curriculum and instructional processes differ greatly from those of typical schools. At those schools, staff members assign students to classes in which teachers, working almost as if in miniature schools, progress through the curriculum. At Hempshill, by contrast, everybody is responsible for all the students, working toward common goals and using common strategies. From a letter to parents:Although our [academic] aims are traditional, our methods are not always so, and you may find that your children will be taught very differently from the way you were taught at their age. We respect individual differences, and do not normally "drill" whole classes together, regardless of ability.
Cooperative groups. The entirety of Hempshill Hall is a "class" whose members cooperate as a whole and where cooperative groups work within a common framework to pursue excellence. Staff members, students, and parents perceive personal, social, and academic growth as part of a whole.
Individual classrooms are not isolated educational settings. The classes operate as units where several teachers work together to plan and carry out their projects and day-to-day inquiries. Students can discuss their goals, and the whole class is driving at common substantive objectives. Students work in collaborative groups and as individuals to master those goals.
Technology is a tool to support learning, not an activity in itself. As with language arts, the use of the computer is integrated into learning in all subjects. The principal and staff encourage parents to purchase small electronic word processors for their children through business partnership funding; in addition, the school has about 40 computers.
Staff planning. Teachers work in teams to develop schemes of work that reflect the national curriculum. They develop each scheme as a bit of research for the students, and they plan field trips, videotapes, and films to support the students' extensive reading.
Individual learning and responsibility. In all schools, individual students do the learning. The social climate at Hempshill Hall supports an expectation of individual responsibility and excellence. Many student projects are offshoots of a class or school collaborative inquiry. The school does not make the mistake of generating "group products" that are not an amalgam of individual inquiries. Students display the results of their research through writing projects, multimedia presentations, and enactments.

Hempshill Results

Observers have documented many positive results of the collaborative process at Hempshill Hall, including few discipline problems, cooperation in socialized groups, high academic achievement, and enhanced family values.
Discipline and cooperation. Hempshill's emphasis on collaborative inquiry greatly diminishes the disciplinary problems typical of many other schools. "Discipline" is a matter of bringing the children into the social norms of cooperation, inquiry, and mutual respect. Thus, the mode is socialization, rather than the enforcement of a code only tangentially relevant to the teaching/learning process. From a letter to parents: "Hempshill Hall School has a Mission—that all our children shall be Happy, live in Harmony, and achieve Success."
Academic achievement. Hempshill pupils excel academically, as shown by standardized tests and evaluations by an official external examiner. Such assessments become very important whenever a school abandons the old recitation model in favor of collaborative-inquiry models. Here are some excerpts from the OFSTED Report of December 1994: Standards in reading, writing and speaking and listening . . . are good and sometimes outstanding. . . . Pupils use text effectively for learning. They read widely and value reading as a source of information. . . . Pupils write with the coherence, fluency, and accuracy which is appropriate for their age and ability and often beyond. . . . They tackle successfully an increasing range of written work and plan, develop, and re-write their own text where appropriate. They are able to narrate, explain, describe, and hypothesise. . . . They listen well to others and respond appropriately and sensitively.Pupils handle numbers well across the curriculum, mentally and in writing. They use measurement effectively in a range of different contexts, particularly in science, technology, and history.Standards in information technology are good and sometimes outstanding. Pupils create, modify, and present information in English, art, history, and mathematics. They use databases to enhance the quality of their work in history.
On a recent national assessment, the performance of Hempshill students was almost double the national average. At the "Key Stage 2" national assessment for 1994-95, conducted when pupils were leaving Year 4 and were 10-11 years old, the percentage of pupils achieving Levels 4 and 5 in English was 70 (national average, 48). In math, the percentage reaching levels 4 and 5 was 82 (national average, 44).
Family values. Hempshill Hall is a center of learning for teachers, parents, and students. Parents are brought into the partnership at the beginning, and easy communication and participation systems keep them in it. Inclusiveness, perseverance, and affirmative problem-solving are what make this school one to emulate. From a letter to parents:We provide a warm, caring, "family style" environment where your child can feel valued, living in harmony with friends—a real extended family unit.
End Notes

1 The OFSTED Report (London: Office for Standards in Education 1994) was produced by the government inspection team responsible for assessing the quality of British schools. The six-member team spent a week at Hempshill, conducting surveys, examining planning documents, observing lessons and school life, interviewing staff and students, and listening to students read. Access (http://www.open.gov.uk/ofsted/ofsted.htm) OFSTED on the Web.

Bruce Joyce has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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