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Thoughts from an English Lead

Joe Neale, English Lead across the Trust, shares his thoughts on the focus on English during a very different year.


A key part of my role is in coaching and supporting colleagues across the Trust. Last September, after a Covid-disrupted few months, I was looking forward to getting back into each school, and working directly with teachers. Sadly, this year was far from normal, meaning constantly changing plans, and a focus on advising, networking and supporting remotely rather than working in classrooms. Nonetheless, school development and improvement has continued and it’s been impressive to see our school English leads striving to improve how their subject is delivered, despite the challenges. This has been achieved through something of a hybrid approach – with strong assessment and Trust wide initiatives, coupled with supporting our school leaders to make judgements about the specific English schemes they employ.


Best of Breed Approach

Schoolsworks’ approach to reading and writing promotes autonomy in every school; enabling each to teach English in the way they believe will best suit their learners. Of course a few shared key principles have developed over time including promotion of reading for pleasure, expectations of high standards in writing and use of quality and inspiring texts. But flexibility remains, enabling each school to innovate, develop and explore how they approach teaching English.


As a result we have a range of different phonics schemes and writing approaches that are used effectively and work well in the individual school. One approach is Talk for Writing, which places a focus on the internalisation of language structures and patterns from literary examples. This year some schools have also begun to introduce strategies from the Write Stuff approach, which includes a strong focus on sentence development and ideas gathering. This broad approach means our English leads are always able to share and learn from each other, giving them the opportunity and confidence to adopt different schemes, as best suits their school and learners.


One aspect of English that has emerged as a real cornerstone for many schools this year is vocabulary development. There is considerable academic research showing the negative impact that a limited vocabulary has on learners as they move through education. The concept of supporting our children to become ‘word rich’ is now firmly embedded in our schools, again, using different approaches. 


Strong Assessment

We now have a better understanding of the impact of school closures on children’s attainment in English and what this means going forward. Our assessment tools, including Star reading tests, were used as children returned to school following the winter lockdown, and within a few weeks we had a clear picture of how things stood. Subsequent assessments in the summer term have been encouragingly positive and most children have continued to read and make progress, despite not being at school. This is undoubtedly a result of Schoolsworks’ powerful promotion and culture of reading for pleasure across all our schools.


Accelerated Reader is another very effective programme used across the Trust, helping support good reading habits in children. It was wonderful to see the lengths that our committed staff went to during lockdown to provide children with new reading books including book swapping sessions, book changing rooms and even staff dropping reading books off at children’s homes.


Identifying the Gaps

Our data has identified certain groups of children, particularly disadvantaged or lower attaining readers, who have been negatively affected by the disruption. For some schools the gap between the strongest and weakest readers has become wider. Across the Trust our English leads are taking steps to address this including through interventions focusing on fluency and extending synthetic phonics teaching into KS2. 


While perhaps not quite as significant as feared, there’s been an impact on phonics attainment in EYFS and Year 1 with the phonics screening check impacted. Some schools have trialled a highly targeted child by child approach, to facilitate catch up to great effect.


The impact of school closures on writing is harder to measure. Other than a single session in May, writing moderation sessions have been unable to be held this year. This is likely to mean less consistency of assessment so moderation will be a high priority as soon as restrictions allow.


National Comparisons

By using a Comparative Judgement Assessment programme, we have access to some nationally standardised data, which suggests that our children have, broadly speaking, kept up with their peers across the country. Nevertheless, there has clearly been a negative impact on children’s writing, although the true extent will become clearer when we begin cross-Trust moderation again. 


The ongoing disruption this year means there’s a lot to do in supporting our schools with their English next year. As a result, we’re moving to an English leadership team model with three experienced English leaders from across the Trust working together to support our schools. Let’s just hope the next academic year is a slightly more settled one!