A spotlight on Whitley Park Primary and Nursery

“It's been an amazing project for our school. It's exactly what we needed. It's been embraced by everybody … I'm really excited to move on to stage two."

Whitley Park Primary and Nursery School is a large community school located in Reading. The proportions of disadvantaged students attending Whitley Park as well as those with SEND and English as an additional language are above the national average. The school has been working on oracy with Voice 21 for just over a year and, in that time, students have become increasingly confident in their ability to talk about their learning. With this in mind, we were excited to talk to Ruth Thompson, Deputy Headteacher and Oracy Lead, about the school’s oracy journey so far, and the impact that this has had on staff and students at Whitley Park.

When asked what motivated Whitley Park to join Voice 21, Ruth had the following to say:

“We have a high level of deprivation and vulnerability indicators at our school … a lot of children come into school with very little language … and some children don’t speak at all … We have 41% Pupil Premium. And in a school our size, that’s just about 230 children. And we knew that their language and vocabulary was generally poorer than non-Pupil Premium … So we wanted to be very, very clear about bringing oracy into school as a priority, as a driver through all our work in school to make sure that we’re increasing vocabulary opportunities, improving language, and improving children speaking in Standard English and when sharing their learning.”

It was clear from talking to Ruth that before joining Voice 21 she felt that all students would benefit from receiving a high-quality oracy education. She wanted students to be able to talk about their learning with confidence. This was important not only in the context of an imminent Ofsted inspection but also because “the children deserve the right to be able to have the tools to share their learning”.

Ruth explains that there has been a whole-staff approach to Whitley Park’s focus on oracy; everybody has been on a collaborative journey. Reflecting on the successes of the past year, Ruth stated that she needed to:

“Make sure that we are not teaching teachers to do something they already know. So throughout this process, the most important thing is, whenever we surveyed them, whenever we’ve tried to collect data and information, whenever we’ve done listening walks, we were always focused on making sure we knew the gap. And so we only ever focused and responded to the gap … And then as we’ve gone along as the champions have had their training, we’ve kind of incorporated that work into lots of different types of meetings. And that’s where it’s been really successful. So we’ve done it on a whole school level. We’ve done it in cohorts. We’ve done it across phases.”

When it came to introducing Voice 21 core approaches to staff, Ruth and her team started small with discussion guidelines, oracy assemblies, and debate. These core approaches tended to be used in subjects where staff felt most comfortable, namely maths and writing. In their first year, Whitley Park focused on two Teacher Benchmarks: (1) values every voice, and (2) appraises progress in oracy.  Through the use of listening walks and oracy surgeries, Ruth and her team were “constantly evaluating” and using formative assessments “to try and work out where the gaps were”. During her interview, Ruth recalled taking a rigorous, whole-school approach on receipt of her school’s oracy benchmarking data: “we went quite wide with it. We asked middle leaders to look at it and we asked senior leaders to look at it. And then we asked teachers to look at it, I asked Alice [Whitley Park’s Oracy Consultant] to look at it. And I asked the governor’s to look at it and ask ‘why is this?’”.

Whitley Park has experienced a number of successes during their first stage of membership. “Messy talk” is on the rise, and children are talking more:

They’re just speaking more, they’re listening more, there’s a lot more partner work, questioning work. So there’s all this strategy, the talk and the groupings, they are just part and parcel of lessons now. It’s become a toolkit for teachers. For instance, in maths, we have oracy stems all over the place now. The children are just a lot more capable, and happy to share their learning.

Ruth recalls a change in students’ confidence being particularly evident when Ofsted visited the school last year. Previously, students would “freeze” when approached by an unfamiliar adult, whereas “on this occasion, they didn’t and they were confident to stand up and say … this is where we’re at and this is what we’re doing”. The school’s recent Ofsted report (December 2021) is a testament to the hard work that has gone into creating a culture of oracy at Whitley Park and the impact oracy has had on its students. The quotes below are taken directly from the report and were discussed at length with Ruth during her interview.

“Pupils try hard in lessons. They listen and want to learn. For example, in a mixed Year 3 and 4 class, pupils spoke confidently about tectonic plate boundaries and their role in earthquakes and volcanoes”

“They talk confidently about the differences between bullying and disagreements’ 

“Leaders prioritise pupils’ oracy skills throughout subjects. They make sure that pupils learn how to talk and use spoken language skills well. This starts with a sharp focus on communication and language in early years. For example, in the Nursery, children were able to recite the story of ‘The Gingerbread Man’ while playing with characters from the story. Pupils across the school can talk about their ideas and join in with discussions adeptly. This deepens their understanding”

We were keen to ask Ruth what advice she would give schools similar to her own who were starting out on their oracy journey. Her ‘top tips’ are summarised below:

  • Carry out the benchmark surveys and dig down into it, so you really understand it.
  • Carry out regular listening walks and take all of your champions with you.
  • Survey your students about their Oracy progress (via Google Surveys) as often as you need too.
  • Learn from the experiences of other Voice 21 Oracy Schools – Ruth recalls gaining a lot from the webinar which explored the successes and challenges Braunstone Frith Primary School experienced on their oracy journey.
  • Conduct champion-led ‘oracy surgeries’ across key stages, to offer bespoke solutions and staff CPD, to varying age ranges.

The school has just moved into stage two of their Voice 21 membership. Reflecting on stage one, Ruth told us that the most valuable aspect of Voice 21 membership has been the ability to “work at our pace”.

That immediately took the pressure off. And even though we’ve worked like mad on it across the year, as Lead, I’ve been given the space to do that, because my head teacher has prioritised Oracy as a Curriculum driver. I never had Voice 21 saying, “you have to keep up with us.’ Even though we have pushed so much through successfully, this mantra is so supportive and still in the back of my mind.  

Ruth also stated that she is grateful for the relationship she has been able to foster with Whitley Park’s oracy consultant, Alice Kennedy. “She’s almost a member of your school, a member of your team, who is remote, which is lovely. She’s been very, very supportive”. Ruth values the consistency of Alice staying with Whitley Park as they move into stage two of their membership; “even just having to go through the context of my school and the complexities, Alice already knows that. So she’s been really good to me, allowing me to bring the team in for meetings because it’s never just me, I bring everybody in”.

So, what’s next for Whitley Park? As Ruth and her team move on to stage two of their membership she hopes to further engage parents and other stakeholders in the school’s oracy journey. She states: “we’re going to work on consistency in planning, medium-term planning, long-term planning and displays, making sure we have a much wider focus, but more structured for the teachers”. It is also interesting to note that Ruth intends to involve other “leading lights” in her school and “picks up staff members for stage two. I feel like I’ve always got separate champions for each stage. Because each stage is so different and, in my opinion, requires a different skill set. I also don’t want to exhaust my stage one champions either”.

There is a real excitement about stage two at Whitley Park, and we can’t wait to see how the school capitalises on its successes and moves forward on its oracy journey. Thank you so much Ruth for being so generous with your time, and good luck for stage two from all of us here at Voice 21.

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