Natural Connections Case Study – Totnes St John’s Church of England Primary School

Report to Totnes St John’s Church of England Primary School on the Natural Connections case-study visit on 23rd March 2015

We would like to extend our grateful thanks to the headteacher, staff and pupils at Totnes St John’s  Church of E Primary School for making us so welcome and giving us an informative, interesting and enjoyable day. This document is a summary of the day’s findings.

1. Interviewees

During the day, we spoke to:

    • the headteacher
    • the LINE lead
    • three teachers
    • two volunteers
    • seven pupils from Years 3, 4, 5 and 6

The purpose of our visit was to understand the extent and the range of learning outside the classroom in the natural environment (LINE) activities and their impact on staff and students. Our findings are set out below.

Children, for whatever reasons … don’t have the freedoms to play outside that they maybe once did. So offering that opportunity in school is really important.  (Headteacher)

2. School approach to LINE

Interviewees reported the following key points:

  • Interest in using the school grounds increased with the current headteacher, who funded Forest School (FS) training for the LINE lead in 2009. Since then the school has been drawing on her expertise to develop outdoor learning activities.
  • There is a positive, ‘aspirational’ LINE culture within the school, supported by all members of the school community, including parents. A key belief of the LINE lead is that LINE must ‘work for everybody’.
  • The introduction of FS across the school five years ago raised the profile of the outdoors at the school, and FS is now part of the school’s strategic planning.
  • LINE has a number of aims including: supporting the curriculum, developing understanding of the natural world and enhancing environmental awareness.
  • St John’s Totnes joined the Natural Connections project to foster the development of a local network to access and contribute to teacher continuing professional development (CPD), and to share practice.

 

The more we can get the children to experience things for themselves, the better and deeper the learning is going to be. (Headteacher)

3. Overview of LINE activity

St John’s Totnes is on a four-acre site, with two acres of outdoor space for learning and playing; a stunning setting’. The school was built on a sloping grazing field and so has a number of mature trees, including a 200 year-old oak; 1800 additional native trees and shrubs were planted on site when the school was built around 35 years ago. The site also has a vegetable garden, two small copses, a large field, an extensive nature area which is accessed largely by a boardwalk, a Forest School area, a fire circle, rope swings, and ‘endless areas’ for dens. At the time of our visit, there were preparations under way to keep the chicks that had hatched in the school this year; there is also a vision of an outdoor classroom, which could be built in the field and fitted with science and art equipment.

Teachers are supported by the LINE lead in planning / developing LINE lessons, and choose their own activities; ‘almost all’ now undertake some LINE. All pupils experience Forest School for a five-week period with their teachers each year, apart from Year 6 who undertake the John Muir Award. This is regarded as ‘the highlight’ of the year for these pupils, who ‘discover, explore, conserve’ around the school grounds and ‘share’ their experiences with the school community.

Volunteers are recruited from a variety of sources, and are essential to the school’s LINE work, including managing the vegetable garden. Forest School sessions are especially well supported; most sessions attract around five volunteers.

4. Staff and volunteer views on LINE implementation

Staff reported the following points:

  • The freedom for each class teacher to attend their class’ Forest School activities (with the LINE lead running the session) raised the profile of LINE and provides ongoing LINE CPD for all teachers within the school.
  • It was important that one person had the responsibility for LINE within the school to ensure that there is a ‘driving force’ for this area. Interviewees felt that the LINE lead was ‘very good’ at involving staff and encouraging them to develop their own LINE practice.
  • LINE is used in a number of curricular areas such as Saxon Settlers in history, maths, poetry, science and phonics.
  • LINE was a key part of pupils’ school experiences: ‘the children wouldn’t be getting the education, the experiences and the childhood that they are getting in our school if we didn’t have the environment that we have got and make the use of it that we do’.
  • Teaching outside ‘feeds the soul’; teachers enjoy being outside and feel that their relationship with the children develops in positive ways as they get to learn more about the pupils in a different context.

There is no way you could get that same sense of belonging to the past doing it in the classroom or the hall … it’s just been amazing. (Staff member)

Parent volunteers described the LINE lead as ‘inspirational’, and felt that the inclusive ethos of St John’s Totnes made volunteering a positive experience. They believed that LINE encourages children’s love of learning, develops a wide range of skills and provides opportunities to learn more about the natural world. One commented particularly on the school’s caring ethos and how this was supported by LINE.

It has just been wonderful … I think it [going outside] is a really joyful thing for the children to do. (Volunteer)

 5. Challenges to LINE

Challenges were seen as:

  • Managing the school grounds, which can be ‘a real worry’ on account of their size. The John Muir week, in which pupils, staff and student teachers work on the grounds, helps with this through the ‘conserve’ part of the week.
  • Teachers lacking confidence in their own knowledge of the outdoors, for example of types of tree, and their ability to teach in all weathers. Building a bank of resources to support teachers could help this, but takes time.
  • The pressure of time, as the LINE lead has many other school responsibilities.
  • There had been some recent vandalism in the school grounds.

6. Impact of LINE

This section briefly describes the reported impact of LINE on pupils.

Engagement with learning

Staff felt that LINE encouraged deeper learning because it enables children to experience things for themselves, and that this is important in helping children become more curious and interested.

Enjoyment

A key impact is children’s enjoyment of school, seen in pupil view questionnaires, which rate using the outdoor space as ‘really important’.

Attainment

Engagement and enjoyment have led to an improvement in pupil performance, for instance with writing: ‘part of our journey with that has been to develop experiences for the children to write about, and a large number of those experiences are based in the outdoors… Our writing results are now slightly above national average whereas they were well below before’.

Social and emotional development

Staff reported a number of different ways in which LINE helps pupils in their social and emotional development:

  • Conflict resolution. When building dens outside, children find it easier to talk through conflict that arises in this situation where they are working towards a common goal than, say, over a football; teachers will bring this learning back into the classroom when conflict arises.
  • Resilience. One of the Year 6 tasks for the John Muir Award is to mend the boardwalk, which takes a long time and initially appears daunting to the children.
  • Problem solving. For instance calculating dimensions when rigging a tarpaulin roof for a shelter.
  • Children who find academic work difficult ‘have that ability to be the same as anyone else and maybe become an expert in something… it (LINE) does level the playing field’.

[Outside it is] almost a surprise when it is time to end because you have not been looking at the clock; you have just been being and talking and doing and laughing and taking joy in the surroundings. (Staff member)

8. Pupil views

All the pupils interviewed were positive about LINE, citing the John Muir Award and Forest School as particular highlights. They reported that:

  •  They felt ‘excitement’, ‘happiness’ and ‘a sense of fun’ when they went outside.
  • ‘Taking care of the environment is really good to do’.
  • They enjoyed the fresh air as a contract to stuffy classrooms, where they felt ‘trapped’. Going outside was a ‘relief’.
  • They enjoyed running around in the summer and seeing the shapes that the frost makes in the winter.
  • ‘We were learning how to use axes and saws and mallets … it was very good’.
  • Discussing work outside was helpful to their learning because they could access others’ ideas and reach a compromise about them. This was difficult inside as discussions could get noisy.

Pupils reported (after some prompting!) that weather extremes were ‘not good’; they were disappointed by mud and rain as this made the ground slippery and could, in extreme circumstances, mean that Forest School would be cancelled.

I feel like we have more freedom [outside] because we get to discuss more about what we are learning about with each other. (Pupil)

Martin Gilchrist and Rowena Passy, Natural Connections Demonstration Project. Please contact Martin martin.gilchrist@plymouth.ac.uk if you have any questions or comments.

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