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Nanstallon School - a reinvention

The following article appeared in the September 2021 Cooperative Schools Network newsletter.
Ben Stephenson became Headteacher of Nanstallon school in September 2018. A single school Cooperative Foundation Trust in Cornwall, Ben tells his story of the changes since his arrival. Ben and the Nanstallon team would be delighted to share their best practices with you, and in return would welcome any support you can offer as they redevelop the strategic focus of their Cooperative Foundation Trust. The school is doing much to build community and trust, and to develop agency in children, caregivers and staff.
 

The Beginning
Calling this a journey of reinvention sounds idyllic, but the reality was that it was both incredibly rewarding and incredibly draining! Our school in 2018 was not in a good place, and the life of our Trust was conspicuous in its absence. In table stakes terms, we were a requires improvement school with attainment below national average, average progress of -3/-4 over three years, and a lack of challenge in school culture. The school environment also needed improvement – it was cluttered and uncared for, and the children in the school were bored and dysregulated. Our small staff weren’t united, due to mixed messages. In fact, all in the school community seemed ready for change, and children and staff alike had evident talent waiting to be tapped.
 
Our journey was rooted in three factors:

  • The wisdom of experience, which means being aware of shortcomings, being actively engaged in learning, and knowing how to build on successes.
  • The courage to take risks. Founded on our values and principles, we had to believe in our own sense of agency and self-direction with such a turbulent national and regional picture.
  • Drawing on others’ expertise, particularly the child-centred philosophies of educators like Sir Ken Robinson.
Simply put, we wanted to shift the paradigm of what our school is for, allowing creativity to be central to the learning experience.
 
Changing Habits and Living our Values
We took Sir Ken’s message to heart, and focused on shifting the habits of mind in the school and changing the physical environment. We also worked hard to ‘live the badge’. Our school motto is Ad vitam paramus (We are preparing for life) and we wanted to make this come alive. In terms of content, this meant we would focus on children understanding their role in the chain of history, linking heritage with the future, and building environmental wellbeing. We also knew we had to focus on life skills. 
 
Equality and equity are core to our work, and we know that children with limited economic and cultural capital struggle to compete with well-resourced peers. A strong start in reception would be vital, and sustaining this strong start equally important. We knew also that we would have to make sure we were enabling our most vulnerable children to thrive, and would need to use SEND and Trauma lenses to design our physical environment and provision.
 
For the first half-term, we focused on changing our approach to learning, making sure it was placed in a meaningful context, connected, activated and made visible. We also worked at decluttering and reorganizing the environment. It was challenging: staffing issues meant we were dependent on long term supply for much of 2018-19. Nonetheless, by January 2019, we were working on creating an early years indoor/outdoor learning environment that had previously been unusable. This has become the blue print for classroom learning environments across the school.
 
Building Belonging and Authentic Learning
We used the Circle of Courage model, originally developed for at risk children, to build structure and positive language for regulation. This focuses on four elements: belonging (the sense of relatedness to everyone you know - solidarity); independence (which ties strongly to the Cooperative values of self-help and self-responsibility); generosity (developing a sense of worth and caring for others); mastery (including a growth mindset approach).
 
In curriculum terms, we addressed learning through a focus on what Dr Laura Jana calls QI skills – the ‘soft’ skills that are essential for all of us. We now use a consistent focus on Jana’s seven QIs from the first day in all year groups – children are now able to hold onto the skills, interests and enthusiasms with which they are brimming on arrival throughout their schooling at Nanstallon. We seek never to switch off the excitement of learning.
 
The final big piece of expertise we drew on for our school was Sensory Integration. In September 2018, our children weren’t calm and learning ready. We all needed to process and interpret more effectively. We worked on clarifying the consistent routines and practices we could all deploy to enable children to concentrate, create, and engage.
 
In Summary
We’ve come a long way. Our children enjoy school, and they cooperate. We have school habits and habitats that are rich and child-focused. We have democratic processes in place to involve children in their learning, give them autonomy and ownership, and immerse them through hands on experiences and learning on the move.
 
We’ve concentrated on building social capital, and embedded a language and models that that reinforce good learning, making the learning experience its own reward. Children are proud to showcase their learning experiences. 
 
Now we’ve redeveloped the school environment and our provision, we have started to bring our Cooperative Trust back to life. Our Board is re-established, a strategic plan is in place. We are excited for 2021.

If you'd like to get in touch with Ben and Nanstallon school, send us a message and we will forward it to him with absolute pleasure. A large part of the Network's job is to build the connections in the network, and we know that all at Nanstallon would be delighted to increase their engagement with the wider cooperative community.