By Ian Plant
In September 2021, GEMS Founders School, Dubai (GFS) established a professional development partnership with data expert, Matthew Savage. What excited me and my colleagues most about this was Matthew’s insistence that schools use data and assessment policy and practices to prioritise wellbeing. Equally important, was the emphasis he placed upon the relentless pursuit of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ).
Over the past five years, GFS has focused on shifting the assessment paradigm as part of our school improvement strategy. This shift was heightened throughout the pandemic as we began to notice significant trends in our wellbeing data.
With Matthew, we started by discussing the why of data and asked ourselves the question: is access to visible success and positive wellbeing open to all? The answer, as it is likely to be in almost every school, was ‘no’. It was recognising this that proved such a catalyst for positive change.
Spikes and curb cuts
Our plan evolved into an existential exploration of every stratum of our school’s operation and strategy. This was further informed by the work of ECIS Head of Innovation Jim Ellis on ‘spikes’ and ‘curb cuts’ as a mechanism for reviewing our school design from the inside out.
Jim sees the concepts of spikes and curb cuts as juxtaposed. The ‘student spike’, as he describes it, derives from hostile design and the literal spikes used in anti-rough sleeping urban design. The spike, then, is a symbol for the desire to push away unwanted behaviour, but doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, these spikes sometimes cause further damage.
The ‘curb cut’, as Jim further explains, is quite the opposite as it aims to take the same feature and make it more accessible for all, drawing out the best behaviour for all users.
Both the curb cut and the spike relate well to school as so much of what we do is determined by our design of the space, time and activity of students.
A typical example of a school-level spike is the school bell. Whilst intentionally designed to signal the start and end of lessons, it can unintentionally have a negative impact on students who may have a reaction to sudden, loud noises. A potential curb cut, therefore, could be for schools to consider removing the school bell completely, adjusting the sound levels or reducing the frequency.
We’re going on a spike hunt
I saw the hunting and identification of metaphorical spikes as an adventure as well as an opportunity to creatively develop our new three-year school improvement plan. Our spike hunt began as we gathered school level data from all stakeholders, focusing specifically on wellbeing information. This was collected through conversations and check-ins with students and staff, feedback from school counsellors, and more. With this, we strategically started to map out our route.
Student input was central to the process, ensuring that we captured their voice in high-level discussions with executive and senior leaders. In fact, students also joined the series of monthly workshops Matthew led with the school’s leadership team. Including our students at this level ultimately gave them the very important seat at the table all children deserve, whilst providing us with deeper levels of authentic student voice.
As a result, we identified many unintentional spikes at GFS and grouped them under five headings: lack of visibility and representation in school books; wellbeing inequity; assessment; school rules; and curriculum pathways.
Following concerns identified by a student, we asked ourselves if books in the English syllabus and school library offered visibility to, and accurately represented, our diverse student body of 107 nationalities. This provoked deep discussion and reflection, ultimately resulting in powerful communication with examination boards to investigate whether this was much wider than just a school issue.
When looking closely at wellbeing information, we questioned how we could work towards equity for all students, regardless of the characteristics a student has. We launched the use of Upstrive, an application to help us measure student engagement and wellbeing across the primary and secondary schools. This process, whilst in its infancy, led us to look closely at cohort trends and implement topics for discussion with students in assemblies and form times. For example, we identified concerns about the digital and online safety information we provided at school level, which prompted a review of our communication processes to ensure that all students had equal and consistent access to information about this important topic.
Whilst assessment was already high on our list of priorities, we wanted to intentionally shift the paradigm to ensure that the right things were assessed in the right ways and at the right times. An example was the assessment and reporting on values, attitudes and attributes and advanced cognitive performance characteristics, which form a central part of the high performance learning (HPL) framework GFS introduced two years ago. Aligning our assessment to these aspects of HPL has given us a more accurate measure of both the cognitive and affective learning domains, whilst systemising the use of evaluation language across the school.
The review and analysis of our observational street data allowed us to discuss our school rules and whether the harm they could cause outweighed their positive intent. Specific discussions revolved around school uniform, use of mobile devices and our mindful behaviour policy as we reflected deeply on how they were viewed through a student lens. From this information, and in consultation with students and parents, we implemented a digital detox month to help reduce screen time for students across the whole school and set up working parties that will review policies and practices in relation to all school rules.
Finally, we reflected upon whether students have sufficient choice about what they learn in our curriculum, and when and with whom. This spike, arguably the one that will take the longest to review and act upon, is something that has been built into future plans that will involve all seven of the schools in our wider cluster. Our intent is to work collaboratively with leaders in the cluster to further align systems and ensure that our students are provided with broader options and personalised curriculum pathways at all stages of their education.
Now alert to the spikes, we then adopted a mixed-methods approach to our research, in order to dig deeper and establish the scale of the harm that might be caused by each factor. Working in small groups, with staff and students as co-explorers, we set about gathering data to help test our hypotheses. We conducted further audits, and revisited policies and practices to see how aligned they were to our school vision and mission. Meanwhile, at the Meet the Head sessions (a weekly student voice forum) we challenged students to actively discuss each of the spikes and provide deeper, classroom-level insight into each.
Cut the curbs
Our journey moved to the curb cuts, which would become deliberate adaptations to the form and function of our school, aimed at specific groups of students but benefiting everybody as a result. As we began to fashion each curb cut, staff and students were also able to reflect on sustainability, and how the changes we were about to make would benefit our school community for a long period of time.
Our first major curb cut was the delivery of mental health first aid training across a range of staff, as well as expanding the capacity of our counselling and student welfare teams. We have already seen a major impact on the culture of our school as a result, ensuring our school improvement strategies, conversations and decisions revolve around the wellbeing and belonging of all stakeholders.
Our next curb cut is the alignment of assessment processes across the primary and secondary schools. With over 6,000 students from EYFS to year 13 at GFS, we have begun to design a model that will streamline our assessment into a system that will further support teachers in tracking students over time. Initial discussions have also taken place as we consider the exciting possibility of implementing Leuven Scales to assess levels of wellbeing and involvement across our whole school.
Advice for finding spikes and implementing curb cuts
The following advice can be used in, what is essentially, a DEIJ audit:
- View all school data as wellbeing data and make intelligent and intentional use of it to find the spikes in your school. Attainment, progress, achievement, cognitive ability, pastoral and examination data can all be analysed and used to support students’ wellbeing. With this mindset, teachers and school leaders have greater opportunities to look deeper at the information they have and triangulate all aspects of achievement, aptitude and attitudes to learning.
- Involve students and other stakeholders in the process of establishing effective and sustainable curb cuts. Gathering and acting upon authentic student voice ensures they are part of providing the solutions to the challenges faced in whole-school improvement planning, and establishing working parties that include all stakeholders provides school leaders with valuable information through various lenses. It is essential that curb cuts are designed carefully, involving multiple voices, to ensure other spikes are not created that may be detrimental to the success of the school.
Ian Plant is the Associate Principal at GEMS Founders School, Dubai. Matthew Savage is a consultant, trainer and coach, and author of the #themonalisaeffect. Jim Ellis is the Head of Innovation for ECIS, and works on student-led projects, DEIJ and teacher leadership courses. Connect with Ian, Matthew and Jim on LinkedIn.