Educational leadership & learning

“Creating Learning without limits”

(Many Swann, Alison Peacock, Susan Hart, Mary Jane Drummond) (2012)


I was fortunate enough to listen to Dame Alison Peacock address the Hampshire Primary Headteacher conference earlier in 2014 and was therefore very motivated to read more about the story of her journey with staff and pupils at Wroxham Primary. I found it an inspiring and challenging read – as it made me question some of my previous assumptions and practices, and gave me hope for a bright and exciting future.


Transformability model

The authors discussed that human potential is not predictable, that worthwhile learning is often unpredictable and that therefore the use of levels and expected rates of progress for different perceived ability children is very limiting. They explain that a transformability model is about,


Replacing the fatalism of ability labels with a more hopeful, powerful and empowering view of learners and learning”


From previous ‘Pupil Progress meeting’ conversations I was aware that I and other colleagues had been guilty of this. For example a pupil in KS2 who only achieved a NC level 1 and was EAL was often discussed with a sigh, a list of interventions that had not moved them on in their learning very far and with an underlying expectation that they would only achieve a level 3 in Y6. Worse, the child had many personal and social strengths, and a positive willingness to be involved and help – but these were only mentioned in a cursory way.


The transformability model assumes that there is always potential for change and that we should give fundamental trust to children’s powers as learners. It is natural for human beings to want to learn and to thrive on exploring and discovery. Our role should be to ensure that by not using labels and levels we do not hamper this natural curiosity. The authors talk about seeing children in a different light, valuing them in different ways, and expecting to be impressed and surprised by children’s responses. They also quote two other educationalists:


“Making more generous room within our schooling system in order to accommodate all young people” (Salmon 1995)


“Greater focus on becoming than on being…greater priority on valuing than measuring…the quality of the (learning) journey (as opposed to the pace)” (Eisneer 2004)


I have been fortunate to work with highly dedicated and creative colleagues in two schools last academic year who are developing creative ways of using the curriculum to respond to learners’ interests and needs, and to inspire and empower children through approaches such as Project Based Learning. I have already embarked on developing this approach with colleagues at my new school (first day today) and am very keen with the idea of personal growth and valuing children holistically as people.


Pedagogical principles: Co-agency; Everybody and Trust

Co-agency they explained is about creating relevant and authentic experiences, so that learning is a partnership and the children are empowered as active learner and meaning makers. The children’s control over their own learning is increased and they are given genuine choices and opportunities to take the lead and drive their learning and the curriculum. In my previous two schools we have been developing further these opportunities with our pupils. The authors also talk about the crucial importance of listening to children, and that pupil voice needs to become less superficial and more active pupil partnership.


“Experience and appreciate the importance of listening to children and build respect for and trust in their responses.”


Everybody as the second principle means that no child is left behind or disregarded. Every child (and adult) in a school should be valued, accepted, respected and recognised for the unique contribution they can make. Today our local vicar (who is also one of our governors) came to part of our INSET day and read a passage from the Bible which described how different parts of the body may have different functions, uses and perceived importance – but they are all essential and we think of them as part of our body, not as the separate entities. The authors describe the need for decision to be made for the benefit of all and the power of the collective for learning – in other words positive and effective collaboration between staff, between groups of pupils and between staff and pupils.


“Fundamental responsibility and commitment to acting in the interests of everybody.”


Staff need to trust that all children want to learn, and leaders need to trust staff to be active thinkers and learners. What is crucial in schools and life after school is people’s capacity to learn and grow. Children should be enabled to choose their own level of challenge, which is an aspect we have been working on in my previous school, particularly in maths – a subject in which children can often have a fixed mindset – a negative self-fulfilling prophecy of their ability. The children need to be active partners in their learning, who are encouraged to take risks and embrace challenge and struggle, as

“Autonomous learning needs non-threatening and accepting relationships.”



One of the key phrases that resonated with me was that the pupils were given “freedom to learn”. They were offered choices as this was a “necessary element of the conditions that nurture active, engaged, enthusiastic and intrinsically motivated learners”.

The children were listened to and their participation and choices were not limited to simply choosing from a pre-planned and prepared set of activities. In a previous school I have developed with a colleague the use of pupils as ‘Curriculum Consultants’ who help evaluate and plan sequences of sessions and learning experiences.

They learnt together, building a community of learners within and between classes. We are planning to use other classes as an audience for tours of classroom zoos and active participants of pupil led science activities.

They have also developed a range of open-ended curriculum experiences, which enabled the pupils to appreciate that “learning is endlessly enticing: no-one can ever finish learning.”



The authors describe the learning journey and professional growth of the staff within autonomous and liberating culture. They discuss that teachers themselves should take the lead on their development, by being committed to questioning their own practice regularly and by engaging critically with research. Seven dispositions of powerful autonomous learners are identified in three domains.


Intellectual domain Affective domain Social domain








Openness: being open to new ideas, possibilities, opportunities and experiences. A willingness to learn from and be receptive to the ideas of everyone.

Questioning: restlessly searching for better ways of doing things.

Inventiveness: the desire and capacity to imagine and do something new.

Persistence: persistent thought, sustained effort and progressive refinement. Believing that desired changes are always possible and worthwhile learning necessarily involves struggle

Stability: sense of being valued and making a unique contribution enables risk taking.

Generosity: trust in everyone’s capacity to learn and embrace diversity.

Empathy: listening to others and understanding the world through their eyes.


Staff development and professional growth is one of the key roles of a school leader and a crucial driver in successful school development and learning.

“Sustained support for CPD…Empowered to think for themselves and find their own way…engage in worthwhile, purposeful learning.”



Finally the authors reflected on the impact of leadership within the school’s journey and specifically Alison’s role and style of leadership as Headteacher. As a new Headteacher I found this section particularly fascinating from a personal perspective, and it has given me ideas and inspirati


“Giving absolute priority to creating conditions that will enable professional learning to flourish”


They describe how Alison used every means possible to encourage people to be active participants in “the reconstruction of a flourishing learning community”.  One of the discussions I have already had with staff in my new school is about collectively defining “powerful learning” and “high quality teaching”, which will help us develop what is described in the book as shared understandings. Our aim is to continue to review and refer to this when planning as we build what the governors at my school have requested: an exceptional learning community.


Alison invited a wider and richer range of discussion about learning and encouraged her staff to tussle with the complexities of this. Genuine dialogue was crucial and she says that is “often more powerful to listen than to talk” (a definite challenge as those colleagues who have worked with me can testify). The authors describe the use of a coaching style model in which Alison would come alongside and share thinking with colleagues, leaving them with a question to stimulate thinking rather than a given answer or solution. Those conversations, that stimulate thinking and are described as an invitation to imagination, where something I referenced in my interview for my current role, which was highlighted by one of the panel as a crucial and often underestimated element of staff professional development.


Alison describes the need for a stable environment, with a smooth running school, where time and space is given and staff are protected from unnecessary external pressures. She also encouraged staff to believe in the moral imperative of education (something worth striving for). Creating


“the desire, the energy, the passion, the sense of personal agency, creativity and optimism needed.”



I started reading this book thinking about assessment of learning and wanting to know more about the journey of Wroxham Primary. I have come away inspired, emboldened and fired up for the new school year and the challenge of a first headship.

While I have tried to give an overview of some of the key messages from the book and my personal reflections on them, I must wholeheartedly encourage you to read the book for yourself for the sense of transformability it may provide you.





Comments on: "Creating Learning without Limits" (2)

  1. “Replacing the fatalism of ability labels with a more hopeful, powerful and empowering view of learners and learning”

    OK – how does that fit with the the new notion of ‘meeting’ year group expectations, for those pupils (and do we really believe there won’t be those pupils?) who will, year after year, NOT meet them?


  2. I agree that a sense of level-ness could be replaced with a sense of year-ness. We are linking our approach to a phased system developed by Hampshire LA. The aim is to ensure that all pupils have had chance to master year expectations sufficiently by Easter, to allow further targeted support and enrichment in the summer term.
    I also hope the new system will celebrate the specific successes and strengths of each child, even if it also highlights next steps.
    It is complex and I think will take time to develop. But if we have clear principles we hold true to we should be in a better situation than we were with levels are sub-levels.


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