Education research Part 1: The journey towards Harmony

This is the first section of our research into the development of a Harmony curriculum at Ashley School. It explores the values underpinning the life of the school and the commitment to meaningful, contextualised and purposeful learning that prompted the school to develop a Harmony curriculum.

About Ashley School

Ashley Primary School is an expanding two-form entry school with children from 4-11 years old, which spans the Early Years Foundation Stage (Reception), Key Stage 1 (KS1) and Key Stage 2 (KS2). It is located in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. At the time that this research was conducted, there were 510 children on roll, with an additional intake of 30 children planned each academic year for the next four years.

The values at the heart of the Ashley School community

Ashley School has a well-established set of twenty-two values, inspired by the Values-Based Education programme. These Values shape relationships and attitudes within the community and contribute to the well-being of the children, staff and families. They were introduced at Ashley School in 2001 in collaboration with a group of local schools. The common aim was to establish a moral framework for school life, which the children would explore both within their individual school communities and across the cluster of schools.

Each month, one of the 22 Values is explored in detail, providing a focus for reflection, assemblies, collective worship, and learning about personal and social well-being.

As a Church of England school, and as part of The Good Shepherd Trust (a multi-academy trust in the Diocese of Guildford), the spiritual life of the school and the people within it is also underpinned by a Christian ethos. Many of the Values of the school are explored through the lens of Christianity.

 The core beliefs underpinning teaching and learning

The school expresses the core beliefs around which its pedagogy and curriculum are built as follows:

‘We want to put learning in a context. So, our planning starts by drawing out our enquiries of learning, working out the questions that will guide that learning over a half-term, agreeing the best way to culminate the learning with our Great Works, and linking and applying our core learning and foundation subjects to these rich, purposeful enquiry-based projects.

We believe that this is what inspires our children to want to learn more and to develop a real love of learning in what they do… our learning has relevance and is meaningfully applied. It is joined up. We believe it makes sense to our children.’

Ashley C of E Primary School website 

There are three distinct aims around which the fabric of the curriculum at Ashley School has been woven: learning should be contextualised; learning should be deepened; and learning should progress towards a clearly defined goal or outcome.

The contextualisation of learning

‘The very worst thing a child could ask about their learning is: What’s the point of learning this? It’s not good enough to teach something without looking at the wider context for the learning.’

Richard Dunne, Headteacher, Ashley School

Central to the idea of contextualising learning at Ashley School is the idea that children should be supported in developing a close understanding of the world around them and their role within it. Initially, this was embedded in the curriculum and in the wider life of the school through the exploration of concepts of sustainability.

Ashley Headteacher, Richard Dunne, had for a long time been involved in the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots and Shoots programme. But it was his participation in an expedition to Antarctica in 2005 (led by explorer Robert Swan that) that marked a turning point for the Headteacher, both on a personal and a professional level. When he returned from the trip, he became aware of the need in education to learn from nature in order to understand our place in it. This prompted him to start to develop a distinctive ethos and perspective on learning at the school built around environmental issues.

This led to the implementation of several whole-school sustainability projects including monitoring and reducing the school’s energy use, water consumption and food waste. In each case, the children were tasked with leading the projects and involving the wider school community. In September 2011, an organic allotment was set up in the school grounds, tended by the children, and overseen by a part-time gardener. It is now well enough developed to supplement the school kitchen’s food procurement and continues to provide the children with a concrete example of how food miles can be reduced by better understanding the concept of seasonality.

This drive to contextualise learning also led to what can be seen as the first chapter in the school’s development of a distinctive curriculum built around carefully selected, sustainability-linked themes for learning. In choosing these themes, consideration was given to the stage of the child’s cognitive development and maturity. In this way, understanding the world begins in Reception as the child learns about their place in their class cohort, the wider school community and their family. From this starting point, the child’s exploration of the world and the way we interact with it shifts in scope and scale outwards from the child, through geographic and social boundaries of ever-increasing size.

In KS1, children learn about the green spaces in the school and the creatures that live there, our dependence on them and the interdependence that exists between species. In Year 1, the children learn about wild flowers and their importance to pollinators, while children in Year 2 move on to learn about bees, bee colonies and the importance of pollinators to the survival of every species on Earth.

In KS2, the children’s learning starts with local trees and woodlands and moves away from the children’s immediate environment to explore rainforests in Year 3, space, the solar system and solar energy in Year 4, rivers and oceans in Year 5 and Antarctica and the impact of climate change in Year 6.

The deepening of learning

Rather than taking a purely thematic approach to teaching and learning, curriculum content was then marshalled to create Learning Enquiries. Instead of presenting the children with a theme or topic to be explored over the course of a half term, a central question is posed. This acknowledges that learning – for teachers and for students – is a process of asking questions as much as it is a quest to find answers, and that this ability to ask the right questions is a skill important to lifelong learning. This approach continues to be central to the way learning is structured at the school.

As well as providing a ‘jumping-off point’ for learning, from which other questions and areas for investigation can be identified, the children return to these key enquiry questions at the end of a unit of learning and use them as a stimulus for reflection. In Year 2, for example, the children are asked What does it mean to be healthy?, while, in Year 5, the children consider How can we explore India through our senses?. When Learning Enquiries were first introduced, it was hoped that they would increase the children’s engagement in their learning through questioning and the search for truth. Each learning enquiry had – and still has – a sustainability theme, which ties-in closely with the learning to give it context.

The progression of learning towards a goal or outcome

Experiences have a profound effect on children in a positive or negative way. Facilitating positive experiences is a great tool for educators.’

Richard Dunne, Headteacher, Ashley School

The third distinctive element of the Ashley School curriculum are the Great Works at the end of each learning enquiry. These are high-profile events that represent a culmination of the children’s learning and were conceived to give a sense of purpose to the learning, foster pro-activity in the children and provide a meaningful and memorable experience as part of the learning itself. They are still a core part of learning at the school today.

Throughout a learning enquiry, the children prepare for a Great Work that is an expression of the concepts they have explored and the knowledge and understanding they have gained.

The Great Work events themselves range from collecting honey from the school hives and storing it in jars (Year 2), to preparing a Tudor banquet (Year 4) and creating ice sculptures under the guidance of a local artist (Year 6).

The need for change

In the journey towards the development of a Harmony Curriculum at Ashley school, there were two catalysts for change. Both, coincidentally, involved the publication of a text. The first was the publication of the book Harmony: A New Way of Looking at our World by HRH The Prince of Wales in 2010 and the second was the publication of the draft programmes of study for English, Mathematics and Science in 2012. Draft programmes of study for foundation subjects were published the following year.

One publication provided inspiration and the other provoked a level of consternation in relation to certain aspects of its proposals. We will look at each individually.

Principles of Harmony

In 2010, HRH The Prince of Wales published a book called Harmony: A New Way of Looking at our World. In this, he and his co-authors explored the ways in which humanity interacts with the natural world and suggested that there is a ‘crisis of perception’, a matter of views and values, which affects our relationship with the world around us.

When Ashley School Headteacher, Richard Dunne, read the book in February 2011, he drew out seven key principles of Harmony in the natural world, which could be used as a framework for developing more enlightened practice in education and in many other sectors. These are: the principle of Geometry; the principle of the Cycle; the principle of Diversity; the principle of Health and Wellbeing; the principle of Adaptation and the principle of Oneness.

The book provided the inspiration for the next phase of curriculum development in Ashley School. In particular, Richard Dunne was struck by the resonance that the principles of Harmony had with aspects of the core beliefs and aims around which the Ashley School curriculum had been developed to date.

By developing learning around the principles of Harmony – by exploring and understanding key concepts in Nature and by learning from Nature – the contextualisation of the children’s learning could be given a clearly defined focus. Learning based on sustainability had provided an effective starting point for the school in the development of its curriculum. Now the Harmony principles would root that learning more securely in a deeper understanding of Nature at both a micro and macro level.

By exploring the Geometry of the natural world as a starting point for learning and by finding that same Geometry in themselves, the children would begin to understand that we are part of Nature. This fundamental idea could be further explored through other Harmony principles, such as Oneness and Interdependence. Once the child understands that they are part of the natural world, they are then better placed to define their responsibilities to Nature and can begin to articulate how they can live in a way that values, respects and protects the natural world.

Common to all principles of Harmony, especially when they are applied to education, is an emphasis on observation, reflection and questioning. If a child discovers symmetry in a leaf, where else do they see it? When they see the Fibonacci spiral in a curled index finger, where else is that shape echoed on their body? Where do they see it in plants or animals or even in the spiral formation of clouds? This extension of thinking – the probing of ideas and the ability truly to see the world around us – resonated with the school’s reflective, enquiry-based approach to learning.

Educationalists are fond of talking about the outcomes of learning. So, what would be the outcomes of learning based on Harmony principles?

The intended outcome of learning based on concepts of sustainability at Ashley School had been to inspire children to be proactive in tackling the challenges which the world faces today and which it will continue to face in their lifetimes. The curriculum and the teaching and learning process aimed to help equip them with the knowledge, understanding and skills that they would need to do this.

There is a clear link here with the outcomes of education built around the principles of Harmony. In the very opening line of Harmony: A new way of looking at the world, HRH Prince of Wales makes clear the intended outcome of the book: ‘This is a call to revolution’. Developing a curriculum built on the principles of Harmony would contribute to the systemic change the book calls for in the way we think about Nature, ourselves as part of Nature and our duty to live responsibly and respectfully with the natural world.

A revised national curriculum

The second act of publication that contributed to the school’s journey towards a Harmony Curriculum, was the publication of the draft programmes of study for English, Maths and Science published by the Department for Education in 2012 and the subsequent publication of draft programmes of study for Foundation subjects in Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.

The staff at Ashley School felt that the prescriptive nature of the Science programme of study, in particular, and elements of the content selected as the basis for instruction in other subjects was at odds with the broad, enquiries-based curriculum that had already been developed at the school. These concerns over the future of the school’s curriculum at Ashley School contributed to its decision to undergo academisation, the process of becoming an Academy. Academies receive their funding directly from the government – instead of via a local authority – and are accountable to the Department for Education. They also enjoy a greater degree of freedom in shaping their own curricula. At Ashley, the academisation process was completed by the time the revised National Curriculum came into force in September 2014.

As an academy, Ashley School has been able to continue in its work in building breadth, enquiry and contextualised learning into its own curriculum. The principles of Harmony have become the cornerstone in the evolution of this curriculum.


Photograph: Richard Dunne

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