When I visited The Phoenix School in Peterborough in June, it was just over a year on from its being awarded the Silver EAL Quality Mark. During that visit our assessors saw much that was good and commented on how difficult it is for a special school to achieve the Gold EAL Quality Mark beyond the area of Parents and Community, where The Phoenix clearly excelled. My visit, therefore, concentrated on the Leadership and Management and Teaching and Learning elements of the EAL Quality Mark. My starting point was that I might well have to disappoint the school who were clearly going for Gold. By the end of the visit I had a sense of wonder, no doubt that a Gold was the only possible judgment anyone could make presented with such strong evidence and that The Phoenix had to be the first special school anywhere to win the Gold Award.
The first thing that became clear to me was how major a priority EAL had in the school’s strategic planning. For 2017-18 it was one of only six School Improvement Plan items. EAL improvement was led by a member of the Senior Leadership Team and achieved by including all staff in the development process. One sign of this change was a new and clear EAL policy, the successful implementation of which was apparent across the school. Another was the EAL focus of the school’s peer coaching pairs throughout the year.
The admission process now clearly addresses language and cultural issues in a very inclusive way. Staff have been trained in conducting structured conversations with parents. As a consequence, EAL profiles now contain carefully collected and sensitive information about complex language backgrounds. Effective initial assessment of EAL pupils has also enabled the school to pick up occasional issues around placement. Sometimes an EAL pupil is wrongly directed to this special school and The Phoenix is able to assist in quickly ensuring an appropriate, mainstream school place.
Induction of new staff now automatically includes EAL training and EAL is a continuing focus in the professional development of all staff. EAL is a consistent feature of both lesson planning and peer lesson observations. Among both teaching assistants, teachers and other staff awareness of EAL issues is clearly high and there is a shared pride in the progress made over the last year.
You might expect to see in a special school a range of visual and multi-sensory materials to ensure lessons are both engaging and designed to maximise progress across the curriculum. However, in every classroom I visited these materials also reflected the cultural, linguistic and social experiences of pupils, a clear consequence of changes in the approach to curriculum design and development across the school. Staff provide models not just of good English but a wide range of the home languages of pupils too. There is evident and substantial use of home languages, not just to support learning but also as part of the curriculum for all pupils
How has The Phoenix made the journey to Gold? The importance of a leadership that thinks EAL is hugely important cannot be understated. It leads to a very sharp focus. The Phoenix has also shown the capacity for critical self-reflection and a willingness to use nearby expertise, such as that at Discovery Primary School.
Congratulations to all staff at The Phoenix on a wonderful team effort and a well deserved Gold Award!