Ayresome Community Primary School in the North East town of Middlesbrough is one of the largest Primary Schools in the UK. With 677 pupils it has 3 times the national average and is still growing.
Any school of this size would face challenges with diversity amongst its pupils. At Ayresome the challenge is even greater with two-thirds of the pupils coming from a diverse range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, most having English as a second language and some not able to speak a single word.
In November 2013, following the latest Ofsted inspection, the school was told it ‘requires improvement’. The arrival of “superhead” Lisa Biggin in September 2014, has already had a huge impact on the school and a recent HMI monitoring inspection visit stated that whilst the road is far from smooth for Ayresome, things are definitely on the up.
“As a North East girl myself, I am very excited to be back in Middlesbrough. I have been a Headteacher for over 18 years and I love it – it’s the best job in the world. Yes, I have seen a lot of struggling schools in my time and yes, we do have more than our fair share of challenges at Ayresome but I am fed up of constantly battling with the bad press of the North East. Ayresome is a great school and I have an amazing leadership team. Together we will ensure that every single one of our pupils leaves here with the best possible chance to succeed.” Explains Ms Lisa Biggin, Headteacher of Ayresome Primary School.
With an overwhelming 70% of all asylum seekers living in Middlesbrough, this academic year alone has seen 183 new pupils join the school, speaking over 40 different languages between them. It’s not surprising that Pupil Premium Grant is received for over 60% of their children. Levels of EAL children reach 78%.
Sadly, teachers are very used to seeing quiet, lonely, scared pupils with no self esteem enter their classroom that need a lot of care and attention. The ability range within every single classroom is staggering with attainment levels ranging from level 1 – level 5 in one Year 5 classroom alone.
With such huge challenges across the entire school, Ms Biggin was keen to find solutions that would help her achieve her ambition of turning Ayresome Primary School into a School of Sanctuary – a welcoming, completely safe environment where pupils can learn in whatever way makes them feel comfortable.
One of the solutions the school was keen to explore was LEGO Education. Ms Biggin had seen LEGO being used in a few other schools.
Ms Biggin explains, “A lot of our children are in a completely alien environment. Some have never even been in the UK before. Imagine what it’s like for them to suddenly be in a massive school with hundreds of other children and a teacher standing at the front of the classroom talking a language they’ve never even heard before. It’s so frightening for them.”
“I wanted to introduce LEGO Education as it doesn’t have any barriers. It’s something the children can get started with straight away. A lot of these children have never seen LEGO before yet they just pick it up, learn and play.”
Ayresome looked at the entire range of LEGO Education solutions and felt that every single solution had a place somewhere within the school so they decided to create their very own LEGO Education Innovation Studio – a central hub dedicated to LEGO Education that could be embedded into the entire curriculum from Early Years right through to Year 6 and beyond.
An Innovation Studio would also help Ms Biggin achieve her ambition of becoming a hub of excellence for other schools, not only in the North East but also throughout the UK.
Mrs Vanessa Allison, a Year 5 teacher, has been teaching with LEGO Education since it was implemented in December 2014. “The key objective in my classroom is to develop independent working and teamwork. I have both non-English speakers and special needs children in my class and LEGO breaks these barriers. With LEGO the ability of the children is totally irrelevant. They can all still work together.”
Mrs Allison uses LEGO Education to support many areas of the curriculum including literacy and problem solving.
“A lot of the children were really quiet in class and unable to solve problems. But with LEGO the pressure is taken away. They think they’re just playing. They don’t actually realise how much they are learning.” Continues Mrs Allison.
One of the most popular LEGO Education resources amongst the children is StoryStarter. Pupils work together to create and build stories using LEGO bricks and figures then use iPads to photograph what they’ve built. They then write their story and use the StoryVisualizer software to present it as a news article or a comic to publish and share with their peers.
Mrs Allison uses it within very diverse groups. “I can get 5 or 6 children with very different abilities all working together. The children all play to their own strengths without even realising it. Some children choose to build, some to write, some to photograph, but what’s amazing about StoryStarter is that they all produce the same output and they all achieve.”
One of the things Mrs Allison loves about working with LEGO Education is that it empowers the children. “I am no longer the expert in my classroom when it comes to LEGO. The children will show me what to do next. Some of these children wouldn’t even speak when they first came to the school, now they are coming up with their own topics saying ‘Please Miss, can we do this next week?’ which is such a great feeling for a teacher. It has totally hooked them into wanting to learn. Even when we put the LEGO away, they still want to learn. The impact it is having on the way they are learning is affecting everything they do at school. They are excited.”
Teachers across the school say working with LEGO has allowed them to draw the skills needed out of the children. It has created independence in those children that really had to rely on the teacher to help them work. It has made them feel part of a team whilst supporting every part of the curriculum.
Having the LEGO Education Innovation Studio also means there is no limit for the higher ability children. The Innovation Studio comes with LEGO MINDSTORMS Education EV3, the robotics resource that is more commonly used in Secondary Schools. But the children at Ayresome are already excelling at the new Computing Curriculum with Year 6 children already programming to Year 9 level. Ayresome was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the ten schools across the UK to spend a day with BBC musicians, working with their robots to promote ten core pieces of music.
In Early Years, the school has developed a ‘play therapy’ approach to learning. BuildToExpress has been phenomenal for some of those children that, for any number of reasons, were just not able to express their emotions using words. There are no right or wrong answers with BuildToExpress. It has given these children the chance to express themselves and deal with any sensitive issues by building it out of LEGO, breaking some really tough barriers.
It’s not only the pupils that are benefitting from the Innovation Studio. Ayresome has also opened its doors to parents who want to learn more about ICT and computers, further strengthening the message that Ayresome Community Primary School is not just a school but a real hub for the community.
The teachers at Ayresome really understand the challenges that some of these children have to face. They want to welcome them into a safe, fun environment and they want them to succeed.
Ms Biggin knows that LEGO isn’t the answer to all of their problems, but it is really helping to get the kids engaged and it will help to change the foundations of the school.
The recent HMI monitoring inspection proved that by stating “The standard of teaching with LEGO is ‘above outstanding’ because of all the challenges it generates.”
The school is hosting an official opening of their LEGO Education Innovation Studio on Wednesday 6th May 2015. LEGO Education Europe Managing Director Dr. Rene Lydiksen, or Mr. LEGO as Ayresome pupils call him, will be speaking at the event.
“The children are very excited that ‘Mr. LEGO’ is coming to the school. They see Dr. Lydiksen as a bit of a celebrity. In all seriousness, it is a big deal for these children. They need to know that by working hard you can get out there and make a real difference. The Managing Director of LEGO Education coming to visit them at their school is so inspirational for them. We are already starting to see young, independent learners. We are seeing our children do things they couldn’t do before and we are seeing smiling, happy faces. What more could we ask for.”