Crashing satellites, walk-in storybooks, and forest classrooms – Wendy Walters, headteacher at Rudston Primary School, shares her vision for interactive learning. And with the school amongst the most in demand in the city, it’s clear her tactics are working, Christine Toner reports.
Bringing learning to life
by Christine Toner
Picture the scene. You’re seven years old, sat in assembly and a school radio bulletin booms through the building announcing an unidentified flying object has crashed into the playground. The police have declared the site safe, and now you and your classmates are needed to figure out exactly what this mysterious item is and where it came from. No, it’s not the plot of a new sci-fi movie, but rather one of Rudston Primary School’s ingenious ways of teaching its pupils through immersive study.
“Thinking back to my childhood, I don’t remember learning to read and write, I remember the experience I had while I did it,” says headteacher Wendy Walters, explaining her creative methods. “People often ask me what was my inspiration and I think it was my Year 2 teacher when I was at school, Mrs Brydon. When I think back to my school days, all the lovely memories are from her. There was a day when she covered the floor with paper, and we all pushed the tables out of the way and drew a huge woodland picture.
“At the time, as a seven-year-old, you think you’re just having fun painting but you realise looking back we were actually learning about habitats. She had that real ease at taking a creative approach to the curriculum. She was very much about experiencing things first hand and not just listening to the teacher. For me, when you’re in the classroom it’s not about hearing the teachers voice, it’s about hearing the children’s voice.”
Such methods have proved incredibly popular. Last year the school was the second most sought after in the city – with 179 applications for just 60 places. But while parents and prospective pupils clearly fall in love with Rudston (indeed, many past pupils now choose to send their own children there), few people could love it as much as Wendy – so much so she has dedicated her entire career to it.
Born in the North East, Wendy moved to Liverpool as an 18-year-old to study at Hope University (then Christ College) – the first person in her family to go on to higher education. Upon graduating in 1995, Wendy went to look around Rudston Infants and immediately felt at home.
“It just had a special feel,” she says. “It felt like a family within the school, and I think that’s something that has carried on. We talk a lot about the Rudston family and I could see even from that initial visit that the children were at the heart of Rudston.”
At the time Rudston Infant School was separate from Rudston Juniors. Indeed, despite only being separated by a sports field, the schools operated completely independently from each other, with their own headteachers and governing bodies.
All that changed in 2012 when the schools were amalgamated. At the time Wendy was assistant head of the infant school, and when the two came together, she became assistant head of the newly formed Rudston Primary School. She was promoted to acting deputy head in January 2013 (a role she took on permanently in September of that year) and became headteacher in September last year.
The role is something she says she feels “privileged” to have, although it does prompt mixed emotions.
“I think one of the hardest things (about being headteacher) is the fact I don’t have my own class anymore,” she says. “But then on a positive note, I’m now involved in the lives of all of our children. They often come and have a chat with me and show me their work. One of my favourite times of the day is lunchtime when I get to leave the paperwork for half an hour and go and sit in the canteen with the children.”
Talking to the children is something that’s particularly important to Wendy, and she believes passionately in giving children a voice and helping them to develop in a way that suits them.
“Our mission statement is to develop a love of learning enabling all children to reach their full potential,” she says. “We run The Art of Being Brilliant to make children more confident and become better citizens. When people come and look around the school, I think they feel that ethos.”
That ethos of prioritising the children’s emotional and social well-being as high if not higher than academic success is never more evident than in the way the school is currently helping its Year 6 students prepare for their SAT exams, with mindfulness classes on offer to create stability and calm.
“Mindfulness is something we’ve taken to an extra level at the moment for our Year 6 students who have obviously got their SATs coming up,” says Wendy. “If levels of worry are a bit high we just try to reduce that for the children.
“For example, we’ll offer breakfast for the children, and we’ll have relaxation sessions on the morning of the SATs. Plus, during the week before the exams, the Year 6 are having an afternoon of forest school where there’ll be no literacy or numeracy, they’ll go in the forest, build a campfire, build a den and be children.”
This approach to learning and wellbeing certainly sees results. The school recently had an Ofsted assessment and maintained its ‘Good’ status while it has also achieved success at the Educate Awards – taking the runner-up prize in the STEM category back in 2016 and the WOW Recognition catergory in 2017.
“I was Science co-ordinator when we did the STEM project for the Educate Awards,” says Wendy. “It was about a large nest appearing in the woods. I wanted something that would engage all the children. There was a huge drive nationally about increasing the number of girls in science, and I’m very passionate about getting rid of stereotype roles. That was really good in creating a real buzz about science.”
This year Wendy wants to look at how she can develop the curriculum, opening up opportunities to pupils. That includes a greater focus on history.
“We’re going to transform the hall into a celebration of the history of Liverpool,” she says. “The hall will become a ‘step back in time’ exhibition, looking at everything from the music and the ship-building to the impact of the war. And, of course, it will start with the history of Rudston.”
After 23 years at the school and just over six months at its helm, Wendy’s enthusiasm and passion for it shows no sign of waning. Indeed, she says the reason she applied for the headship when previous head Vicky Pierce left was that she wanted to continue building on the great things the school was doing.
“I didn’t want someone coming in and changing things because I knew we were on the right journey for the children,” she says, A journey of creative learning, I ask?
“I think that’s vital,” says Wendy. “It opens up subjects to those children who sometimes struggle with the three Rs. We’ve just started the hashtag Making Memories on our Twitter feed, and I think that’s really important. When the children leave they won’t remember how they learned to do something, they’ll remember the creative, immersive experience of doing it. Making memories while reaching the best standards that we possibly can, that’s what it’s all about.”