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Case Studies


Springwell Learning Community is a partnership providing special and alternative education for the community of Barnsley. The notion of “unconditional positive regard” underpins all of the work throughout the learning community.

About our school

Why were we interested in Springwell?

For the past few years the school has developed its own “Elements” curriculum which is delivered across key stages 1, 2 and 3. The curriculum was designed to support the development of the whole child, not just their academic progress.

Pedagogy is a vital part of the curriculum, and ATL were interested in not only what the curriculum covers, but how it is taught. Helping students to settle, learn and develop positive relationships are important features of the curriculum. Creative and engaging teaching and learning encourages student curiosity and active participation in each topic.

Who did we speak to at the school?

  • David Whitaker, (executive principal)
  • Verity Watts, (executive vice principal)
  • Danny Ross, (assistant principal, lead for strategic ICT and primary)
  • Jill Witherspoon, (lead teacher for the Elements curriculum and pedagogy lead)
  • Maria Roberts, (lead teacher for music and performing arts)
  • Becci Thornton, (lead teacher at Netherwood Alternative Academy)
  • Kate Reid, (key stage 2 teacher and lead for literacy in primary)
  • Matt Dale, (key stage 3 teacher)
  • Paul Philburn, (lead teaching assistant for year 10)
  • Laura Darvill, (key stage 1 teacher and lead for pedagogy, SEAL, phonics)

Springwell Special Academy

Springwell Special Academy provides cross-phase education for children with social, emotional and mental health difficulties, and special educational needs.

The special academy currently has approximately 80 students on roll from key stage 1 through to key stage 4. The school moved to a new building in 2011 as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme.

Our approach

The Elements curriculum

All students in key stages 1, 2 and 3 are taught the Elements curriculum. The aim of the curriculum is to bring learning to life in a way that develops the whole child.

The curriculum is based on a thematic model, often found in primary schools. Each topic lasts for a half term and has at its heart a story or narrative. These narratives flow through each topic which encourages both a love of reading and writing, and also develops student empathy.

What principles drive the curriculum?

  • A whole school nurture approach, securing a safe place to learn.
  • Literacy underpins the curriculum.
  • Differentiation, personalisation and interventions to meet pupils’ special needs.
  • Engaging ways of working.
  • Engaging and relevant curriculum.
  • Promotion of equality and diversity.
  • Aspiration and achievement.

“This is an outstanding school. All groups of pupils, including those with different special educational needs and disabilities, boys, girls, and pupils in care are achieving extremely well overall. Leaders and managers at all levels have created an excellent ethos for learning. Very effective strategies are in place to ensure that teaching is of the highest order and pupils get the most out of a very rich curriculum, which provides equally well for their academic and personal development needs.” 


Developing the Elements curriculum

The key features of a topic in the Elements curriculum:
  • Promotion of positive relationships: Creating a safe place to learn is a core part of the Elements curriculum. Each child is given a safe base where they can settle to learn.
  • Engaging teaching and learning approaches: Each topic begins with a “wow way in” to capture student curiosity. The pedagogical approaches used within the class foster active student participation, these include immersive learning, drama for learning, and the use of technology.
  • Stories and narratives: Literacy is prioritised within the curriculum. Embedding a story or narrative at the heart of each project helps students become confident in reading, writing, speaking and listening.
  • Extended writing sequences: Every topic includes several extended writing tasks – these are outcomes that all planning builds towards. The use of scaffolding enables students to achieve a high standard of written work.
  • Real learning outcomes and wow ways out: Work has a real purpose, and each topic concludes with opportunities to share the work with a wide audience. An example would be the living museum that key stage 3 curated at the end of the World War 2 topic.

Definition of Elements

Planning the curriculum

“The teamwork between staff to support learning is exceptional. Comments from pupils include ‘adults make learning fun, they know us very well and help us when we get stuck'” Ofsted 2012.

The “wow way in”

There’s a key pedagogical principal that encompasses the Elements curriculum – if children are interested, engaged and curious they’ll want to learn and will become passionate about their learning.

With this in mind all Elements topics start with a “wow way in” – a learning event (often outside of the classroom) which captures the imaginations of the students and lays the foundations for the project.

One teacher described her favourite “wow way in” to us when we visited the school. She described how story writing topic about vehicles began with the children acting out the start of the film Cars in the hall. Students designed their characters, and acted out the car race in costume, with enthusiasm.

The curtains and wall projected with images that created a sense of the world that they would write about. Back in the classroom students drew on this activity to develop their characters and the detail of their story plots.

Planning the Elements curriculum

Teachers that deliver the Elements curriculum are given time to share teaching ideas for each theme. The “wow way in” is planned and a relevant stories are selected for the theme.

Teachers identify which subject areas they will cover through the theme over a half term. An extended writing learning sequence is planned, with scaffolded activities prepared so that the writing outcome can be achieved by all.  

Teachers are able to personalise their planning to meet the needs of their individual students. Each learning activity is planned to be engaging, so resources, artefacts, films, books and visits are prepared.

The teachers delivering the Elements curriculum allow some of the planning to be informed by the interests of the students, so each theme does have a lot of flexibility.

At the heart of the planning is the desire to make the learning fun, engaging and rigorous for the students.

Real and relevant learning


Promoting a love of reading and writing is at the heart of the Elements curriculum. This is achieved by selecting interesting and engaging texts, films and other stimuli which complement the umbrella themes in each topic.

Reading is a regular feature of the school day, whether the children are reading themselves or being read to, and there is an expectation that all will read.

The completion of extended writing is also a core expectation of each topic. This outcome is achieved by creating scaffolded learning sequences which equip the students with the enthusiasm, skills and confidence that enable them to write high quality pieces. The written work that we saw on our visit to the school, on display around the school, was beautifully presented and eloquently written.

With excellent teaching, and engaging subject matter, high expectations can translate into brilliant outcomes. 

Importance of literacy

Immersive learning

At Springwell, how the curriculum is taught is given as much priority as what is taught.

One of the underlying pedagogical principles in the Elements curriculum is that lessons should be interesting and engaging to the children.

One of the ways this is achieved is through immersive learning environments and lesson experiences. We saw this in action on our visit through an interactive staging of the night the Great Fire of London broke out.

Through use of props, video, music, lighting and the teacher’s script, the children were able to develop a rich understanding of the events of that night.

The children’s enthusiasm and curiosity was clear – their interest had been sparked and they wanted to find out more.

The contribution that pedagogy makes to the successes of the children at Springwell can’t be underestimated.

Approaching immersive learning

Delivering the Elements curriculum

Each learning activity is planned to be engaging, so resources, artefacts, films, books and visits are prepared.

Some of the planning is informed by the interests of the students. This means the teachers can personalise their planning to meet the needs of their individual students.

At the heart of planning for each theme is the desire to make the learning fun, engaging and rigorous for the students.

The Elements curriculum teachers are given time to share and plan ideas for each theme. They plan the “wow way in” and a relevant story is selected for the theme. Then, an extended writing learning sequence is planned, and scaffolded activities prepared, so that the writing outcome can be achieved by all.

“The teamwork between staff to support learning is exceptional. Comments from pupils include ‘adults make learning fun, they know us very well and help us when we get stuck’” Ofsted 2012.

What do students like most?

Assessment and differentiation

Assessing student work

National curriculum levels are used to measure student progress. Feedback is differentiated so all students can understand how they can improve their work. This can be time consuming as some students require one-to-one support.

Assessment in the moment, during classroom time, is essential. For many students responding to feedback during the activity is more effective than responding to feedback on work from a day, or week ago. 

Students are motivated to produce high quality work by the real outcomes at the end of each theme. The work will have a purpose and be seen, so students are keen to do their best. “Flight paths” are displayed in classroom to help students understand their progress and celebrate it. The school’s website has a “praise page” which shares good work with parents and the wider community.

A culture of praise and celebration of success permeates the school. Certificates are regularly awarded for effort and high achievement, and the triumphs, both small and large, of each child are celebrated.

Dealing with assessment and differentiation

SEAL and Growth Mindset

The SEAL curriculum is integrated into the Elements curriculum. This supports the development of the whole child and in particular enables them to develop the students’ social and emotional skills. Immersive learning and exploring narrative help students to become more open minded and develop a greater sense of empathy.

A Growth Mindset approach is used to helps students develop resilience and self-confidence. Students are encouraged to engage with their negative feelings and learn how to overcome them. This enables them to achieve.

Positive nurturing relationships are at the heart of the pedagogical approach and all staff are encouraged to develop a deep understanding of child development and psychology.

This creates a calm and purposeful learning environment with clear routines, structures and rituals which help the students settle and learn.

Positive relationships

Overcoming challenges

Planning a thematic extended learning sequence is demanding, so it’s important that teachers are given planning time to work on themes together.

Some teachers with a traditional secondary background are trained to teach one or two subjects in depth in secondary school. Springwell overcomes this by providing CPD to staff to enable them to have the confidence to deliver each theme.

Challenges of Elements


There is a culture of mentoring and supporting colleagues within the school. This reflective approach to teaching and learning enables teachers to develop their own pedagogy and helps them plan truly engaging learning sequences.

Good relationships between senior leadership and staff, and staff and students, are vital for curriculum success. Giving teachers planning time helps to overcome the challenging workload.

Delivering immersive and engaging learning experiences consistently requires a lot of energy and confidence. The teaching staff are supported by the senior leadership team when trying new teaching and learning approaches – and a risk taking attitude is welcomed. The “unconditional positive regard” extends to all that work at Springwell.

Teaching this style of curriculum is challenging, but is rewarding and fun.

Time to plan

Impact of the curriculum

The students at Springwell clearly enjoy their learning while achieving high outcomes. Many children arrive at the school with a variety of complex needs and barriers to learning. The Elements curriculum is designed to ignite the curiosity of each child and help them to overcome theose barriers.

By emphasising literacy within the Elements curriculum, students become confident readers, writers, speakers and listeners. Literacy outcomes are high and the quality of work produced exceptional.

The focus on SEAL means the curriculum encourages students to develop as rounded individuals who have empathy, reflect on their learning, and have a more resilient outlook.

Allowing planning to be flexible enough to follow the direction students are interested in promotes engagement and can help the teachers to learn new things as well.

“Unconditional positive regard” gives the students and staff the safety net of being valued. Successes and triumphs are celebrated and fresh starts are given.

Promoting engagement

Key lessons

  • The staff at Springwell clearly love their students and are optimistic for them. The culture of “unconditional positive regard” truly underpins all work at the school and facilitates outstanding teaching and learning.
  • An understanding of child psychology and pedagogical approaches is encouraged at Springwell. How a curriculum is taught is as important as what is taught.
  • Making learning interesting to the student is key. This can be through how themes are chosen and how themes are taught. If the students buy in to an idea then they will be able to achieve.
  • Creating an environment of trust is also essential. Many aspects of the Elements curriculum take students and teachers outside their comfort zones. To succeed, teachers and students alike must feel free to make mistakes and have the opportunity to reflect upon their work.
  • Expectations are very high, for both students’ work and also teaching. In order to achieve these outcomes CPD is prioritised and students receive a personalised learning experience.
  • Celebrating success is a core part of the Elements curriculum, this positive culture is important to maintain engagement from staff and students.
  • The Elements curriculum demonstrates that it’s perfectly possible to deliver both high quality academic outcomes while educating the whole child. At Springwell, not only do they achieve this, but they enjoy it too.

Thematic teaching

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