My passion is making schools more effective, joyful places, and the best way to do that is actually by getting adults at home properly, and meaningfully, engaged in children’s learning, without overloading teachers. Not parental engagement, parental involvement!
Of course at Learning Ladders we combine that with curriculum design, better assessment, and responsive teaching (great on their own, but even better combined!). But, my goal was actually to improve parental involvement when I set up Learning Ladders originally.
My lightbulb moment was when I finally managed to get one particular child’s mother engaged in his learning, and his results, attitude, and enjoyment of school just went through the roof.
Billy (not actual name) was a child in my Year 2 class. He was on the Child Protection register - dad was the local drug dealer, violent and abusive. I’ll never forget the Head saying just before my first parents evening “don’t worry, if he [dad] turns up and punches you he’ll go to prison”. Not much comfort!
My school was a Teaching School, ‘Outstanding’, and top of the league tables, but everything that had been tried to engage Billy just didn’t work. He was regularly in trouble, both in class and in the playground.
One of the advantages of KS1 is the physical handover, so I managed to speak with his mum. After much coaxing it transpired that she couldn’t read or write, she was bullied terribly at school before leaving at 14, and was hugely intimidated by the other mums (our catchment was Camden, so pre-redevelopment Kings Cross, mixed with leafy Primrose Hill).
But, what was also clear was she loved her son, and wanted the best for him. I genuinely think every parent does.
So we agreed a plan. Each week I would leave voicemail messages, or record short videos with useful links and email them to her, so she could watch/listen and pick up what we’d been doing that week, understand the key ideas, questions to ask, and some simple fun and free activities to do with Billy.
The results from this were astonishing, across any metric.
Billy’s attitude transformed: he was lively, engaged, and seemed almost reborn. No more playground fights, no more backchat. Academically he flourished, making by far the best progress in class. Yet best of all, he had a smile on his face at school.
Billy could see that mum was interested in school, was modelling and living that interest, as well as helping with specific learning.
It sounds so obvious. Getting the adults at home properly involved in children’s learning in a meaningful way is absolutely critical. Research shows parental involvement, when done well, can have 5-times the impact of any in-school intervention. It’s without a doubt the biggest untapped resource in every single school.
In any other industry if there was one influenceable factor in the success of your enterprise that was 5-times more important than any other, you would spend the majority of your time on it.
But at the time there simply weren’t any systems out there to support schools and teachers to meaningfully involve parents.
I thought: wouldn’t it be great if all parents had a system that gave them weekly updates about their own childrens’ work, was highly personalised, and had individual plans about exactly what to help with and how, backed up by short tutorials for parents? But as a teacher myself it needed to be something that didn’t add to my workload!
So I decided to build it, and Learning Ladders was born.
I remortgaged the house to raise funds, recruited a team of over 40 inspiring experienced teachers, and we broke down the whole new primary curriculum into bite-sized chunks, writing a short tutorial just for parents for every single bit.
While this was happening Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education) decided almost overnight to change the curriculum and abolish Levels, so schools were desperately searching for a framework to teach and assess the new curriculum.
We partnered with a number of schools to develop a classroom-up (rather than expert-down) approach, centred around the idea that to be effective children MUST be explicitly involved in their own learning, including its assessment. One of these schools was Hiltingbury, who won the UK Department for Education ‘Assessment Innovation’ competition for the best system to teach and assess the new curriculum.
The next 18 months were crazy. We’re a Social Enterprise so we decided to give away our initial rubrics to schools for free to try them. Over 7,000 downloaded them in a matter of weeks, and to this day we’re often best known for those free booklets.
We wanted a system that every school could personalise to their own needs, their own curriculum and their own assessment policy. In that respect I think we’re were a little too far ahead of the game at that time - but it’s good to see that Ofsted is now also taking this approach in England, and we expect many other regulators globally to follow.
Nowadays, Learning Ladders automatically gives every parent a weekly update (why wait until the end of term?) about exactly what their child is learning, but then crucially matches this (through clever tech) to fabulous parent tutorials - short and informative - explaining to parents exactly what this means, and exactly how to help at home.
It also allows each school to design their own curriculum, assess it how they choose, and report on it in a variety of ways. We have a Homework module, Analytics, online Portfolios, and we’re about to build a new product for Early Years.
We’ve been shortlisted by the BETT Awards as the “Best Product for Whole School Teaching, Learning and Assessment” 5 years running, as well as “Best Product for Parental Engagement”.
But more satisfying that that is the impact our system has within schools.
Schools all around the world are using Learning Ladders for their curriculum design, assessment, data, and parental involvement.
Our members are just amazing. One, in England, went from RI to having the best progress in the whole country, another in Muscat is currently global ‘International School of the Year’, while another is the ‘Best New School in the Middle East’.
On average our schools see an 11% uplift in KS2 SATS results within 2 years, and no Learning Ladders school has ever gone down an inspection grade while using the system.
You can read some of these case studies and testimonials on our EdTech Impact page.
I still have to pinch myself that this all started with that conversation with Billy’s mum.
Want to receive cutting-edge insights from leading educators each week? Sign up to our Community Update and be part of the action!