Saffron Walden County High School: An exemplary school. The Learning Rainforest made real.


Last week I spent a day visiting Saffron Walden County High School in the North-West corner of Essex.  This was the result of a conversation with Head and CEO, Caroline Derbyshire who suggested that I should consider writing a ‘Learning Rainforest in Action’ follow-up book.  Having read the original book, Caroline felt that SWCHS embodied many of the ideas in it – so I went along to see for myself.

It wasn’t the first time I had been to SWCHS – I’ve had the pleasure of visiting several times in the last 10 years, including the visit that resulted in writing one of my all-time most-read blogs ‘Making Feedback Count: “Close the Gap”   which features the feedback system the school was developing at the time.  A key element of that visit was a superb CPD session with a carousel of departmental workshops coordinated by Polly Lankester who is now Associate Headteacher.

On my latest visit I had the privilege of observing 21 different lessons on a day-long tour supported by various members of the leadership team.  It was wonderful.  I can safely say that SWCHS is one of the best schools I’ve ever seen, in any sector.

It would be tempting to attribute this to the advantages the school enjoys:  it’s an extremely nice part of the country to live in; teachers want to live in the area, they stay and invest in the community; it’s near Cambridge so there’s a pool of fresh talent from the PGCE courses there; the school has had a benefactor who funded building an exceptional concert hall facility, Saffron Hall, run as a professional arts venue on site.  The school’s size and locality enables it to recruit a very large Sixth Form of 600 students (impressively, the school has only recently started taking about moving from  GCSE 4s to 5s as the entry requirements: strive for 5 is the mantra! ; It’s a very comprehensive Sixth From compared to many schools and their ALPS 2 suggests they’re doing a great job!).

But these advantages don’t come close to explaining the quality of the experience students are getting there.  Dare I say, the reasons align with the elements of my Learning Rainforest analogy:

Establishing the conditions:  I’d say that the school provides optimum working conditions for staff.  It feels like a wonderful place to work. The physical environment is fabulous but there’s a palpable spirit of professional trust, extensive investment in CPD and the best in-school coffee shop you’ll ever see! Certainly in a state school.  Stability in staffing is very high – but this has been crafted, worked at – it doesn’t just happen.  Recruiting and retaining great teachers isn’t taken for granted and a lot of effort goes into supporting the teaching school and other alliances.  They also offer a superb curriculum with a clever blend of breadth and depth, using Year 9 as a bridging year leading into a wide range of options.

Building Knowledge:  The quality of teaching is brilliant.  It’s rare to see such sustained quality over a day visiting lessons; each teacher brimming with subject expertise; each presenting a sense of drive and purpose, matching very high expectations of students with expert lesson structures engaging all students in a rigorous, inspiring learning process.

The school’s emphasis on research-engagement has yielded superb practice linked to retrieval practice, modelling and feedback.  At a lunchtime meeting with curriculum leaders, I was struck by the thoughtful evaluation of their practice and the way they’re seeking to continually develop their curriculum and pedagogy to embrace the learning from research, reading and their own enquiry work.

Exploring the possibilities:  The school provides exceptional extra-curricular opportunities through trips and visits, visiting artists and so on – but the possibilities are largely evidenced in lessons.  I saw some of the best drama lessons I’ve ever seen, probably the best KS3 technology work I’ve ever seen and multiple examples of A level teaching where students were firmly in the driving seat.  The sixth form is big because its quality attracts students to join – there’s a virtuous spiral of success fuelling success.

All of this emerges from a deliberate blend of systems and culture. There’s a rigour to everything with intelligent systems – including the assessment regime I described in an earlier post: The Ideal Assessment Tracking Regime? The school has high expectations of staff, for sure. But the culture allows the systems to deliver. It’s the kind of school you want to be in to teach, to lead, to express yourself.   Of course, it’s not perfect. They have some achievement issues to address; some further gaps to close.  Not everything lines up perfectly at once and, despite their successes, they’re fully aware of where further improvements lie.  That’s the sign of a great school: always ambitious for further success.

To bring all this alive, here are some nuggets from the lessons I observed:

English Y7:   Students were engaging with a range of new words such as indolently, impertinently .. used in sentences. The task was to infer their meaning from the context. There was a superb follow-up Q&A where the teacher explored their answers and consolidated the correct meanings.

Physics Y12:  A classic demo lesson and whole-class experiment:  measuring bullet velocity with an air-rifle and air track, applying conservation of momentum. I used to do this one myself over 30 years ago – I love how stable the physics curriculum is!

Computing. Y9:  In a bookwork lesson,  away from computers, students were working on code for a PIN number verification routine, explaining and checking each other’s solutions. The peer supported problem-solving going on around the class was impressive.

Drama Y9: An exceptional lesson featuring a devised piece rehearsal:  three groups formed circles rotating to bring each student to the front in turn, with everyone else mimicking the central speaker –  a range of accents, characters, personal stories. This was followed by a machine/rap ‘families’ choral piece and other elements with students working towards an imminent performance.  I was so impressed by the discipline, expectations, trust, rigour… and the time given to repetition and practice.  Notably, the drama teacher was about to head off to a 2-day residential theatre trip with her A level students to see three shows in London.

Maths Y9:  Applying area in problem solving using algebra.  A well-pitched balance of stretch and practice; modelled and checked in the detail.  Great maths teaching.

History GCSE:  Planning for source question on suffragettes:  There was a big focus on securing the relevant knowledge and on retrieval practice: knowing the facts.  A3 sheets of annotated pie charts were used cleverly as a device to identity the relative effects of different factors.  I also loved the macro timeline reinforcement….students had impressive recall across the Power and People theme: 1170 to present; Magna Carta to Brixton Riots.


Art Y11:  Students were making superb clay heads or teapots… extended pieces using a range of new 3D skills, working towards their mock exam.  Supporting portfolios were excellent and the ambition, high expectations, support for creative exploration and the intensity in the process/work rate were hugely impressive.  The ‘close the gap’ feedback system was still going strong.

Graphics Y11:  Interestingly, a recent switch to the Art and Design spec moving from old-style DT design portfolios to art portfolios was making it more much more creative. Students were exploring shapes with a link to natural forms to inform a design brief for an outdoor structure.  I remarked on the quality of an exemplar project displayed on the wall.  It belonged to the student next to me who was beaming.. it was stunning.

PE: Y7 basketball : An expert blend of group practice, whole class instruction with student modelling, then more practice –with all students involved! One student’s enthusiastic demo of a dribble technique was lovely – in answer to the question ‘why do we need to use that method?’, he showed how it could go wrong if you didn’t use it. Metacognition in PE – brilliant.

Drama Y7…This lesson showed how a curriculum platform is built enabling the Y9 lesson seen earlier to be so good.   Here, one group was in the centre with everyone acting as audience offering critique. Again the lesson was characterised by challenge, structure, expectation with tons of feedback; a blend of disciplined creative thinking.

Psychology Y13 : An essay planning  lesson; highly synoptic, with the teacher guiding discussion, bringing together different points, modelling how to make links.  The was excellent probing questioning (my favourite thing in teaching)  linking knowledge to essay technique i.e. linking specific studies to the particular question.  It was notable how students had the option to use laptops for notes in a high-trust grown-up manner.

History Y13: Russia: A  small group activity to prepare a set of annotated images of Soviet art to share as a revision tool – the question being the extent to which the images represented reality.  There was  impressive harnessing of student agency, discussing ideas, making notes, sharing.. collaborating with links to the bigger question about the success of establishing a socialist society 1917-41. Again, I was impressed with what students knew and how the task supported them in probing deeper.

Percussion Workshop:  Part of the day included observing the visiting So Percussion ensemble who were there to run a workshop with a  group of 20+ Year 9s  for three days. In the workshop students were involved in a rule-based composition activity taking turns for a practical hands-on marimba lesson, the plan being for them to contribute to a public concert on the Friday.

Geology Y13:  So great to see Geology A level going strong! Here the class were going somewhat off-piste, using desks to model a geological event– making a fissure and linking this to the pressure/forces and the flow of magma.  Great stuff!

English Y13:  A fascinating discussion of gender, with students forming a schema around polarities, organising ideas on standard gender characteristics as students volunteered them.  This fed into a process contrasting and applying these identities to central characters in The Duchess of Malfi: a superb blend of teacher instruction and group discussion.

Business Y13: The topic was critical path analysis.  Students were using the idea of making tea to explore how far you can go to specify step by step processes. As elsewhere, the teacher-student rapport was wonderful.

English Y11:  Lord of the Flies. Revisiting the text for the first time after studying it in Year 10, students were looking at how to deploy quotations, reviewing prior knowledge and undertaking a keyword check:  eg microcosm, allegory… – a great example of allowing all students to think, explore their own recall and understanding and then check.

Textiles Y8:  A double lesson forming part of a week on/week off rotation with food tech and wider rotation with resistant materials.  For a relatively short dose of textiles, the expectations and outcomes were fabulous.  Very well structured booklets drive the curriculum with ‘close the gap’ improvements shown.  In the lesson all students were at sewing machines making batik cushions and the mini-portfolios made for homework were superb.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen KS3 DT homework this good.

Spanish Y10. This lesson exemplified so many aspects of what I regard as great MFL teaching.  The activities got everyone speaking; the key structures were being repeated, reinforced, practised. All class instructions were given in Spanish, with lots of teacher talk in Spanish. The focus was on revision of the language to develop opinion and included the retrieval practice game: Quiz, Quiz, Trade… cleverly allowing all students to be involved simultaneously in practising and checking each other’s understanding.  Magnífico!

French Y10:  Another great MFL lesson featuring a tic-tac-toe game to rehearse pronunciation.  Again instructions were predominantly in French for a task that supported the rehearsal of vocabulary; the teacher intervened to reinforce key pronunciation. Attention to detail!  Students had an impressive knowledge organiser booklet with all the key phrases organised lesson by lesson; they explained how they learn phrases by a combination of practice and testing themselves.

Y9 Physics:  Great teacher demo of Newton’s laws involving with trolleys for people to stand on moving in opposite direction;  good emphasis on making sure students distinguish weight vs mass.  This was followed-up with remote control car on a surface moving in opposite directions. Here we had a term one NQT doing a great job balancing developing skills of behaviour management with developing the teaching of the subject. And it says a lot about SWCHS that they have such confidence in their NQTs and the support they get to allow visitors in to see their lessons.

Y8 Geography:  Students were looking at GDP/capita  vs life expectancy.  The graph plotting is challenging providing an important reminder of the attainment range in the school; students operate within a palpable ‘teach to the top’ ethos that permeates the school. In classic Rosenshine style, there was lots of supervised guided practice as the teacher circulated.

I hope the details shared here go someway to illustrate the Learning Rainforest: superb conditions, deep knowledge, exciting possibilities.  Culture and systems. Rigour. Teaching to the top.  Teaching for memory and recall.  And Joy, Awe and Wonder in plentiful supply.  SWCHS is a truly wonderful school that many could learn from.  I hope they’re prepared for the visit requests! Thanks to Caroline, Polly, Cathy, Matt, Angela and Graham for your hospitality.  I know how proud you and your colleagues are of the school and everything you’ve achieved.  And thanks especially to all the SWCHS teachers who welcomed me into your classrooms so openly.  Excellence like this doesn’t happen by magic. You’ve all created something very special.

Rainforest Image:  Taken from SWCHS corridor art display. 


  1. ” I love how stable the physics curriculum is!”

    Hmmm, not sure if that’s a good thing, especially for such as Ben Rogers and his good books. Just saw he does a few on nanotechnology, that’s new (eg 7nm Si-gates); not sure whether such is in English curriculum.


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