What I have learned about school improvement

It is not the same thing as a dramatic improvement in results.

It is possible to effect a dramatic improvement in a school’s results and our accountability system puts demands on our most vulnerable schools to do this.  OFSTED inspections rely very heavily on published data and inspection outcomes are extremely high stakes for school leaders and governing bodies.  I have heard so many times from inspectors “All the right things are being done in this school but unfortunately it is RI because the impact is not yet showing in data”.  Despite HMCI clearly stating that leadership and management can be good while data is not yet good, I have yet to experience this playing out in practice.  So ………. schools are therefore encouraged by the accountability system to ‘throw everything at Year 11’.  In practice these are some of the things that we see happening:

  • Put all the best teachers on Year 11 classes
  • Pile on lots of intervention classes after school and at weekends
  • Collect data every 6 weeks with punishing assessment and marking cycles
  • Focus the majority of monitoring on Year 11 cohort and classes

I am sure you can all add to these and the problem with this list is that almost everything on it mitigates against long-term sustainable improvement.  Teacher recruitment and retention suffers as a result of the energy sapping culture; each year cohort coming through suffers from the gaps caused by poorer quality teaching; there is a lack of coherent curriculum and pedagogy strategy; insufficient time given for quality CPD, and there a lack of monitoring at leadership and governance level on the diet and progress of the younger cohorts.  In effect being forced to ‘throw everything at Year 11’ by a punitive accountability system is deeply damaging to building long term sustainable improvement.

Sustainable school improvement means getting all the ingredients in place.

Teachers need to feel secure in leadership providing:

  • The conditions and climate in the classrooms for purposeful teaching and learning to take place
  • Strong support for students in order that they can present to lessons ready and equipped to learn
  • A curriculum and supporting materials which enable them to deliver to students the best that has been thought and said in their area of specialism, and that ensures a 5 year progression to GCSE without last minute intervention being required
  • A shared pedagogy delivering consistency in classrooms supported by high quality CPD
  • Fewer and more meaningful data collections for the purpose of improving practice rather than reporting upwards
  • A clear vision and a long term plan for where the school is going, and how they fit into this.

When these things are in place teacher recruitment and retention becomes easier, teaching improves and over time so do outcomes.  Most importantly improvement is secured and sustainable.

Many schools most in need of improvement are continuously destabilised and prevented from improving.

It is possible for a large and well-resourced MAT to ‘flood’ a vulnerable school with high quality teachers, import their shared curriculum and resources, student support models and processes and deliver quick and dramatic improvements in outcomes as well as long term sustainable improvement.  We have seen examples of this but we simply do not have enough suitably well-resourced MATs and, even those who are, will sometimes refuse to take on our most challenging schools.

For the schools most in need of improvement the key is attracting committed heads who understand the school improvement journey, and giving them the time, support and space to get all the key ingredients for sustainable improvement in place.  Instead of this we have an accountability culture which means (as @leadinglearner memorably said) “Taking on the headship of a challenging school is quite literally playing Russian Roulette with your career.”

I have somewhat flippantly begun referring to September and October as ‘the killing season’.  Failure to improve student outcomes?  The head needs to go.  Sudden dip in results?  The head needs to go.  The RSC is demanding we do something?  The head must go.  We’ll get put in an OFSTED category!  The head must go to show we are making changes.  All this seriously destabilises schools and in a climate when we are short of heads anyway, it is madness.

To avoid this happening such schools are forced to focus on those Year 11 results to the detriment of all else and so they are continuously ‘on a hamster wheel’ with toxic workload culture, unable to recruit and retain quality teachers and frequently with a leadership churn.

The driver for this is fear of a punitive accountability system, naming and shaming of failing schools, forced academisation, re-brokering etc.

Colleagues – if we are serious about school improvement this has to stop.

This blog first appeared on the @HeadsRoundtable website in 2018



About rosmcm1962

30 years in teaching. Experienced Headteacher, Principal, Executive Principal, CEO of Academy Trust and NLE. Now working independently in the sector.
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