Over the years and in recent months I’ve seen lots of different, fascinating schools with great Headteachers; it’s so interesting to see how things are done in different places and the relative importance certain issues are given. Currently nearly everyone is talking about budget constraints, the challenge of implementing curriculum changes at every Key Stage and the uncertainty of new accountability measures. Everyone is talking about recruitment and the challenge of retaining staff long enough to develop them into expert teachers.
There are so many things to get right in a successful school; some can be controlled much more easily than others. The six areas in this post are by no means the only six or necessarily the most important. They are all areas that it ought to be possible to plan for, taking account of research evidence and examples of effective practice across the system. Of course there is a debate to be had about what we mean by ‘right’ and who decides – but let’s leave that aside for now.
The process of getting things right is always an interesting interplay of culture and systems. Two schools might have the same system on paper but find that it’s pursued with much greater intensity in one place than the other. Some school leaders are much more comfortable and experienced dealing with some of these areas than others- myself included of course; they might have managed to get some of these areas right for their context, but not all.
I’ve seen just how crucial a school’s context is in determining priorities. There are some schools where, for example, behaviour or quality assurance are relatively minor concerns – simply because the students and staff don’t require more than light touch supervision or guidance. Improved outcomes can flow much more readily for any given intervention or input in some contexts relative to others where the going is much tougher. Leaders’ activities in a school where FSM is less than 10% can be radically different to one where FSM is above 60%.
With that preamble, I’d say that where schools are really flying, it’s when leaders and teachers seem to be getting most of these things right at the same time – or at least they are heading that way:
1. The curriculum
Here, I think there’s a tendency to focus a lot on the curriculum structure at a macro-level. This collection of 40 models shows how every school has a unique solution to the big puzzle of slicing up the learning time in a week. It’s always good to see a curriculum driven by principles rather than accountability measures but not every school has the luxury of making that a choice.
However, I think real success comes when the thinking goes much deeper than subject allocations to consider the curriculum details; where senior leaders and curriculum leaders are able to discuss the actual curriculum experience that students have. This includes the topics, the literature, the periods of history and some elements of the enacted curriculum – the way any stated scheme of work is actually delivered in class.
I would recommend that people read recent blog posts by Michael Fordham. For example, here he suggests that we spend too long talking about pedagogy – whatever that is – and not enough time talking about curriculum in the detail. From what I’ve seen, leaders need to be sure that detailed discussions about what is being taught are driven by genuine experts, even where they themselves are not directly involved. These discussions determine the level of challenge, success with exam preparation and the content of what students actually learn about, shaping their whole education. This is where we meet the needs of students across the ability range – it’s in the detail of the curriculum diet they receive. Who is making these important decisions?
I’d also recommend that people take a look at their wider provision and explore the National Baccalaureate model to formally recognise and give value to their students’ full curriculum experience.
2. The staff development programme.
There’s so much research evidence about effective CPD now. What we should be doing is putting it into practice. Recent blogs by Harry Fletcher-Wood are must-reads on these issues:
There is also the excellent TDT report on effective CPD. http://tdtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/DGT-Full-report.pdf
The essential things are to consider how to foster alignment across the staff, how to create built-in time that provides high frequency CPD, time for genuine reflection and ensuring that CPD is focused on specific aspects of professional work that will be implemented and practiced directly. Part of this is identifying where team culture is blocking the improvement process because if that’s happening, your CPD won’t be having much impact.
There’s also the issue of supporting individual staff beyond their initial induction. Some schools have impressive on-going coaching programmes and leadership development programmes and set out career-long pathways for professional learning.
3. The assessment and tracking system
I would suggest that most assessment systems are still too heavily weighted in favour of summative testing for the purpose of producing centralised tracking data versus short-run low-stakes formative assessment that can more directly provide feedback to students in order to deepen their learning. In many cases the volume of central tracking data is so large that the people who receive it can’t action it in any detail; it might tell them something about what’s going on but they can’t use it to inform actions at the level of teacher-student interactions in classrooms.
I would recommend that all teachers and leaders read Daisy Christodoulou’s book on assessment as featured in this post : we need to get better at devising formative assessments and break away from the fairly deeply embedded culture of trying to use summative tests in a formative way – it just doesn’t work that way, as DC explains. Assessment at KS3, now free from levels, gives us the green light to make assessment as authentic as possible in subject contexts without creating false equivalences on made up scales.
The question is: what is the optimum level of central data collection that is necessary to track progress at school level but that does not create counterproductive workload issues or impede the more effective flow of formative assessment?
There is also the nature of the tests themselves. Are people taking account of the research evidence and making sure tests are cumulative and build in interleaving and spaced practice? There is still a lot of topic A, test A; topic B, test B – ad infinitum.
Then there is the issue of feedback and marking. Some schools have brilliant whole-school approaches to this where the emphasis is all on the students’ action on receipt of feedback – and not on marking. This ‘close the gap‘ approach I wrote about years ago is still one of the best I’ve seen.
Finally, there is the massive issue of knowing the standards. I would suggest that, across the system, a much higher proportion of CPD time should be given to exploring, exemplifying and moderating standards. What should excellence look like in Year 1, Year 4, Year 8, Year 11? How do we know how well we’re doing compared to some national reference points?
4. The Behaviour system
As I said earlier, context is key and some schools can get great behaviour with the system equivalent of a raised eyebrow. In others, a full-blown regime is required. You need to have a school-wide system but, as well as that, you need the resolve to follow through on the consequences and keep your nerve; to go the whole way until you get the level of behaviour required. This is easier said than done of course as I know only too well.
The recent Tom Bennett ‘Creating a Culture’ report provides a superb template. I recommend this blog by Teacher Toolkit that gives links to the report and the excellent infographics by Oliver Caviglioli.
I also recommend reading this excellent blog by Stuart Lock about holding your nerve:
All schools ‘do reading’ to some extent – of course they do. However, I’ve learned that schools can be poles apart in the level of priority this is given. You need to consider reading in English lessons, reading across the curriculum, reading interventions for those behind the age related standard and wider reading programmes that encourage and support reading for pleasure.
In truth, a lot of secondary teachers are never taught how to teach reading. There are methods for whole class reading and for supporting individuals that all teachers should probably learn. That’s something schools can remedy. There are schools where reading is deeply integrated into the fabric of every student’s routine. I visited one school where every student in Y7-Y9 started school 30 minutes early every day for a group reading session. That was 600 students doing 2 1/2 hours of extra reading a week.
There’s a major resource management challenge when a school has hundreds of students who require reading intervention because they’re below expected standards. The reading programmes that make the biggest impact – according to the research evidence – need one-to-one tuition several times a week. That level of intervention is impossible to operate at scale. Schools that combine targeted support with whole cohort strategies seem to be getting it right. It’s so useful to have a leader who really knows their stuff about reading; it requires some genuine expertise to get this right.
6. The quality assurance system.
On my travels I’ve encountered a fascinating range of systems for making sure that standards are high across a range of issues. I met one Head who prided herself on the way she kept her staff on their toes – e.g. she asked to see any teacher in person if they were late to a break duty – but I’m not really talking about that kind of power persona. I’ve encountered some impressively systematic and sympathetic QA programmes. For example, a system of learning drop-ins where 10 leaders see 10 different teachers and classes every 10 days, all mapped out in advance with brief affirming feedback given to everyone. Similarly with work scrutiny – systems where every book in a particular area is checked rather than just a sample, where collegiate peer scrutiny blended with robust QA. In both of these examples, it was all logged and tracked as part of a wider QA system.
There’s a huge cultural balancing act here. You might want to run a school based on trust but if there’s a proportion of staff who can’t or don’t follow agreed protocols without some degree of scrutiny, you can’t really afford to leave things to chance. This is more critical in some contexts than others, where the quality or experience of teachers might be more variable. Ideally a QA process is supportive and developmental for most people without feeling oppressive or overly bureaucratic. Nobody wants to feel they’re being checked up on the whole time but everyone expects weak practice to be tackled. Getting the balance right is the challenge. I’ve seen it work; It can be done.
Hats off to all those schools where this is all going well; getting it right takes time and it’s great to see where people have triumphed. It’s also hugely inspiring to visit schools where they’re setting out on the journey with a bold ambition for what might be possible.