Six principled practices for intelligent schools:

On my travels I’ve encountered schools that are doing brilliant things without resorting to short-cuts,  without saying that they’ve sacrificed their principles to satisfy external pressures and without making life miserable for their staff with ugly brute-force whip-cracking performance cultures.

Some schools are lovely to work in because leaders increasingly recognise the power of building a deep professional learning culture over time,  a high trust working environment and they’ve started to embrace some of the thinking that puts workload-heavy macro summative assessment and tracking machinery in its place.   A longer road to travel is for school leaders to find the balance with internal quality assurance – to make sure everyone is doing what they should be doing whilst also giving them the level of professional respect and autonomy they deserve.

I think it should be possible to run a school that is both principled and intelligent in what it does.  Here are six aspects of that in practice:

Curriculum design is driven by sound principles. 

There are lots of permutations for the curriculum and some competing demands from the accountability regime.  Progress 8 drives schools down one path, Ebacc down another and, Ofsted – with its recent and well-reasoned demand for curriculum breadth – down another.  The question is this:  If all the various algorithmic rules and policy expectations where changed, what would you do differently?  Are you running courses you feel slightly guilty about offering but do it purely for Bucket Three points?

The solution is to have a curriculum you believe in, rather than one you feel obliged to deliver – to the greatest extent possible.  What, for example, are the educational principles underpinning a two-year KS3?  Or your KS4 offer?

As John Tomsett’s tweet below demonstrates, it is now officially possible to gain Ofsted kudos for prioritising integrity over short-term league table gains.  tweet.png

In this post, I have outlined the thinking process that leads to a particular set of choices for a KS3/4 curriculum – there’s a lot to consider. But Huntington shows us there is no need or justification for running a curriculum you don’t believe in or wouldn’t run if the accountability rules changed.

Assessment data is created and used intelligently. 

I think this is a major area for review and reform in many schools.  Too many data systems have too much data; data that is never ever acted on; that is too remote from the information that actually drives learning gains and that is largely geared to create illusions of linear progress to satisfy accountability processes.  However, slowly but surely, the Emperor’s clothes are being seen for what they are – and we are beginning to see the assessment paradigm shift I talk about here. 

If you have a principled, intelligent system, you will have a lean set of centralised data, you won’t be using ‘can do’ statements or creating giant banks of learning checklists that are impossible to track; you won’t be setting target grades or progress targets or even using data targets for teaching groups. None of this stands up to rigorous scrutiny; it is all deeply deeply flawed and massively time-consuming relative to the in-class micro day-to-day business of responsive teaching.

Workload reduction is a priority

I recently set out a list of 10 things schools should stop doing or should do less of.  If we are serious about teacher retention and about making teaching a doable job in reasonable conditions, it’s worth examining your practice and trying to implement all the things you haven’t already addressed.  If you simply ignore this issue, it’s neither principled or intelligent; it’s counterproductive in the long term.

Professional culture drives quality assurance

It still staggers me that so many schools still grade lessons, set data targets for teaching groups and run top-down quality assurance processes that grade book scrutinies and involve very rigid performance-related pay criteria.  These command and control practices are common and are often falsely given status as the driver of school outcomes.    There’s no evidence to support that.  In fact there are plenty of schools with great outcomes that do not need to use power-driven quality assurance; to my mind, it’s a sign of significant weakness if they have to. For years we’ve seen Ofsted reports banging on about teachers ‘being held robustly to account’ and in my view it’s this big kahunas ‘tough talk’ that is killing our system.  The price we’re paying is evident in the decline in teacher recruitment and falling retention rates.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Principled, intelligent schools do it differently.

This article for Sec-Ed by Maria Cunningham outlines a lot of these issues with several very constructive suggestions.  None of them are soft.  Underperformance can be tackled without reducing everyone to the level of a factory drone following orders, dancing to the tune of  the ‘everyone must be above average’ data delusion.

High frequency CPD is built-in. 

The research is clear on this and some schools are doing a great job of putting built-in CPD into place.  However other schools are miles behind with a just few INSET days and bits of meeting time scraped together across a year.  It takes time, patience and a bit of relentless focus to really shift teachers’ practice in a particular area.  That requires a pattern of CPD that has a rhythm and frequency to it, given the status is deserves – even if it means reducing the length of a teaching day once a fortnight.   I wrote recently about how much CPD time is wasted, but the main barrier is usually simply that not enough time is given in the first place.   Intelligent, principled schools will not pay lip service to CPD. They will put in place a proper programme sustained over time that delivers real professional learning for everyone.

Behaviour systems eliminate class disruption

This is another complex area.  I wrote a piece about this recently suggesting 12 considerations when discussing behaviour and exclusions – a debate that gets polarised all too quickly regardless of context with people judging the practices of schools they’ve never been to.  However, the driving principle that all schools should aspire to adhere to is that class disruption can and should be eliminated.  I know all too well how hard this is  but it must be the goal.  As adults, we have no excuses.

In a wide range of contexts, including the most challenging, I have seen that it is possible to eradicate low-level disruption in all classrooms.  This is achieved by following through on two fronts:

  • developing teacher confidence, building a team of assertive teachers who can build relationships with teenagers and can use in-class strategies and wider systems to insist on standards of behaviour being met;
  • implementing systems that make sure students understand the boundaries, providing support for teachers when they need it and delivering alternative provision to manage students in the short and long term when they find they cannot manage the expectations.

I’ve never seen excellent behaviour in a school where one of these elements was weak or absent.  It’s the sign of an intelligent and principled school where both strands are a focus of development, recognising that this may not be a quick fix.

Moving Forward 

You may be lucky to be working in or running a school that does all of this already.  If you are not, then pick your battles over a sensible timeframe whilst keeping all six issues in mind.  The hardest thing might be to change your own mindset – the way you hold staff to account, the way you talk about teacher performance, the way you project the possibility of change in student behaviour or teacher confidence or the need for assessment data coming out of your ears.  What could you do differently that is more principled and more rooted in evidence – more intelligent?

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