Running a school is complicated: 1000s of individuals; 100,000s of interactions every day – you just can’t control it all. If you try to micro-manage teachers and students to the nth degree, it can be a recipe for stress and disaster. Most people don’t do this. However, when things are in the process of being improved (which is most of the time, let’s face it) there can still be a tendency to over-focus on the imperfections. There are those that suggest that if you sweat the small stuff the bigger picture takes care of itself; I’ve never found that to be true; you’d have to be in a very strong position in the first place.
There are lots of analogies for what I’m trying to describe. One is the leaky dam. Do you go around trying to mop up the mess from the overspill, plugging the hole Hans Brinker style, or do you try to find the cause of the leak and stop it, building a stronger dam? Do you go around patching things up, sticking on various day-to-day band-aids or do you focus instead on the bigger picture of institutional health?
This manifests itself in various details of school life:
- focusing resources on Y11 intervention at the expense of deeper long-term thinking about curriculum and standards throughout the school.
- focusing on minute day-to-day details of behaviour infringement and the knock-on consequences system instead of building and communicating a clear, strong, collective culture, building teacher capacity and confidence with positive behaviour management.
- focusing on data collection and missing grades rather than the underlying meaning of assessments and their use in informing teacher and student interactions.
- building a quality assurance system that focuses on a few high stakes lesson observations and narrowly defined data outcomes rather than building a staff culture of professional development that places greater emphasis on all lessons and a broader view of what success can look like.
My view is that schools need to focus maximum energy on the core, not the periphery; the majority experience, not the occasional stuff; the fundamentals and principles, not the imperfections. In many situations, where imperfections and areas of underachievement exist, it will be a fault with the core principles either not being sound enough, clear enough, communicated well enough or delivered with conviction.
Another analogy might be the repeating units in naturally occurring fractals (see this post) or perhaps the simple fundamentals of a few quarks and some electrons that combine to form all the matter we know: once we understand the fundamental units, the building blocks, the rest follows.
Source: Quarks: the fundamental building blocks. http://blog.nt.ntnu.no/en/author/jandersen/
Turton School, Bolton
One school that is big on fundamentals is Turton School in Bolton. Under the inspiring leadership of Headteacher Sam Gorse, the school is undergoing a process of deep-level improvement that is wonderful to see. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Sam and her colleagues as their SIP this year and I’ve learned a great deal from the approach they take.
At Turton, there are three development priorities, simply stated and repeatedly communicated. Essentially they are:
- Improve the school ethos and behaviour by embedding the Hive Switch
- Develop the curriculum by embedding the Trivium.
- Improve teaching by engaging staff in continuing professional development using the triad system and research engagement.
An even shorter version might be: Hive switch; Trivium; triads.
The SLT works superbly well as a unit because they’ve spent so much time debating the fundamentals. They thrash things out at the level of principle way before they get concerned about imperfections. It’s not a case of letting the details slip by – it’s about recognising that their time is better invested in reinforcing the core.
The Hive Switch is described in Sam’s brilliant blog here: Our Hive Switch. It’s an idea taken from Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’. At one level it is just a set of behaviour rules and expectations: clearly stated and repeatedly reinforced. At another level it is a process and philosophy for how rules are enforced. It places far greater weight on reinforcing expectations repeatedly and consistently, communicating their purpose and benefits to the community – than on the consequences for failing to meet them.
This doesn’t mean that there are no consequences; there are – it’s just that, when things are less than ideal, the staff response is more geared towards considering why messages aren’t getting across rather than prioritising mopping up with sanctions. Teachers just need to say ‘Hive Switch’ to a group of children and they’ll know what it means because they hear it all the time. A great deal of thought goes into what the Hive Switch contains and which areas need emphasis and repeated messages are shared among staff about the need to work collectively on that issue. Everyone you speak to had the school volunteers the fact that the Hive Switch has made a massive impact on behaviour at the school over the last few years.
The curriculum emphasis on the Trivium is similarly powerful. Working with Trivium 21 wizard Martin Robinson, the staff have bought into the idea that grammar, dialectic and rhetoric form an excellent basis for structuring the curriculum in each subject. What is the base of powerful knowledge students should have; in which ways should students explore, debate and experience that knowledge; how should they communicate their knowledge?
Of course there’s a lot of detail to unpack in applying the Trivium 21c within and between subjects but it’s also beautifully simple as a set of core principles to hang everything on – a world away from the limited drudgery of inspection compliance and a pure focus on examination outcomes. Of course this doesn’t mean that they’ve got it all sorted; it’s a long-term process. But having a guiding principle as rich as the Trivium is brilliant for long-term thinking; it provides a framework that can continually be explored ever wider and deeper; it’s something you can focus on relentlessly.
Finally, the research-informed professional development process at Turton is part of a superb culture where the balance between professional trust and accountability feels to be dead right. Teachers are not set data targets; lessons are not graded; there are no high-stakes formal lesson observations. Lots of learning walks happen that feed into developmental conversations with individuals and teachers are all known very well. It’s quite an organic, flexible and responsive approach rather than linear and systematic – and it’s working.
All teachers are in triads that undertake year-round developmental enquiry processes with strong research-engagement laced through them; their discussions are overseen/guided by members of SLT – so accountability sits more at the level of input and engagement, not outcomes. (The school also has a healthy scepticism about chasing sub-group outcomes via targeted interventions – preferring again to focus on the bigger picture of core attainment, curriculum and teaching.). Instead of performance targets, staff set out annual ‘intentions’ which identify their professional development priorities for the year; these are then reviewed in an intelligent, triangulated fashion. It’s a high-trust high-expectations culture that people relish.
The most important thing is that people are engaged in improving their practice, reinforcing the Hive Switch and embedding the Trivium. There’s no complacency at Turton; they know they’re on a journey and the sense of mission is fabulous. With the governors behind them, it’s a school determined to do the right things in the right spirit; a school that refuses to follow a standard accountability-driven path; and it’s certainly a school to follow and learn from as I continue to do.
PS: Featured imaged depicts the Standard Model Lagrangian – a set of only four equations that sum up the interactions of nature’s fundamental particles.