- School improvement is also for good and excellent schools to ensure they maintain their level of achievement.
- It is important to communicate vision to your staff and ensure that you get their buy-in to the school improvement changes.
- Have the infrastructure in place to create and maintain your vision.
- Share your school improvement journey with other schools.
School improvement is not just a concern for struggling schools. For the legion of good and excellent schools, maintaining the momentum means that improvement needs to be at the very top of their agenda too.
What all schools will realise is that creating sustainable, significant improvement is complicated. There is no magic bullet that will unlock the potential of every school.
Rather, school improvement is the result of concerted, interlinked activity across a range of key areas. In order to be successful there needs to be:
- a belief by leaders and their staff in the need for change
- the articulation of a vision which all staff can understand and sign up to
- a focus on efficient processes
- the development of sustainable leadership
- the creation of a support network.
1 Believe in change and craft the vision
Determining whether change is needed is the easy part for a leader. No one would advocate change for change’s sake, but in a world of ever-increasing accountability, good leaders will be prepared to implement new initiatives and strategy even though it may be uncomfortable to do. However, very few school leaders can create change by themselves. In order to make things happen they need to bring their colleagues along with them and persuade them also to believe that change is needed.
Attempting to tackle change by putting in place systems and procedures as a first step will not work without that buy-in from staff. Leaders should be clear in their own minds that change is needed and communicate this is as clearly and unambiguously as possible to their teams. By bringing them into the ‘mission’, the leader will be signalling to colleagues that the journey towards change needs them on board in order for it to be successful.
There are several factors that get in the way of school leaders effectively communicating the vision to their staff. There might be a genuine lack of desire to do this. Vision might have taken a back seat to process and Ofsted box ticking. Another source of difficulty is that there may be a mismatch between the leadership’s idea of the vision and what staff think it should be. This is often due to the message not being communicated in the context of the role of the recipient. A message tailored to classroom teachers is not likely to transfer as well to the site supervisor.
Practical strategies for implementing change might include the following:
- Establish your organisation’s attitude to change. Is it proactive, reactive or resistant? Discuss this with your team; if people understand the reasoning behind change, they will want to engage in the change.
- Avoid communicating abstract visions – make it relevant to each role.
- Ask your staff to help inform the vision. Use their input to make sure that vision is put into a context that directly relates to each role.
- Nail the vision to every wall. This will keep you on track when others try to derail you. If an inspector asks any member of your team why they do what they do, the answer should always relate to the vision and their part in it.
2 Focus on efficiency
Many people do not want change because it hurts. It needs time, resources and money.
In the short term there will be some inefficiency – that is a barrier to school improvement. But if you are planning for the long term, a short-term blip can be absorbed.
Most schools will be able to create their own HR, finance and school development planning systems using products such as Microsoft Office. This might, on the face of it, seem to be a good use of resources and time. But it is important to think about who is going to develop, maintain, enhance and guarantee the performance of these systems.
It might make sense, at first, to have a deputy devote 20 per cent of his or her time to development planning. However, this actually represents a significant outlay and they are not focusing on what might be their key role: teaching and learning, and leading and supporting other members of the team. Leaders need to ask what will happen when that person is no longer available to maintain these systems or if they leave. It is an approach fraught with risk.
We have to develop time and resource efficiency by taking a long-term view. Adopting modern-day processes and procedures, such as proprietary systems developed specifically for the task in hand, will release people to concentrate on core expertise work in education. Management information systems and pupil tracking systems are good examples, but there also needs to be a place where all this data comes together and makes sense. There are purpose-built online school improvement planning systems that do this.
Practical strategies for focusing on efficiency might include the following:
- Identify areas not at the core of your school’s purpose. Financial management, HR administration, facilities management and software development should not compete as priorities with teaching and learning.
- Once you have identified these non-core areas, research the market to find the specialist proprietary tools to meet those needs. Your school business manager will be best placed to source the best providers.
3 Make the improvement sustainable
This is where a lack of belief and vision has an enormous impact. Without these defining qualities leaders can lack confidence, which can make them more susceptible to reacting to whatever is thrown at them. Ofsted’s demands and policy changes are often the trigger for these knee-jerk reactions. These leaders can find that they are unable to focus on the most important part of their job: the leadership of teaching and learning. This simply is not sustainable.
When there is a clear vision that is shared, staff leaders can handle these pressures. As long as they have the systems and processes in place to manage and record the ‘outputs’ of that vision – attainment, staff performance, development planning – they can satisfy Ofsted’s accountability needs. More and more schools now tell me that they do not work for Ofsted, they do it for their pupils. I am sure most, if not all, have always believed that. The logical approach, therefore, is that the natural by-product of what they do will be something which should meet the needs of Ofsted. The best examples of sustainable school improvement are where teaching and learning drive the vision, not Ofsted.
Practical strategies for making improvement sustainable might include the following:
- Choose low-maintenance and leading-edge systems to underpin and manage the improvement processes that will help you fulfil your vision – processes like performance management, development planning and self-evaluation.
- Remember that the school landscape is volatile and ever changing. Ensure that the school improvement system you choose can handle future developments such as changing inspection frameworks.
4 Make school-to-school support make a difference
No school can do this on their own. Thankfully, collaboration between schools is now becoming a reality across the country.
The impetus behind this is a noble one: schools get better if they work together and share their best practice. By doing this they improve the lot for all children, not just their own.
But there is a big gap between the aspirations schools have for sharing best practice and the hard, practical reality.
The sharing of best practice often fails because, in many cases, there are three degrees of separation between the moment best practice is observed in a classroom and when an attempt is made to impart that knowledge in the ‘recipient’ school. Often no account is taken of the differing contexts of schools, the transfer of knowledge from classroom observation in one school to another is prone to subjective interpretation by those doing it, and often there is a lack of support to help teachers adopt new practice.
Do not just assess systems on what they can do for your school alone. Ask prospective suppliers to demonstrate how their system will aid practical collaboration and communication with any school or education service provider.
Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:
About the author
Keith Wright is managing director of school information management specialist Bluewave.SWIFT. He has worked with hundreds of schools during the past decade supporting institutional leadership and management. For further information go to www.bluewaveswift.co.uk
This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of School Inspection and Improvement magazine.