- Good school improvement partners (SIPs) are keen to work with pupils and teachers, rather than just meeting with the headteacher.
- Effective SIPs have sufficient contact with the school to understand the school's strengths and weaknesses.
- Successful SIPs want to attend full governing body meetings and provide support and feedback, and provide a summary of their work and emerging risks for the governing body.
- The best type of SIP will have a multi-dimensional view of school improvement.
Recently I was asked to speak at a national conference, where I was joined by a recently retired HMI with six days' experience as a school improvement consultant. It was interesting listening to her passion and desire to improve pupil outcomes. She managed to convey a sense of freedom and edginess now that she wasn't shackled (my words, not hers) by being an Ofsted employee. There was, throughout her presentation, a sense that the Ofsted inspection process was always meant to be much more than just a scored grade. Good, knowledgeable and credible inspectors always did 'good as they go' as well as holding senior leaders to account for the standards achieved. She was, in my estimation, a highly credible inspector with an optimistic slant and a decent sense of humour. These qualities will help her immeasurably as she begins her new career.
Responding to inspection
Inspection, with its statutory requirements and a clearly laid out framework, provides a level of certainty about what is required. When it is carried out by skilled inspectors it can be a highly beneficial and rewarding experience, even when the grade a school is hoping for is not quite achieved.
What happens between inspections in terms of school improvement can be varied and inconsistent. There are no rules or guidance, with schools and academies engaging in a wide range of professional development activities. These include such things as peer observations, twilight training courses, coaching and mentoring, learning walks, as well as the employment of a group of external advisers to provide challenge and support in good measure, often to senior leaders.
Let's be clear, some school improvement services provided by local authorities, trusts, federations and/or individual consultants are brilliant. Colleagues involved in this work draw on a wealth of effective school improvement practice and have a sharp eye on data, detail, ethos and culture. They have invariably visited many settings in a range of contexts and have gathered sufficient insight to help senior leaders find solutions. I recall a senior HMI telling me that it is best not to tell anyone what to do in case it doesn't work. That's why inspecting is much easier than school improvement work. I should know – I've done both!
Independent external consultants
There are, however, some external consultants who are employed by senior leaders because they tell the headteacher what they want to hear. They may be independent in thought, but they often don't have the strength of character or persuasive skills to convince the headteacher that they may be misguided. A cosy and comfortable relationship is never going to provide the level of challenge required to help tackle deep-rooted problems. At this end of the school improvement spectrum, this approach is unreliable and driven by self-interest. It is doomed to failure.
So, what are the possible indicators of effective school improvement oversight offered by a consultant?
1. They are keen to work with pupils and teachers, rather than meeting the headteacher
This is pretty obvious, but worth stating. If the person is willing to roll up their sleeves, engage with pupils and likes chatting to staff, even better.
2. They have sufficient contact with the school
Due to increasing financial pressures in education over the past few years, many school improvement teams in local authorities have been eliminated. It is not uncommon for school improvement colleagues working for academy trusts to have in excess of 20 schools to support.
Receiving challenge and support from a colleague or group of colleagues regularly visiting the school enables them to identify small changes in the culture of the establishment. At times these changes can be based on very limited evidence. Invariably these shifts in mood can be the precursor to more significant change in the future. If contact is infrequent and/or provided by a wide range of colleagues, these shifts in mood can be difficult to detect.
3. They are not a 'one-trick pony'
I am a great advocate of inspection, but I am always wary of employing inspectors for school improvement work. Not all can make the leap away from the inspection framework into a world where they need to guide, cajole and persuade. In addition, they need to be able to access a range of additional expertise because they will not always have the technical expertise to help.
Any school improvement consultant who gives the impression they are the answer to a school's problems is probably misguided. So, I would always want to know how extensive and credible the additional range of expertise is.
4. They want to attend full governing body meetings
I am a very strong advocate of this approach. A well-timed intervention that provokes discussion, or a pertinent request for more detail on pupil performance from the headteacher, can act as an example on how to pose a question or challenge for the more shy or inexperienced governors. The consultant can also help direct governors to training opportunities available online or locally and act as a quasi-company secretary role for the governing body.
5. They provide a summary of their work and emerging risks for the governing body
Some school improvement colleagues complete a 'Note of visit' (NOV) after each visit to the school, which is useful. Others provide a termly summary of activity, highlighting progress and any concerns. The best NOVs also contain a summary of the current risks and possible future risks alongside a RAG (red-amber-green) rating. These reports are shared and agreed with the headteacher and act as an independent summary for governors. The consultant are also very helpful when an inspector knocks on the door.
So, the next time you use a school improvement consultant, ponder for a few moments whether you feel they are truly credible, have a positive outlook and would be willing to down tools to help you at short notice. If you answer 'yes' to all of those questions, they might be worth using.
Use the following item in the toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
About the author
Frank Norris is Director of The Co-operative Academies Trust, which sponsors seven academies across the north of England. He was formerly the Divisional Manager for Education and Care with Ofsted, responsible for the development and implementation of inspection frameworks. He has led inspections as an Additional Inspector and HMI since 1995.