School improvement

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As the children’s services agenda revolutionises education, so our notions of school improvement are changing too. Martin Baxter looks at the past, present and future of outside intervention.

I was once asked at a job interview to explain briefly what school improvement is. As one who was steeped in the entire culture of school improvement, I felt confident about my answer. However, I did not get the job, and in the feedback I was told that I did not answer the question – but I now wonder what the interviewer expected as an answer. In any case, I know that the answer I gave ten years ago would not be the same as the answer I would provide today. We now know more about how learning happens, and this means notions about school improvement are in a constant state of change – with major implications  for teachers and all who work with schools.

Let us look at the history of the term. It was not until the late 1980s that we had any clarity about what was meant by ‘school improvement’. The 1960s were famous for curriculum projects such as Nuffield science and mathematics, but in the 1970s educationalists realised that these had not improved pupils’ performance as anticipated. In the 1980s central government took a stronger lead through the introduction of the National Curriculum and, subsequently, national programmes for literacy, numeracy, science and ICT.

Initially our understanding of the processes involved was limited, and it was not until 1989 that David Hargreaves and his associates gave us some clarity. Their work suggested a number of questions which might summarise the procedure of school improvement:

  • Where is the school now?
  • What changes do we need to make?
  • How shall we manage these changes over time?
  • How shall we know whether our management of change has been successful?

Over the subsequent 18 years our understanding about school improvement has moved on, with a growing realisation that it involves a complex change process (which, incidentally, is what I recall explaining at my job interview). Since the late 1970s school inspection chiefs had underlined the link between teaching and learning, but it was not until Ofsted published the 'Framework for the Inspection of Schools' in the 1990s that there was agreement on the standards by which teaching might be judged. The outcome is that this standard is now in common use in schools, and most recognise that the regular monitoring of teaching, with feedback and coaching for individual teachers, underlies the improvement process. In addition, the National Curriculum levels for each subject, and the national tests that are based on them, provide data about pupils’ progress that was not available until recently.

Most importantly, though, the responsibility for school improvement now rests firmly with each school, and if it is to succeed it needs to have effective leadership from the head teacher, middle leaders and governors, and the monitoring of pupil progress and quality of teaching needs to have co-ordination and clarity.

The current legal framework for school improvement was set out in 2004, when the Government launched a ten-year childcare strategy which aimed to give every child the best start in life while offering parents greater choice in balancing their work and family life. The Children Act 2004 and the more recent Education and  Inspections Act 2006 place an obligation on local authorities to secure ‘joined-up’ provision for children and young people by establishing children’s trusts, requiring them to monitor the progress of individuals, especially those in vulnerable groups, and intervene when individual needs (as defined by the Children Act 2004) are not being met. Perversely, the Children Act 2004 does not oblige schools to meet the needs of children and young people.

However, the Education and Inspections Act 2006 places a requirement on governing bodies to “promote the well-being of children… as relates to the Children Act 2004". The 2006 act swept up DfES proposals in 'A New Relationship with Schools'. This embraced: a requirement for each school to engage in robust self-evaluation, including the ‘Five Outcomes for Children’ from the Children Act 2004; lighter-touch Ofsted inspection where schools were making good progress; and engaging head teachers as school improvement partners to replace local authority ‘link advisers’. It seems that the respective roles of schools and local authorities are now clear.

In terms of national drivers for school improvement, the Government has proposed a more flexible approach to the curriculum with a move away from compliance towards personalised learning, in an expectation that it will become more responsive to the needs of individuals.

Not every school will be able to meet the individual needs of all children and young people, and so they will move within school networks. Specialist secondary schools and academies have a requirement to collaborate with other local schools, which often include contributory primary schools, and in some areas executive head teachers and a board oversee several local schools. Add to this provision for extended schools, child health, youth work, local social workers and community wardens, and school leadership and governance take a very different shape.

School inspection, likewise, may take a very different form, with a total move away from judging adherence to policies and regulation to a sharp focus on the evaluation of the impact of teaching and school leadership on the Five Outcomes for Children.

The report of the Teaching and Learning in 2020 Review points the way to fresh challenges schools will need to rise to, at a time when the demographics of school-age children and the teaching force are changing rapidly. By 2011 between 40 and 60 per cent of current teachers will have chosen to retire, leaving a yawning gap of experience in schools, and nationally the population of pupils will decline. The UNESCO report published in February 2007 underlines how much there is for UK schools to do. The Children Act 2004 means that schools will extend into and become central in the local community, and so school improvement will no longer be the secret domain of those with teaching experience. It always included welfare officers and education psychologists, but in future it  will embrace those professionals concerned with health, social welfare and youth justice. If the boundaries of the school curriculum and its activities were once semi-permeable, in the future they will be totally permeable, with the school at the centre of the community.

In 'A New Relationship with Schools' the DfES sought to simplify the multifarious external interventions and interactions schools must engage in, partly to satisfy the demands of the Gershon Report to reduce the headcount of employees. The school improvement partner (SIP) is seen to be the sole external challenge to the head teacher, with three to five meetings each year to help in the identification of priorities and need, commission appropriate support, and so become the conduit for intervention. This is a fine aspiration but the Children Act 2004 in particular has made the SIP role more complex, and for vulnerable schools it is particularly challenging.

I recently looked at interventions in a large primary school over a 12 month period. The school was in some difficulty and support had flooded in, possibly at  the behest of the head teacher, with 210 interventions, of which 50 were from subject advisers, and the list did not include visits from health, social workers or the police. This has to be excessive and for the SIP it represents a major investment of time and management skills. What we know is that vulnerable schools, and those going through rapid change, need focused interventions, and traditionally local authority advisers have used their expertise to commission intervention and monitor the impact alongside the head teacher. Vulnerable schools, and those engaged in rapid change, may need regular contact, possibly weekly and certainly monthly. This is a substantial undertaking for SIPs, and for many serving head teachers SIPs, who will also be responding to the impact of the national agenda on their school, it represents a demanding, and possibly unrealistic, commitment.

As schools are increasingly required to meeting the needs of individual students, the drive for personalised learning and a more flexible curriculum means that managers will have to think clearly about what is effective teaching, learning, assessment, curriculum entitlement and choice, and what constitutes learning beyond the school day and gate. Personalised learning is not just about the teachers and teaching assistants: it embraces everyone who has contact with individual children and young people. This is an enormous challenge, and I suggest that most adults working in and with schools will find it difficult without expert intervention and support from experienced school improvement professionals.

Some schools are able to improve or sustain improvement independently of others, but they are in the minority. Such schools have outstanding capacity for change, but what do we mean by ‘capacity’? Ofsted  inspectors make judgements about capacity but the definitions are broad to embrace performance management, the needs of staff, and the clarity of their roles. This is a limited  view, and others such as Jay Galbraith offer further insight. A useful exercise for a school to assess ‘capacity’ is to agree standards within a framework (see figure 1) to reduce in- school variation, and this can then be monitored by consulting pupils.

School capacity for improvement is normally a reflection of a school’s leadership with an understanding that ‘leadership’ includes everyone, and is not something vested only in the senior leadership team. I suggest that school improvement and school leadership are inextricably linked and that effective intervention is all about building the capacity for self-improvement. That may sound obvious but it may require a very different approach to intervention than the current one, which moves away from work with individual children and young people, to modelling best practice and empowering adults as leaders in the school. A speech and language therapist, subject adviser or advanced skills teacher, for example, may work mainly with individuals or classes of children. The emphasis in  future might be on changing the behaviours of the adults in the school, so that they can respond to the needs of individual children and young people with the minimum of external support.

What we are seeking is that schools have the capacity to sustain innovation and change with the minimum of external intervention. In simple terms we might define this capacity as capability (skills, knowledge, technology, systems) x ownership (understanding, acceptance, desire, internalisation).

I suggest that external intervention in teaching is about helping individual teachers and the school as a whole to develop the confidence and capability for sustainable self- improvement. Typically this requires us to touch on three aspects of the school at the same time:

  • systems: information flow (often this does not function well, and so it provides a starting point), quality assurance and the use of ICT
  • people: the stakeholders, their capability, and effectiveness of leadership
  • process: planning, accountability, meetings, decision making, and performance measures.

Successful intervention often starts small, with a pilot to identify and engage all the stakeholders, an audit of standards, perhaps against the Ofsted standards, clarifying the real issues (as opposed to perceived ones), a review and report on progress, then creating a sense of urgency and motivate people through rumours and stories about the benefits of a different approach. Once these change levers have been identified, it is then possible to help individuals and teams take control so they can:

  • identify what can be delivered
  • establish communication within and across teams using a common language to promote multi-agency working
  • identify and agree priorities
  • engage in strategic and operational planning
  • coach the team leaders
  • use ICT effectively
  • embed performance management for teams and individuals
  • clarify and agree procedures
  • manage to outcomes rather than activity.

School improvement is not usually a straight line and in large schools different teams will be at different stages, and this shapes the style of intervention. Figure 2 traces a commonly used change curve derived from studies of bereavement. The early stage needs clear direction with vision and team building. When denial sets in, explanation and feedback are necessary, followed by a coaching approach during periods of frustration to provide encouragement and understanding. When reality dawns, confidence must be rebuilt using reassurance and a role model. This is when the role of intervention is about tough and consistent challenge and, as capacity becomes embedded, so the final step is to delegate and organise an exit. Some useful tools for different stages of the change process are available from the Training and Development Agency.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has talked about the importance of transformation in changing education and that this cannot be achieved without innovation. The National College for School Leadership has published a useful commentary and David Hargreaves has defined innovation as when “practitioners learn to do things differently”. The implication for those who work with schools is that their prime focus has to be on the adults, not the children. If this is the case then it might be more appropriate to measure the performances of schools in terms of adult behaviours, which in most cases will be about adult relationships with each other and with children, parents and carers, and in particular the quality of teaching and learning.

Following an intervention, is there evidence that teaching and learning or leadership and management have improved against the Ofsted standards? If this is not the case, one has to ask about the effectiveness of the intervention. How radical, not to mention controversial, would it be to exchange performance tables of pupil attainment – which are widely seen to be statistically very questionable – with league tables of teaching or leadership quality? Such a proposal is too radical, yet if schools are to improve then intervention must impact on the leadership and teaching culture of the school. This involves asking questions – of children and young people in particular – about the extent to which the curriculum, teaching, assessment and school organisation meet their needs rather than the needs of the adults. Some schools successfully use questionnaires with children and adults and compare perceptions in order to identify discrepancies and the focus for intervention.

Such changes are challenging and have to be nurtured by providing the adults in schools with the confidence to innovate, and challenge and support each other. For some schools in some communities this is a high-risk activity, and therefore intervention must help teachers by creating a supportive climate in the local community for innovation and creativity.

Never before has it been so important for everyone involved with the children and young people in a school to be joined up, and the report of the Teaching and Learning in 2020 Review provides a useful touchstone for ‘school improvers’: “Our vision for 2020 is one in which all children and young people achieve higher skills and the gaps in average attainment between different groups are reduced. To realise this, all level of the system must focus more strongly on the progress of all pupils.”

A final thought is that if you are asked, as I was, to explain school improvement, then I suggest that you ask for time to think and then take a deep breath.

Martin Baxter sits on the national council of the Association of Professionals in Education and Children’s Trusts (Aspect), and specialises in supporting leadership and governance in local authorities and schools.

Taken from Managing Schools Today Issue 16.4