Governors Need To Ask Whether Their School’s Strategy During Covid Was Up To Scratch

Schools which measure themselves primarily against outputs in the form of target test/exam results and Ofsted inspection grades may have had a less than satisfactory response to the Covid emergency. Peter Gillar Moss and Ben White say this is an ideal time for school governors to review some underlying issues about their school’s performance.

“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”. Warren Buffett 

If COVID-19 is the tide going out on school leadership, Governing Bodies may wish to ask themselves what this moment has revealed. What can they offer to help steer the school through the year ahead? 

Schools will be looking back over the recent Covid closures (and restricted on-site provision); coming to terms with what has happened; exploring its impact and considering how best to plan for the uncertainties of the year ahead. 

How Innovative Was Your School?

Some schools’ innovative dedication to their pupils has made headlines, including Sir John Sherbrooke Junior School. Headteacher Sally Maddison, held daily online assemblies dressed as a different inflatable animal. Chris Dyson opened his school’s kitchen to becoming a food hub for local disadvantaged families. He stated ‘”The number one priority is getting food in bellies. These kids have the right to food.” Caroline Spalding’s school produced printed, differentiated work-packs for over 200 students who did not have access to digital resources. 

Some schools have made headlines for far more negative reasons as parents accused them of abandoning their children. Teacher Tapp (a teacher survey app) and interviews Ben conducted with a secondary school students found a fairly mixed picture as schools settled on diverse means and frequency of communication with, and provision for, their pupils. Here one student contrasts her own experience with that of friends (and a sibling) elsewhere.

Question from  Ben White

‘I’m wondering if the gap between students in terms of learning will be bigger than usual this year as….

1 .Some students find it hard to study/can’t access resources/have contexts or challenges that make remote learning a low priority.

2. Some students have taken on personal responsibility for learning their courses – in a way which exceeds what they might feel the need to do if sitting in lessons with teachers and peers each day.

Student Response

I am 100% happy to put forward my suggestion! So here it is… I do think the gap will be massive and there will be students who probably suffer from that, as well as those who benefit.

I think the first reason / statement is true of itself – there just isn’t the resources available for some children / areas. My brother is training to teach secondary school children this year and he teaches in a school in Hastings for his placed year to get the qualification. He lives in Hastings too, so we facetime to catch up at the moment!

He always asks my other brother about uni’ and me about school and I always check up on his situation too. It has been speaking to my brother fairly regularly which has made me realise how lucky I am.. the children there don’t want to be at school, most come from backgrounds where they just aren’t motivated or allowed to reach their potential (some are extremely vulnerable) and it wouldn’t be a lie if I said the school struggles to bridge that gap.

He spoke to me about work set and I outlined roughly what was going on in my subjects.. he was really surprised at first as it would appear there has been more of a pause in the curriculum there, rather than the extended learning that we have experienced. I reminded him that we are in the top 10 in Kent (or whatever the statistic is.. I forget!) and that his was probably quite a comparison in both child attitude and education.

All of that said, we are all in the same cohort A-levels wise and so yes, this does show exactly what you said – the gap will be huge and I’m not sure if that’ll be good for the children who already suffer on the curve.

The second point is me to a T! Although I haven’t felt as though I was underperforming when I was at school, I think it would be honest for me to say that I definitely do the most I can to feel like I’m doing ‘enough to satisfy’ – which I’m sure, some people would think is too much.

I think this second point is a good self reflection of the attitude held by individuals… my best friend and boyfriend are at schools  A & B and so I have had an insight into their remote learning! School A have gone very hands on, intense and not a second of the day to breathe which I know, having spoken to a friend, isn’t as popular with the students as school A probably think it is!

School B are more relaxed than us but there is more ‘set work’ in that my boyfriend will complete anywhere between 4 and 8 set lesson tasks, which he did say is to tick them over. But, he also said, he doesn’t like that this is all that has been done and so he does the extra work for his own benefit. If I’m honest (and I know I’m a probably a little biased:)! ), I do think we have it perfectly balanced in my school.

I do plenty Monday – Friday and I do whatever I feel necessary at the weekends to tide me over till the following Monday. If I’m uncertain, I have lessons at least once a week with most teachers so can talk to them then or drop an email anytime I like – I think it really is great! Ultimately, the 3 schools have gone about it a little differently but us 3 individuals (who have roughly the same GCSEs) have had to alter our own lives, attitudes and readiness to strive for our best  – as we know that is all it will come down to next year.

I think it is a real shame, that some children aren’t as supported as they ought to be and I think sometimes we do take for granted the effort our schools, teachers and families are all willing to put in to making our school lives better. For the sake of some people, I wish more time was spent gearing them up and making them see that the attitude they have and how hard they work is directly proportional to the grades they will get out of it. I think it is a shame that they have to wait 2 years to see (in their results) that sometimes they didn’t work hard enough or get themselves into shape in time.

So, I hope that was helpful and not ranty! I didn’t want to come across like that, I just thought I would share my feelings about this unprecedented time and what I have considered, when taking time to carefully and considerately work through my A levels….

Why have  schools responses to Covid shown such variation? 

The answer is of course complex not least because schools are  influenced by context and intake rather more than is popular to acknowledge. For example, the  proportions of vulnerable students (and the nature of their needs); levels of economic and social disadvantage, engagement with and access to online learning, and the skills, experiences and care-giving demands of staff, will all vary considerably. 

Much of this presents challenges which are beyond the gift of school governing bodies to control. But they can support school leaders in considering how best to analyse and respond to them. 

We would like to suggest one dynamic which probably played a part in schools’ responses and over which governing bodies can exert long-term influence: The importance of purpose within a schools’ culture.  

The Primacy Of Purpose

John Seddon, inventor of ‘The Vanguard Method’, and outspoken critic of government target culture, talks about the importance of Purpose-Measures-Method Set your purpose and then work out the measure and you liberate the method. Otherwise, if all you have are targets (like results) they will become your defacto purpose and work will be constrained by those measures.

Where some schools approached the challenge innovatively, other schools simply attempted to recreate their existing methods remotely. Some parents felt that their childrens’ schools  had almost abandoned them altogether. Have those schools which struggled to innovate done so because their methods were constrained by a culture of results and Ofsted inspections? Has protecting or boosting these targets become their defacto purpose?

 “Tell me how you will measure me, and then I will tell you how I will behave. If you measure me in an illogical way, don’t complain about illogical behavior.” said Eli Goldratt.

Schools who measure themselves primarily against outputs in the form of target results and Ofsted inspections might not have fared too well. Their suspension might have removed a lot of motivation  …especially the flurry of activity common to many year 11 year-groups in the final straight before exam season. 

You only need to look at Sir John Sherbrooke’s website to find out how Sally Maddison was measuring herself. Cast large below their name are the words “We are a ‘Take Care’ school”. Explaining her behaviour to dress up everyday she explained “We wanted [the children] to know even though things are tough, there’s lots of fun and happiness out there for them.” When the school says it’s aims are “To promote children’s self-esteem, their rights and responsibilities”, these aren’t empty words on a website, leadership is living it by using it as the basis for their decisions.

Sir John Sherbrooke is a school with a clear purpose, and, even in the adversity of a global pandemic, and 6 months of closed schools, that purpose shone through. By focusing on the purpose, the staff were liberated to do the “most imaginative, amazing things” in order to meet it.

But if all a school measures are results and Ofsted, they became its defacto purpose. And when the sea went out, these school’s were more likely to be found naked.

A school’s purpose must be in response to the needs of the pupils, whether it’s as simple as happiness and stability or high achievement. Strategic goals must be formed from a diagnosis of the challenges in meeting these needs, whether due to backgrounds, family situations or the attitudes of parents towards education.

Grounded in reality

The Governers’ handbook makes this point clearly by stating that the first key feature of effective governance is that it is “grounded in reality as defined by both high-quality objective data and a full understanding of the views and needs of pupils/students, staff, parents, carers and local communities.” This is exactly what Rumelt meant by diagnosis and facing the challenge. 

When formulating the school’s goals “the focus should be on significant strategic challenges” revealed by the diagnosis. These goals, unique to the school, provide the necessary focus and direction to overcome them by leveraging its strengths. For example, a good diagnosis may reveal that ,for many pupils, their progress is being hampered as English is not their first language and they struggle to keep up in the classroom.

A governing body may respond to this challenge by setting a strategic goal which states “Every child, regardless of language, has the same access to learning”. This goal would be measurable and that measure become the obsession of the governing body and senior leadership, and then, along with similar responses, form the basis of the School Improvement Plan.

External judgements a poor proxy

Improved grades are an output over which a school has some control. As such they are important to monitor. But they are not your strategy! Ofsted inspection outcomes represent an external judgement about the quality of education within a school – this is not an output as such. Whilst also important to monitor, Ofsted judgements and criteria are a poor proxy for improvement targets or to build an improvement strategy around.  

Strategy is a set of actions to overcome the constraints and leverage your strengths to achieve your purpose. Through this clarity of direction, staff can focus on the inputs their expertise and knowledge tells them will move the needle, like ensuring that teaching includes opportunities to improve english speaking and reading skills.

Again, these inputs will be measurable. If your strategy is solid then, by focusing on the right inputs, staff can be confident that they are doing what they can to be successful –  improved results are plausible second order effects, the outputs, of their actions. 

For those responsible for ensuring that a school is successful it can be hard to countenance this complexity. . However, doing so is crucial for avoiding boiler-plate strategy and target-setting. ‘Being outstanding, gaining a particular percentage of A*-C’  – these are not strategies.

Goals are not strategies either – indeed conflating the two can be counterproductive. Once a teacher or school leader knows that ‘all pupils must (be seen to) make progress’ or ‘all must have the same access to  learning’ then they will work hard (and/or worry about) demonstrating rather than doing the impossible. 

This shouldn’t be new information to Governing Bodies. The primary core function of Governance is in “Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction”. Otherwise known as purpose. “Educational standards and financial health” are the second feature of the board’s role. They are second to purpose for a clear reason. They should form the frame for every decision from the governing body down to the pupils in the classroom.

Template strategy fluff

Yet too many governing bodies are only doing half of their job. Instead of a clear purpose and strategy they focus on results and Ofsted scores. They may have what Richard Rumelt called “template strategy” of Vision, Mission and Values. Lofty statements which are fluff, nothing more than “restatement of the obvious, combined with a generous sprinkling of buzzwords that masquerade as expertise”.

Goals can become a copy-and-paste exercise often drawing directly from Ofsted criteria and language  with no connection to how the school will achieve its vision. They pass all the criteria of Rumelt’s characteristics of bad strategy “the failure to face the challenge, mistaking goals for strategy” i.e. results “bad strategic objectives” i.e. Ofsted criteria, “and fluff.”. The result is that these visions and values have not framed a single decision, whether strategic or tactical.

This is an easy trap to fall into and not one unique to the public sector. Recently published analysis by Sull, Turconi and Sull (2020) found that. 

“there is no correlation between the cultural values a company emphasizes in its published statements and how well the company lives up to those values in the eyes of employees.”

They go on to argue. 

‘Official corporate values only matter to the extent they shape employees’ activities and decisions on a day-to-day basis. This raises a fundamental question: How well does behavior inside a company align with cultural aspirations? In other words, when it comes to their core values, do companies walk the talk?’

We would concur. The purpose of the school and its strategic goals should not have changed during COVID. In our example, “Every child, regardless of language, has the same access to learning” is still true. The situation would have changed, which meant a new diagnosis and understanding of the challenges of meeting this purpose for pupils. Whilst the method probably needed to change in response, the Purpose and the Measures should have stayed the same. 

Little is certain in the year ahead

There are plenty of articles appearing declaring, often in absolute terms, what Covid-19 means for schools, what lessons we can learn and how we can practice remote schooling properly should we experience closures in the future. In reality little is certain – about the course which the year ahead will take, what best practice looks like in remote learning, or how schools can successfully apply useful lessons from elsewhere. 

The ethos of an organisation is probably shaped by two dynamics. Strategic decisions and messages play a key role. However, staff and students’ lived daily experiences also serve to shape their understanding of what the school is about and their behaviours within it. 

The level of disruption and the challenge which schools –  and school leaders in particular – experienced in recent months should not be underestimated. Changes of tack, frequent updates and changes to the official guidance, and the challenges of managing and communicating  with staff, pupils and parents remotely, were considerable. 

Perhaps the disruption which we have experienced offers an opportunity to reflect on ‘the way we do things around here.’ What were the guiding principles and values which informed the decisions made in our school? To what extent did they match those posted in reception, in handbooks and on our websites?

Leadership books, blogs and keynotes continually claim that culture eats strategy for breakfast – perhaps this underplays the value of strategy which is all too often crudely coupled directly to measurable outcomes, such as exam results or OFSTED inspections. Culture is unlikely to be king unless a clear and well considered strategy gives clear purpose to a school and its community. Perhaps strategy is the kingmaker.

Peter Gillar Moss and  Ben White- Research Lead, Ashford Teaching Alliance.