School improvement: more than myths and magic

When school leaders plan changes, many secretly hope for a silver bullet that will magically raise standards and land them an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating before the term is over. But for Paul K Ainsworth, the key to successfully lifting a school out of the doldrums is to start small and take baby steps towards a well-defined goal
9th July 2021, 12:05am
No Silver Bullets In School Leadership: Taking The Myths Out Of School Improvement

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School improvement: more than myths and magic

https://www.tes.com/magazine/leadership/strategy/school-improvement-more-myths-and-magic

Whether it’s KFC’s secret ingredients or the closely guarded blueprints for the inner workings of a Dyson airflow system, mystery is a powerful commercial tool.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that when it comes to school improvement, some may wish to generate a smokescreen of intrigue, either for commercial gain or personal notoriety. The thing is, when you stop to focus on what is really going on, the sleights of hand become obvious.

One colleague I worked with used to talk grandly about their school improvement process, yet in my years of working with them, they never once explained it beyond setting exceptionally high pupil targets. This lack of clarity, coupled with the scarily high expectations of pupils, left me with a negative view of school improvement as a process.

Then there are organisations where school improvement is characterised by writing overly long plans and relentlessly measuring progress before improvements have had any chance of being embedded.

This leads to confusion and fear, and leaders can then lurch into a new strategy, thinking that the original one had not worked.

Often, that new idea will come from a course they have attended or a book they have read, and they will have become convinced that this one idea is the magical education elixir we’ve all been waiting for.

Perhaps leaders have found a new maths scheme or curriculum that will not only enable key stage 2 or GCSE outcomes to rocket but also be the answer to teaching and learning across the whole school.

Perhaps it’s a rewards scheme in a primary school or vertical tutor groups in a secondary that will transform behaviour.

School improvement: Sucked into a mindset

We can call this “silver bullet” thinking. I can remember being sucked into this mindset and looking at those schools graded as “outstanding”, or the schools with the incredible outcomes, or the trusts feted nationally, and believing they would have all the answers I needed.

However, I soon learned that this was a very ineffectual outlook. As Professor Dylan Wiliam once said: “Everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere.”

Yes, we can get ideas and inspiration from each other but, if we ignore our own context, then we are unlikely to have much success. That doesn’t just mean failing to move forwards but also potentially slipping further behind: the “silver bullets” mindset can have a negative impact as it can destabilise a school.

Colleagues can, for example, mistakenly discard systems or processes that were not broken or wrong, they were just not being implemented properly.

I can think of one school where I opened some cupboards in a dusty store room and there were three different sets of maths textbooks, enough copies of each for the whole school: they had been replaced before being understood.

The cost of this in financial terms was huge. More importantly, pupils were leaving the school with huge gaps in their maths understanding, and staff were exhausted and lacking in confidence owing to the merry-go-round of change.

Because of the mystery surrounding school improvement, we don’t speak about these issues enough and so they continue to be a problem across the sector. Worse, we don’t speak enough about what actually does work.

So, here is my attempt to make transparent some aspects of school improvement that school leaders have said were effective.

It begins with the starting point that, in every school, there is good practice and the answer to improvement lies in unlocking staff potential, not lifting and shifting a new set of systems to the school.

Instead of bringing in new resources, we should study what is currently in place and consider the small actions that could increase their effectiveness.

We should focus on small actions for a period of time and, once they are embedded, look for the next set of small actions and work on those.

This style of leadership has been used successfully in the world of sport. Clive Woodward, manager of the England 2003 Rugby World Cup winning team, talked about finding 100 things and doing them 1 per cent better.

David Brailsford, the former British Cycling performance director, described this same process as the aggregation of marginal gains.

So, how does this work in practice in a school environment? When I work with school leaders, I use a simple three-part process: review, strategy, implementation.

First, we review what we know about the school to determine the areas we need to focus on. Is it behaviour, attendance, a particular subject area, or teaching and learning as a whole?

Then we develop the strategy. Here, we consider what the small actions are that will bring improvement. There should be just two or three.

Next, we communicate these actions to our colleagues, so that we can implement them. We work with colleagues to explain why these steps will make a difference and help them to make the changes.

A constant cycle

Monitoring this stage is important. We keep looking, modelling and cajoling. We may need to have difficult conversations if our expectations are not being met, but we have them with kindness.

After an agreed time, we then begin the cycle again with a review stage. This may mean that we move on to the next set of small strategies or it may mean that we need to be patient, keep working on the original strategies and focus on coaching our colleagues to help them with implementation.

Admittedly, this is a slow-grind style of school improvement, which requires a relentless focus rather than flitting to the next steps or just looking for a big-ticket item to make a difference.

There are many leaders who do not have the patience or cannot play the long game. They try to change too much, too quickly and get frustrated with colleagues when improvement is not sticking.

However, behind all the smoke and mirrors, it is the grind that really works in the long term. If you can keep chipping away at school improvement in this measured and manageable way, not only can you transform your school but you will transform it in a way that will prevent the possibility of “boom and bust”.

You will look after the wellbeing of your staff and ensure that they can stay on the journey with you. This, to me, is the true magic of school improvement.

Paul K Ainsworth is the school improvement director of Infinity Academies Trust, in Lincolnshire, and the author of No Silver Bullets: Day in, day out school improvement. Follow him on twitter: @pkainsworth

This article originally appeared in the 9 July 2021 issue under the headline “Taking the magic out of school improvement”

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