Avoid the 47 priorities pitfall

You have bright ideas for improving your school so why is no one listening to you? Philip Schofield describes how one head got the staff on board

One head I know couldn't understand why the hours of work he had put into producing his school improvement plan were not producing results. He had analysed every aspect of the school's work, meticulously entering each detail into the self-evaluation form. His work produced 47 "priorities" for the school, and all could be justified.

He wrote these up in an imposing document which was bound and then presented to governors. They were impressed and duly noted their appreciation for all his hard work. The staff seemed to take in his PowerPoint presentation.

Despite all this, the school was gripped by chronic inertia. Why was this?

I suggested that we carry out a simple test. We accosted the first teacher we found and asked her what the school priorities were. She gave a hesitant and inconclusive answer. A school governor popped in and we asked the question again. This time, the answer was more positive.

"Oh yes!" she said. "I remember that nice little folder you gave us. I have it on a shelf at home somewhere."

There were two main problems with the plan. It had been done in isolation and no one else felt the same level of commitment to it as the head.

Secondly, 47 priorities left most of his colleagues reeling with the enormity of what was expected from them. He needed to reduce the number of priorities to three or four that everyone could remember and commit to.

We worked through several sessions with his leadership team and members of staff, refining and re-ordering the priorities. At each stage, the question was asked, "What is most likely to make the greatest difference to the children's attitudes to learning and their performance?" Gradually, it became clear that three priorities not only stood out from the rest, but subsumed many of the lesser priorities.

There was a huge sigh of relief when unanimous agreement was reached that the school should concentrate on improving the quality of teaching, improving children's attitudes to learning and helping children with limited English to make rapid progress in acquiring the language. At last everyone could understand and hold in focus those things most likely to make a difference.

The staff went through a similar process with each of the three priorities and began to create a manageable and realisable action plan for each. They decided that their starting point would be to revise their teaching and learning policy. There was one magical moment when a newly-qualified teacher asked: "Why do we write policies for every subject when a good teaching and learning policy should underpin everything? Surely, we only need to add an appendix to the policy for those things that are subject-specific." A profound question indeed.

It followed quite easily that there would be two or three strands for each priority that would enable the workload to be managed in a sensible and practical way. It was decided that time should be invested in monitoring, professional development and performance management. Children's attitudes to learning were most likely to be improved by managing behaviour more effectively and making lessons more interesting and challenging. Children with limited English needed more structure and greater ties into the mainstream curriculum as well as closer collaboration between home and school.

People began to talk about what good teaching looked like, what constituted appropriate behaviour and how barriers to learning might be overcome. Using the guidance from the relevant sections of the Ofsted framework for inspections, teachers were able to formulate their own definitions of the minimum standards in each of the three priority areas. They found that this approach enabled them to shape a highly focused approach to monitoring and give purpose and structure to their professional development programme. It influenced the strategies they agreed to use to help children overcome barriers to learning.

Several months later, the head turned the tables on me and invited me to speak to his colleagues. He was so excited by the transformation that had taken place in the school.

We talked to people about their work and there was a clear sense of purpose and direction. One teacher told us how she had re-evaluated her approach to teaching and how her children were responding to the challenge of the work she was setting. Another described the range of choices and responsibilities she had made available to her children and how they were responding not only in their work but in their behaviour. A third described the rapid progress of children who had come into the school with limited English.

We came back to the office and relaxed over a coffee. "You know," said the head smiling. "Involving people and giving them ownership has transformed the school!"

Philip Schofield is a consultant specialising in school leadership and management. He can be contacted at director@worldclass.me.uk

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