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'The heads of "just about managing" schools work just as hard as leaders who are celebrated'

We need to celebrate ongoing school improvement in the face of adversity as much as recognising those school leaders who have already achieved their aims, argues this headteacher

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We need to celebrate ongoing school improvement in the face of adversity as much as recognising those school leaders who have already achieved their aims, argues this headteacher

Anyone who has seen a presentation given by national schools commissioner Sir David Carter the over the last couple of years will be familiar with a slide setting out the "school improvement journey". It is a useful diagram, showing the four necessary phases of moving a school from “broken” to “self-actualised.”

As a teacher of 23 years, a headteacher of 11 years and a national leader of education involved in the school-led school improvement system, this is a slide that I can relate to. Sir David’s four phases provide a helpful conceptual framework to use as a starting point for conversations about what needs to be done in a school and what should be prioritised.

Last month, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) published a paper called The Ideal School Exhibition, which recognised a number of school leaders who are already arguably reaching the fourth phase of this framework.

This paper is a wonderful read. It is encouraging and inspiring to see school leaders who are doing great work being celebrated. These schools that are arguably in that fourth stage of the school improvement space – they are schools that are confident and innovative in their delivery.

But what of those schools under the radar? There are countless schools that are unlikely to be included in The Ideal School Exhibition because the challenges they face are just so demanding. These are the schools that are “just about managing”, schools that have perhaps been judged as "requires improvement", that struggle to recruit staff never mind retaining quality teachers. Where are their stories? How do we celebrate and acknowledge the work of those relentlessly determined headteachers who are working hard under almost impossible conditions to improve academic outcomes for young people, while at the same time trying to meet the immense social, emotional and mental wellbeing challenges that poverty and austerity bring to their communities?

Improving schools

Those headteachers and teachers are working equally hard and have equal determination to move their schools through the school improvement space towards confident, innovative and risk-taking delivery. But at the same time, they must keep an eye on the quotidian and manage daily firefighting, knowing that they are in the direct sights of their communities, the local authority, Ofsted and regional schools commissioners.

So, I would like to propose a new paper: Heads Above the Parapet. This would chart the school improvement journey through a celebration of those school leaders who have triumphed against the odds. It would be the warts-and-all stories of school improvement, designed to offer solace and wisdom of words, coupled with pragmatic advice to others who are on the same journey, needing to hear from those who are just a few steps further along the path. 

These may not be the ideal stories, but they are the true stories of school improvement that also need to be heard. If you would want to read such a paper, I would like to hear from you. If you think you could contribute to such a paper, then I would love to hear from you.

Rae Snape is headteacher of The Spinney School in Cambridge, a National Leader of Education and leads The Kite TSA Cambridge. She is one of the contributors to Flip The System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto by Lucy Rycroft-Smith and Jean-Louis Dutaut

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