'A wise, old teacher once said: "Schools are either improving or declining, they do not remain static for long" – he was right'

14th February 2018 at 13:41
Understanding the way to sustain the improvement – often by sharing your best-practice with other schools – is key to the long-term development of the whole sector, writes the National Schools Commissioner

I remember talking with an experienced and recently retired deputy head who had taught for more than 35 years, just after I became the CEO of a multi-academy trust (MAT). In his view, schools are either improving or declining and they rarely remain static for more than a year. I still agree with this – and I am keen to maintain a dialogue with school leaders about how we help them to identify where their school is on its improvement journey.

To really understand what support is needed, it is important to see the school’s improvement as sequential and taking place over a sustained period of time. From the perspective of school leaders, the challenge here is to be able to understand the progress and impact of the improvement journey, while being able to assess what actions to take next.

My own school leadership experience, together with the experiences of my regional schools commissioners (RSCs) team, MAT CEOs, teaching-school leaders and colleagues in the Department for Education, have enabled me to reflect on how we can put this thinking into practice. I have set out what I see as four key improvement stages – from the need to stabilise, to the point that the school knows it can sustain its performance and is ready to help support another school.

Improving schools

The first stage in the journey I refer to is “stabilise”. Here, a school may have many features that need improving and the challenge is to provide clear and visible leadership to the school to help enable staff and colleagues to see that there is a way through. It is at this stage that the best system leaders can facilitate support to assess capability and identify specific problems to tackle first. For example, sponsors, national leaders of education (NLE) and national leaders of governance (NLG), can use their experience to diagnose issues and support leaders and boards to set a vision for the school. In this form, the support of a "capacity giver" can bring stability, build the core leadership team and provide direction.

As pockets of improved performance appear, the school moves towards the “repair” phase. In this phase, a medium-term plan needs to be in place to enable the pace of improvement to be sustained within a broader set of priorities. The specifics will differ from school to school, but in my experience, these often include a focus on improving behaviour, driving consistently good classroom practice in core subjects and building the capability of middle leaders.

As this impact is becoming more consistently rooted in daily practice, the school enters the third phase, which I describe as “improve”. The staff are benefitting from the improvements they see around them, are more confident and as a result we see pupils performing better in national tests, as the improvement strategy has had time to impact on outcomes. Finally, the now confident and innovative school is performing well. It moves into the fourth phase, which I describe as “sustain”, where the strong school is able to help others in its trust or through local partnerships.  

I know there is a risk that some will see this thinking as another set of categories for schools to be judged against. I want to avoid this at all costs. These improvement stages are intended as an illustration, not a prescription. In setting these out, my hope is that they will enable MATs and teaching school alliances to talk to school leaders about what support is required to help them move more quickly to their intended goal. More information on how these stages support school improvement can be found in the DfE’s Multi-academy trusts: good practice guidance and expectations for growth.

My thinking is founded on the belief that as schools improve, they move from being capacity takers to capacity givers. In the stabilise stage, the school is a capacity taker, as it is unable to make the journey unaided. When the school has progressed to the sustain phase, it pays the “debt” back by being a capacity giver to a school that needs help.

Helping MATs grow

At a system level, my team of RSCs and I use this analogy to think of ways we can strategically help grow capacity over time. We know that building capacity and facilitating support are key in putting this into practice.

One recent example of how the DfE has supported building capacity is through the Multi-Academy Trust Development and Improvement Fund (MDIF). The secretary of state recently announced that funding is being awarded to more than 400 strong-performing MATs with a proven record, to help them to build their capacity and support schools in areas that lack capacity. I am hugely encouraged by this, as it gives high-performing MATs an opportunity to raise school standards in areas that face the greatest challenge.

For example, a share of the MDIF will be awarded was awarded to Manor Multi-Academy Trust in Wolverhampton. This will create extra capacity for the trust to take on and improve both a vulnerable school and another school that is currently in special measures. I know that the executive principal of Manor MAT, NLE Anita Cliff, is delighted to have received the funding. She highlighted how it will allow the MAT to increase its capacity to support its school improvement work by bringing in new expertise and enabling the development and release of experienced staff to support school improvement across all schools in the trust. We are currently finalising the awards and will be in touch with all applicants shortly.

Every organisation in the education sector is on a continuous journey, from the very best to those that need the most support. What is ultimately important is that we encourage and enable schools to progress strategically and sequentially over time. Thinking in this way helps us to focus on what we can do to sustain school improvement over the long term. Once we have reached the aims that we set for ourselves, we can use the experience gained to benefit and help others following in our footsteps.

Sir David Carter is the national schools commissioner

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