'Schools are unique – a one-size-fits-all approach to improvement rarely works'

6th February 2017 at 17:30
Under the top-down approach to raising standards, schools might change their names or get news sponsors – but, in reality, what is effective is actually talking to and supporting the staff, writes one educationist

We all know that all schools are different. Each one is unique.

Of the 23,000 schools in the country, we can be sure that no two schools are the same. This is one of the many things that makes our profession so exciting.

However, when it comes to any type of school improvement we seem to adopt a similar one-size-fits-all approach.

This inevitably results in far too many initiatives being forced on to staff – even though it is clear they won’t work. Untold pressure is placed on the senior staff from on high, and they then multiply this pressure on to teachers at the chalkface.

Instead of improvement, then, we create a spiral of despair. The wellbeing of staff is ultimately compromised and they leave in droves and the education of the children suffers.

Of course, as an education system we must constantly address school improvement, but it needs to be done in a far more positive and bespoke fashion.

Firstly, let's recognise that in the vast proportion of our schools the quality of education being delivered is excellent. Our teachers, when they arrive as NQTs, are the best prepared and trained we have ever had, and the quality of education that our children receive is of the highest level. The powers that be must recognise that struggling schools are the exception rather than the rule.

Even then, the reasons for their problems are infinite in their variety and often out of the control of the school. Often such issues happen very quickly and can catch the school leadership unawares.

The six secrets of a good school

In my experience, there are six factors that make up most good schools:

  • solid engagement of all staff;
  • a common purpose for all, reflected in the positive school ethos;
  • all members of the education community are learners;
  • there is shared ownership of all school activities;
  • the wider community is integral to the development of the school;
  • and all school members feel a "love" for every aspect of the school.

It is when one of these factors deteriorates that you can witness decline in performance.

Unfortunately, this is when the "top-down" model of school improvement is too readily applied. Do this, write that and all will be OK.

In reality, this rarely works. Firstly, the staff in the school are individuals and need to be treated as such: many are broken and they need faith restored in them. This is not done by changing the name of the school or by getting a new sponsor or by endless reams of paperwork.

It is done by talking to them, supporting them and giving them back the faith they once had in the education system.

At a time of a recruitment crisis, we need to recognise that all staff need constant support, they need to be nurtured and loved – otherwise we lose this most precious of resources.

Yes, it is important to focus on high-quality teaching, and how children learn. But let's do this through engagement of staff rather than telling them incessantly what they are doing wrong.

I am constantly amazed at the number of staff employed to improve schools who have little experience of actually running a successful school. Therefore, they focus on systems and structures rather than working and supporting the teachers.

Inevitably, we will always have schools needing to improve – but there must be a more positive way of leading them to improvement.

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