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School planning is more than a pillow

Heads have to have a wider strategy than keeping up with the latest initiative, says Bob Holmes

Having a development plan is like having a lavender pillow - it helps you sleep at night. You wake in the morning knowing that all is well with the world and that the year ahead is in good shape. The plan provides a buffer, a comfort zone in which tasks are identified and given form, where resources and time-scales are laid out and where success criteria are established. Where the plan fails is in providing challenge, accountability and empowerment.

The history of development planning is short: plans have been around for the past 15 years. It has been argued that they were foisted on schools by a government anxious to implement its "improvement agenda" and bring greater control over the management of schools. It helped ensure that resources were being used wisely and that there was a focus on the future - very often plans had three or five-year cycles.

By why development plans anyway? The Government, the local authority, the headteacher introduces a new initiative every other week. How can you plan for that kind of planning? Schools no sooner come to terms with one new process than another appears. Then another. And another.

Development plans were introduced as a means of managing workload and setting priorities. It was recognised that schools and teachers were buckling under increasing pressure. Not just the pressure of initiatives; the pressure, too, of trying to be all things to all the needs presented by the students and their families.

Development plans were then seen as a kind of bulwark against the increasing expectations of school managers and politicians. Several years ago, the school development plan might resemble a telephone directory. More recently, plans have become slim - often only filling one or two A4 pages.

But it doesn't matter how you dress it up, what you call it, how many or few the pages, what the local or national priorities are, the plan is flawed.

The Americans, in that snappy way they often have with language, call it "getting with the programme". You are either part of the solution or part of the problem. It is not so much about responsibility; it is about accountability. The structure of schools means that taking responsibility is easier than being accountable.

The headteacher is responsible for all that happens in the school - in terms of learning and teaching; in terms of discipline and ethos; in terms of culture; the well-being and welfare of staff and pupils; health and safety - and so on. Sure, there are colleagues who are given responsibility for some of these areas and who carry out their tasks diligently. But ultimately they are not accountable.

Teachers are given responsibility for a number of aspects of the plan. As an example we could look at learning and teaching and the role of the teacher. At the annual review or curriculum review, the teacher is asked to explain the poor sets of exam results last session. "Weak class; low motivation; frequent absences; course not really suitable; exam very difficult."

So what is going to happen to improve that situation? Who has the responsibility of ensuring that results improve? The class teacher? The principal teacher? The headteacher? Answers on a postcard, please.

And there is the flaw. If responsibility is changed to accountability, then the dynamics change. If the development plan was about accountability then it would go something like this. The development plan is about strategy.

The strategy may be improving exam results. If so, that has to be communicated clearly to the people who are accountable for delivering improved exam results: the classroom teacher, inevitably.

There can be no gaps in accountability because everyone needs to know exactly who is accountable for what. Everyone has to "get with the programme". Additionally - and crucially - everyone must know they are supported thoroughly in ensuring the strategy is translated into improved results. Only then can the real questions about accountability be asked.

The development plan is about teams. Much has been made recently about the importance of the headteacher and their influence on moving the school forward. This may be true. What is more true is that success, in any enterprise, is not about one person. It is about good teamwork.

This then is the challenge for development planning: produce a plan that is about strategy, one that is right for the school. Link that to individual accountability. Demonstrate that accountability is about empowerment. And there's the challenge. Can we produce development plans which are about people, not about tasks? Can we write plans that enhance the quality of the work within the classroom by concentrating on accountability and clearly defined line management support?

Bob Holmes was formerly depute rector of Hawick High.

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