Yes, I thought you might be disappointed by how Nicola Sturgeon appears to have interpreted the lessons of the London Challenge. I am too, but I have got used to inaccurate versions of what it did or didn’t do, varying from there being no improvement at all except what was generated by changes in the ethnic mix of pupils, to the advances all being down to Teach First or academies.
The latest research from the London School of Economics last month is data rich and forensic in its analysis of statistics and I think establishes beyond doubt that London pupils of all socio-economic groups are performing better now than elsewhere in England. The report ends with speculation about the causes of this improvement. The researchers don’t say it, but I think it boils down to a very simple set of propositions, as follows:
- Researchers of school improvement generally agree that the "teacher effect" is stronger than the "school effect" on pupil performance. These are, of course, not mutually exclusive and it is why the common priorities in school improvement are teaching, learning and assessing and teachers’ CPD.
- Haim Ginott, the child psychologist, once said of being a teacher: "I have come to the frightening conclusion: I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather…"
- So teachers have the most impact on the "weather". Heads of phase/department and subject leaders also affect the "weather", and then heads affect the "weather" within which the individual teacher works. (Probably the quality and approach of the headteacher is the powerful determinant of the "school effect"?) Of course, outside agencies such as Ofsted and the Department for Education also affect the "weather" but more in the creation of hurricanes and tornadoes than anything else!
- So what we did in the London Challenge, with key support from the London boroughs, was to influence the teachers and their leaders in enjoying what increasingly looks like an Indian summer before the worst of the winter arrives with austerity cuts to budgets and teacher shortages. (Of course, it was more complicated than that but none of the other things would have worked without that ingredient.)
But that brings me to the invitation at the end of your last letter to kick off the debate about policies and practices affecting teachers – initial teacher education and training (ITT); induction; and CPD.
I know you did a Latin Higher all those years ago – and passed it, no doubt – so you will forgive me when I say I want to plunge straight in medias res and focus on creating circumstances in schools where teachers’ professional development is most likely to prosper. (I’ll leave the ITT element to later in our correspondence.)
So, to kick off the discussion, here are the in-school practices which in my view make it more likely that classroom teachers would create better "weather" for pupils’ learning. I give you an overgenerous baker’s dozen to start the debate.
- Write job descriptions in terms of "lead" and "support" responsibilities – ie, the teacher must be the leader on something and be in a team – often more than one – where they "support" a colleague who is the lead. So much better, don’t you think, than a long list of duties including that depressing last one: "…and such other duties as may be determined from time to time"?
- Publish a school staff handbook (both a paper one for each member of staff and an electronic version). This should contain a clear and concise guide to teaching, learning and assessing policy and practice, with a basic list of "singing from the same song sheet" practices that "we all do" but leaving sufficient room for individual creativity.
- Establish a "staff library" and set aside time in meetings to report on articles/books read.
- Use one of the five Inset days to enable staff in pairs or threes to visit some other school which is in session to observe some aspect of pedagogy and report back at a "learning session" for all staff. Offer to reciprocate for the other schools' (there will be more than one to visit, hence the position of the apostrophe) staff.
- Make available a set number of £500 bursaries for pairs of staff to research an issue which interests them and is of value to the school – for example, something that's a priority in the school development plan. Invite applications and give them out after Christmas, ready to report back in the late autumn term. Involve pupils as sorcerer’s apprentices in the process.
- Let the senior leadership team take over someone's teaching for a day so they can observe another teacher's practice in a focused way.
- Expect each member of staff to attend one Teachmeet every other year, and make it form part of the annual performance management discussions.
- Make sure each department designates someone as the "subject knowledge coach" who keeps abreast of developments in the subject.
- Establish the role of "pedagogical coach" – maybe more than one depending on the size of the school – to be available in response to private observations.
- Have a fund available for courses but only send pairs or threesomes and set aside time in staff/faculty meetings for participants to report back. Conduct a "six-months later" review of what’s lasted as a result of the course.
- Send a private thank-you email each week to members of staff who have walked the extra mile. Also, remember and privately acknowledge birthdays.
- Establish a staff "wellbeing" fund with theatre tickets, restaurant vouchers and so on to be raffled at strategic points of the year.
- Finally, adopt the practice of the recently retired head of Morpeth School in Tower Hamlets, East London, who said his default position was "yes" whenever he was asked by a member of staff if they could do something new or different. "I needed a lot of persuading to say ‘no’," he elaborated.
There is much more interesting CPD practice but many of the above are "no" or "low" cost and represent a start. I am sure you will have views. We all know that the "energy creators" on the staff are what makes the difference and that "energy consumers" can quickly undermine a school. Good CPD reduces the risk of that happening.
Over to you.