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Teamwork helps us all improve

Patrick McDermott answers your leadership questions

Analysis of this year's exam results seems to show that we are suffering from what is sometimes referred to as "in-school variation". Some departments are getting better grades with pupils than other departments teaching the very same children. This issue has been raised in the school with staff and governors, and our school-improvement partner has suggested that we might revisit the use of our weekly staff meeting time as one possible strategy. Before I proceed with this suggestion, how might it work in practice?

It is believed by many that the variation in performance within a school is a more significant problem than variation between schools. Tackling this, though, is not a simple matter of revisiting the use of staff meeting time.

Re-focusing staff meetings on to collaborative working practices may be helpful for you, but it is unlikely on its own to move your school forward. This is because it is likely that the causes of your in-school performance variation across subjects could be as many as the number of people involved.

For example, the usual diagnosis is that there is a range of teacher competence both across subject teams and within them. This makes the prescription of the medicine required not just a sensitive and subtle one, but one that needs to be targeted correctly. A misapplication of intervention and support strategies could be counter-productive and lead to a waste of precious resources and expertise. So spend time making sure that you really understand who needs help and what that help might be.

First, you need to explore this strategy regarding collaborative working time with your school improvement partner andor school improvement officer to find out why they have suggested it for your school. One question you can answer for yourself, though, without reference to them, is: "What is the focus of the weekly meeting time with staff at present? Is it learning, teaching and leadership, or is it administration, resources and school calendar events?"

If it is the former, then you can detect, for example, how much consistency of understanding about the use of data exists across and within subject teams. One possible cause of variation may be due to differing interpretations of the same data provided by the school on pupils and their progress.

Another cause might be that, although there is a consistency in the interpretation of the data, there is variation in its use and application to the measuring of pupils' progress. Collaborative working time for subject team leaders and their teams, when they can talk about this and test their understanding with each other, will be invaluable.

Opportunities for collaborative working enable staff to undertake many other tasks, including:

* the sharing of good practice

* work sampling, analysis of practice, planning, marking and assessment

* conversations about children's learning

* improving the quality of the feedback given to pupils and strategies for involving them in their own learning and assessment.

You may feel that, as well as all this, there is a need to focus on middle leaders and introduce some peer-coaching, mentoring or modelling. Pairing up middle-leaders in collaborative working time can also be effective. Your skill here is to ensure that the right partnerships are made, to enable conversations about learning to emerge, and to make certain that these pairs have air time in meetings. Some headteachers also use external courses for the development of middle-leaders' leadership skills.

In practice, a change of approach like this will mean:

* the content of your meetings will change from administration issues to learning and pupil progress

* a variety of people will take the lead at these meetings to share good practice with others

* the meetings will act as catalysts for further school improvement, particularly by those who need to try something different in their teams, approaches and teaching.

Patrick McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college, an 11-18 girls'

school in Bradford. This is his third headship. He has been a head for 12 years and a teacher for 27. He is a facilitator for the National College for School Leadership and mentored Catholic heads for 10 years

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