Are we drifting to disaster?

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Pat Mcdermott answers your leadership questions

After Easter I take up a new post as deputy headteacher at a new school.

It's not a bad school; it's not in special measures and does not have serious weaknesses but the head and some of the governors seem to think that at its next inspection, within the next year, the Office for Standards in Education will brand it a 'coasting' school.

They want me to come up with a strategy that will ensure continuous improvement. I have one or two ideas about this but can you advise me please?

This is a huge undertaking and is one of the central tasks facing all schools. Therefore the first thing to get across immediately to your new head and governors is that this is not a one-person job: continuous school improvement must be a collective responsibility and a collaborative activity. Improvement will not be "continuous" if it is related to just one person or one team. What happens if that one person or team is removed?

The next thing to encourage your new school to consider is this: if your school continues to do what it has always done then your pupils will continue to achieve at the same level. Therefore there is a need to look continually for ways to improve.

You mention that your new school is not bad, but may be just coasting.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is precisely because staff, pupils and governors have become too comfortable with practices that have suited them for years and have adopted the psychological state of 'if it ain't broke, then don't fix it'.

A school improvement process model that may move people on in your new school must have effective learning at its heart. This is the core purpose for any school.

Keep the improvement process simple. Limit it to self-evaluation, planning, action and monitoring and evaluation.

Self-evaluation is the diagnostic stage. You have an excellent opportunity when joining your new school to ask two basic questions: first, Where are we now? and second, how well are we doing?

Get people to tell you what their answers are. Then assess their answers against the following questions:

* is your new school's self-evaluation based on a good range of telling evidence?

* does the self-evaluation identify the most important questions about how well the school serves its pupils?

* how does your new school compare with the best comparable schools?

* Does its self-evaluation involve key people in the school and stakeholders?

* Is the self-evaluation process embedded in existing management systems?

Now you will have an excellent idea of what your new school is like and will be able to begin answering the question you are interested in: is it 'coasting'?

Planning is the next stage and will be based on the evidence uncovered so far.

Identify key priorities. Select three to five operational 'smart' targets upon which your school should focus. Make sure that these reflect the real underlying issues facing your school. The question you are trying to get your new school to answer here is: what should we focus on?

Next comes the detailed plan.

Set a series of clearly demarcated responsibilities and accountabilities, budgets, and milestones along the way. Then the tricky bit: match the strategies to these key priorities!

Finally, you will need to make sure the milestones include a measurement of performance against pupil attainment rather than merely logging completed actions from the plan. This means you will be able to answer the questions about how the school is doing, and if it has achieved what it set out to achieve. You can now see why this task is not possible for one person or indeed for any one team.

Next steps worth considering are to:

* share this process with your new headteacher

* compare it with what is already in place and

* engage as many people as possible from your school community in the process.

If you can do this then improvement in your new school stands a chance of being sustainable and continuous.

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

school, in Bradford. This is his third headship, and 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 has mentored Catholic heads for 10 years. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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