Detox your school

29th October 2004 at 01:00
Philip Schofield on how to create a happy and successful learning place by ditching cluttered plans

It is surprising how often I come across dysfunctional management teams.

All seem to share common characteristics. One or more members lack the skills or understanding to turn policy into practice or influence colleagues, and others carry the burden. Time is short and action plans are cluttered with unimportant and disjointed tasks that have little impact on classroom practice. This is often linked to a vision statement that has a strong "feel-good" factor, but misses the point.

The school's vision has to be about aspirations for the children. It should provide the acid test for every action and every decision made. One wise and practical headteacher I know tested every decision and action by asking: "How will the children benefit from what we are doing?"

She got rid of the clutter and cut out the positioning and posturing that had marked the decline of her school over a number of years before she took up post. Now, the school bubbles with purpose and direction. Most importantly, the children are happy and successful.

The other culprit is the action plan. The best are brilliant, but so often I see plans that send people off chasing targets that don't add up. In the worst case scenarios, there are plans for everything coupled with endless reports to committees, agenda items and updates. Often, the school development plan and the inspection action plan run independently of each other. Of course people can't cope!

The best schools have a single integrated plan that describes their priorities and how they connect. Most importantly, it describes the likely impact of actions on the quality of learning of the children. For instance, many schools prioritise assessment through developing data management systems. When the new system is unveiled the governors rejoice,the local adviser mutters praise, and the head and assessment co-ordinator bask in glory. The class teacher hardly notices the fuss and, as for the children, well ...

The best action plans start from where the children are and focus on priorities likely to have the greatest impact on learning. Assessment is important, but the starting point must be "What do we need to know about children's learning in order to improve their ability and understanding?"

Then, improvements in data analysis will help teachers to better compare the pupils' performance and identify specific aspects of their learning that need development. The incentive will be there to test whether or not the investment in the new system has worked. "Has the children's learning improved?"

In all schools the greatest difference to children's learning will come from improvements to the quality of teaching, the relevance, challenge and motivation of the teaching programme and the attitudes of the children to their learning. The best plans recognise this and enable everyone to focus on things that matter. They are uncluttered. Detail is consigned to specific operational plans that turn aspiration into reality and are appended to the master plan.

Many plans contain targets which, used well, have real purpose and benefit.

But they leave out significant minorities of children. Suppose a school puts its efforts into reaching a target of 75 per cent of its children achieving level 4 and above. Those unlikely to achieve the target fall by the wayside. Few plans identify barriers to even greater success. What a transformation there would be if schools did this! Imagine if someone asks the question: "We have set our target at 75 per cent. Why not 80 per cent or 85 per cent?" followed by some honest discussion. The teaching in Year 3 is not up to scratch. The children have a big attitude problem when it comes to homework. We don't have the resources. I haven't a clue how to use that computer programme. We don't have the data. Now the school is getting somewhere. It knows what to focus on to make a difference.

One excellent strategy for focusing everyone's attention on essentials is to lay out the key priorities of the action plan at a joint meeting of staff and governors and test each one against named children. There is nothing more powerful than asking the question: "How will Johnny and Zulia in Year 2 benefit from this initiative?"

Philip Schofield is an educational consultant who has worked in the UK and abroad helping schools and teachers to improve their practice. You can contact him at CHECKLIST

1 Test your vision by asking: "How will the children benefit from what we are doing?"

2 Create one plan that focuses on the actions that will make most difference to children's learning.

3 Get rid of the clutter in your action plan.

4 Aim for a "joined-up" action plan where one action impacts on another.

5 Identify and tackle the barriers to learning.

6 Test the outcomes by asking how specific children have benefited.

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