Great schools from steadfast roots do grow

20th April 2001 at 01:00
Involve your teachers in compiling the development plan and they will nurture it, says Sean McPartlin.

In the long hot summers of my probationer years in the mid-1970s, it was not unusual to find me teaching Shakespeare to senior classes al fresco on Edinburgh's Meadows. It never seemed to affect their results adversely, but the image of Shakespeare under the trees doesn't quite fit with the way of doing things now.

The advent of school development plans has mirrored a stream of changing priorities in the society that schools serve. Since the Seventies there has been a steady increase in quality assurance, accountability and auditing procedures in every line of business but perhaps especially in the public sector.

As a probationer teacher, I was vaguely aware that there must be a plan of some sort guiding the school's direction, but I was never shown the details and I couldn't swear that it was actually written down. Instead the school had a headteacher who could best be described as wily. Though appearing to be laid back, in retrospect his leadership skills set many probationers on track for a successful career based on sound philosophies and principles. When he realised that his particular abilities were being sidelined by changes in the way schools were run, he made the sensible decision to retire.

The coming of development planning did, of course, guard against the kind of chaos that could ensue when a school's leadership was not so effective or conscientious. The school development plan provides the answers to the perennial questions: How are we doing? How do we know? Where are we heading? How are we going to get there?

However, like every other administrative tool, it should not be an end in itself. Its effectiveness depends on the manner in which it is constructed, monitored and implemented. Those who decry modern education as drowning in jargon and management techniques have a strong point when the plan is merely concocted to please an education authority and the pupils or staff feel no ownership of it.

In one school, the development plan was printed out on A3 paper and covered most of one wall in the staffroom. It curled at the corners, increasingly ignored except by the graffiti artists. It was reminiscent of the S3 pupils who ask if they can do the plan for their English essay after theyhave finished it.

A good development plan will involve wide consultation with staff, due acknowledgement of the particular needs of that school's community, reference to local authority and national priorities, and next steps to progress, based also on the priorities of the previous plan, and to what extent they have been addressed. Clear messages about timelines, responsibilities, desired outcomes and means of measuring success are obviously essential, as is a systematic annual review.

Because this should ideally be a roots up document, representatives of all sections of staff should have an early and consistent role to play in the plan's construction. Discussions among the management team about which priorities are best suited to which remit should mean that there are no unpleasant surprises for anyone who opens the plan, fresh off the photocopier, to find their initials liberally scattered through the "action by" column.

Managers have to be aware that the column most eagerly scrutinised by staff is likely to be that headed "Resources implications". On the basis of "give us the tools and we'll finish the job", the aims of development plans should always be made attainable and support for staff put in place to achieve this. If staff feel an affinity for the school's priorities, they are more likely to be happy to work towards them. The difficulty for the headteacher, as he puts the finishing touches to the development plan, is to insert enough "vision" to make it challenging yet enough realism to suggest a good chance of success in most areas.

In short, the development plan needs to be an accurate reflection of the school's corporate sense of where it wants to go as an organisation and how it is aiming to get there. It follows that it will dovetail into the school's ethos and any departmental plans and the school's budget.

Reading the plan should give a sense of travelling together and an acceptance that the journey can be as crucial as the destination. The layout should be simple and make it comprehensible. Without a clearly shared and communicated plan, progress is likely to be hindered rather than enhanced. Indeed, plans imposed without consultation are wont, as Burns might have said, "to gang aft agley"!

Sean McPartlin is assistant headteacher at St Margaret's Academy, West Lothian

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