What is the difference between success and failure in projects designed to improve achievement? Kate Myers offers a step-by-step guide
Suddenly, they're in vogue. The Government is using projects to promote literacy and numeracy. School improvement initiatives can be found up and down the country. Many local authorities have recently established projects to raise achievement. They can be a good vehicle for promoting change. They are finite and can concentrate energies and resources. They can also go disastrously wrong.
But initiatives can fail in the classroom. They may have been successful when piloted, but it is extremely difficult to calculate "the project effect": when all concerned with an initiative are convinced of its worth and have the enthusiasm and energy to ensure its success. Once this is removed, either because the project has expanded or because the original enthusiasts have moved on, the results may be very different.
If projects are to be successful, it is essential that those involved feel some ownership and stake in the enterprise.
1. Decide the purpose, budget and length. With some initiatives handed down from the Government such as the literacy and numeracy projects, this will be largely decided already, but there is still room to make the project your own (and thus more likely to succeed). What is the purpose of your project in your authority? How could it help to raise achievement? How will you use the budget allocated to you and will you attempt to augment this money in any way with other human or financial resources?
2. Who is doing the admin? This is often overlooked, so the work of people appointed to do the job is not effective. Will meetings have to be organised, letters written, accounts kept, etc?
3. Involve people. It saves time and makes much more sense to include those who will be involved in the initiative at an early stage - local authority personnel, heads, teachers, parents and, where appropriate, students. They may have some very good ideas and they are much more likely to implement what is decided if they have been part of the planning.
4. Establish a steering group. Very useful, especially if its members are experienced and influential. However, they can also interfere unnecessarily and inappropriately, so it is important to agree the remit at the beginning.
5. Create an identity. Logos help to make people feel they belong and are part of a coherent, exciting, innovative initiative. Pre-packaged projects will arrive with their own, but even these can be adapted to become identifiably yours. Designing a logo can be fun: if there is a competition for the best one, it can be a good way of starting discussion about the project in the classroom.
6. How is it going to be managed? The same issues apply at local authority and school level. The manager must have time and energy to devote to the project and appropriate status. In school, this job could be shared with the headdeputy working in partnership with a project co-ordinator, who needs the necessary interpersonal skills, credibility as a good practitioner, and enthusiasm.
7. Distributing resources. Should the money be evenly distributed among participating schools? Should schools have to provide some of their own funding - perhaps for cover? Should some central money be held back for specific purposes or even for unanticipatedcircumstances?
8. Select the schools. How many should be involved? Will the numbers increase each year, or will all the schools start at the same time? What are the criteria for selection? If schools bid to be included, what happens to those that do not bid and in your opinion are the ones most in need of this sort of enterprise? If all schools are to be involved, how do you enthuse the ones that may be reluctant to have anything to do with the initiative?
9. Conduct a review. Schools may initially be suspicious of the project. Once you have chosen the participants, go over every step taken so far with them.
10. Appoint the right people. If new appointments are necessary, job descriptions, adverts and interviews can now take place.
11. Ensure understanding. Once people are appointed to key jobs, aims, objectives and strategies can be reviewed to encourage people to play the same game on the same side.
12. Evaluation. What is the purpose of the evaluation: to justify what has happened so far, to monitor progress or to learn from it? How much money is available for this process? Will it pay for an external evaluator? How will a formative evaluation be used to inform the project as it progresses? At what stage should the summative evaluation take place? It may be more useful if this could happen some time after the project has formally finished, but this needs to be planned.
13. Plan publications. Writing is a good way of disseminating projects, and for sharing good practice. Regular newsletters, interim and final reports can all help. Who do you want to contribute? They should have as much notice as possible. Again, who is the audience for these publications? If they look good and are interesting, they can provide good publicity too. Once these decisions are made, someone should be given the job of ensuring publications happen - very time-consuming.
14. Seminars. Get dates in people's diaries for interim and final conferencesseminars so they know what they are working to and what to expect.
15. Training. A framework programme must be prepared but you need to respond to things as they arise. Should it be about managing change as well as related to the content of the project? Who will be involved in planning it? Can it be matched to presented and anticipated needs? Should different sessions be arranged for peer groups eg headsproject co-ordinators or will it be appropriate to have every one together? How often will sessions be arranged? How many will be school based and how many centrally organised, giving participants the opportunity to catch up with what is happening in other schools? Where should it take place? Can youshould you give those involved in the project the opportunity to present? Will any of the training provide opportunities for accreditation? How will you evaluate this aspect of the initiative so that feedback can be used to plan future sessions?
16. Plan exit strategies. By definition projects are finite. If successful, useful aspects and strategies will be embedded in mainstream practice by the time they finish but this rarely happens unless planned. What procedures can be put in place to encourage this?
17. Take time. Once projects have been agreed, it is tempting to go ahead and implement immediately. Preparation and planning take time, but may help to mediate and possibly eradicate the inevitable problems.
PUTTING INITIATIVES INTO PRACTICE
* Arrange the launch.
How will you do it? Who should be involved and who should be told? Will the local press be invited?
* Address the people.
If possible, arrange for someone directly involved in the project to speak at any forum (staff meetings, governors) where participants can hear things from the horse's mouth.
* Spread the word.
If someone has taken the trouble to explain the purpose and benefits of a project, outsiders are less likely to oppose it and they may think of ways ofsupporting it.
* Keep records.
Looking back on what has happened can be very rewarding. Photos can be a good way of doing this and can help to form bonds among participants. Diaries, although sometime tedious to complete, can be very illuminating when reflecting on the experience.
* Celebrate success.
Projects are hard work but they can also be fun. Take every opportunity tocelebrate.
Being involved in an initiative that goes beyond the boundaries of one school can give teachers the opportunity to extend their contacts and learn from each other. Simple strategies such as providing phone lists can encourage this.
Give teachers opportunities to share progress by presenting. Talking about a particular initiative in front of a supportive audience can be a effective way of gaining confidence as well as providing an opportunity to share good practice.
* Anticipate the dip.
Most initiatives are started with enthusiasm but the going can get hard. The enthusiasts may get despondent and need to be supported. This can happen at central as well as school level.
* The unexpected.
People involved in projects are exposed to the range and wealth of human experiences. At any time key people may encounter bereavement, illness, break-up in relationships etc. Governments change the rules sometimes, without warning, budgets can be cut in mid-term. Unexpected events can have important implications for a short-term project. Being prepared for the unexpected can help you face these problems as they arise.
* Work with OFSTED.
In some schools everything stops to prepare for the inspectors' visit. Development paralysis can occur. In the first tranche of inspection, some inspectors ignored projects because they were not included in the framework. Now any initiative to do with raising achievement can be justifiably included in inspection.
* Balance pressure and support.
You need to offer both pressure (this is the date when that should be completed) and support (these are strategies you may find useful to complete).
* Make it stick.
Continually attempt to ensure that successful initiatives become embedded. What has been useful? How can it be sustained after the project is finished?
THE FINISHING TOUCHES FOR SUCCESS
Read all about it. Who should hear about the project and for what purpose? Are there useful lessons for a wider audience? Dissemination can be via word-of-mouth as well as conferences and media.
Be prepared for key people to gain promotion. Projects can be wonderful development opportunities for certain people and they may well move on to other things. If the initiative is to be sustained this needs planning for.
* Keep the flag flying.
Some aspects of the project will continue after its demise but responsibilities for this need to be reviewed.
* Final evaluation.
The long-term impact of a project can only be ascertained after it has finished. Even then it is not straightforward as some of the initiatives derived from it may have become so embedded in normal practice that people forget theirorigins. This is another reason for keeping good records.
* Future evaluation.
Would it be worthwhile following up your project and those involved in it in five to ten years to investigate even longer-term impact? If so, how can money be raised to pay for it?
Don't let it go to waste. Build upon your work.
Professor Kate Myers is director of the professional development unit, Keele University. This article is adapted from one that first appeared in Improving Schools, a magazine for professionals, available from Barbara Wiggins, Trentham Books, Westview House, 734 London Road, Oakhill, Stoke-on-Trent, tel 01782 745567