Where it all went right

17th February 2006 at 00:00
Analysis of failure is a national pastime, but Lindy Barclay prefers to chew over the elements of success at her 'outstanding' school.

It is perhaps a national trait to gnaw on the bone of failure. In almost every aspect of education we are urged to chew over every detail of malfunction and extract evidence of where it all went wrong. There can't be a school in the country which has not held some kind of post-mortem into its failure to deliver.

Every local education authority issues the same kind of court order, requiring rigorous scrutiny of, say, the drop in standards, your downturn in exam results, your falling attendance figures, your rise in truancy rates, your growing number of exclusions. But what if the same rigour was applied to success? What if the same searching analysis was demanded and schools were asked: where did it all go right?

In Clive Woodward's excellent book, Winning, there is a precious piece of advice. When you achieve success, he suggests, you should head straight for the boardroom, instead of making for the nearest pub. In the arena of education, where the "product" is a child, the analysis of success is, of course, complicated. But maybe this is all the more reason to sit down with a clear head and pick through exactly what you did right.

As any school leader will know, success is fickle and slippery. It is rarely a constant. League tables, benchmarking, Ofsted inspections, Sats and Cats, badges of honour like Most Improved Club, are all designed to give mixed messages.

Different agencies with different agendas and indicators mark out the uneven national pitch and interpret the final score. When it does finally come good, and you have a resounding win, however sweet and surprising, you know within an instant that the act of repeating it is now the next pressure. Alas, you are only as good as your last set of results.

As I have suggested, success in schools is notoriously difficult to decipher. My own school is a good case in point. In a deprived area, where levels of literacy are particularly low on entry, with none of our parents ever having reached university, we made recent headlines. First, being declared "outstanding" under the new Ofsted framework and, second, for turning in the best set of exam results ever at GCSE, surpassing our previous figure by 15 per cent.

But, before we get carried away, there are some questions to ask. Are we really outstanding? Well, Ofsted agrees that "outstanding" does not necessarily mean perfect. And is our current Year 11 set to deliver an even better set of results? What if they don't? Are we satisfied that we offer the best curriculum?

Actually, we could be doing so much more. All the more reason to chew over the elements of our success. We need to hang on to it. So, time now for the boardroom, to work out what we did right. We came up with two lists. The first is the easy one. It is the visible, the recordable, the measurable parts of our systems and structures:

* key learning strategies, followed by all teaching staff, bullet pointed and attached to every teacher's desk ("The Blue Memo")

* clearly understood and consistent approach to discipline, with fair sanctions and zero tolerance of those students who stop others from learning

* regular, quality time given to form tutors to mentor and monitor students

* positive, pre-exam warm-ups and rehearsals

* special reporting systems for under-performing students.

But now for the tricky part. These are the components that are far less tangible, and are singularly defiant of any data analysis, and have nothing to do with grading and levelling students. Yet, these are the areas we have worked equally hard at over the past two years. They have been the subject of extensive Insets, they underpin our School Improvement Plan, and where possible, they have become written policy:

* a high level of motivation among staff who operate in a no-blame culture and are trusted to run with initiatives

* an uncompromising belief that there are many ways for students to be successful and hundreds of different ways of getting there

* motivation strategies identified in a bullet point list attached to teachers' desks ("The Yellow Memo")

* a recently introduced house system designed to promote pride, belonging and confidence through vertically-aligned tutor groups

* an emerging, valued "student voice" impacting on school policy

* a shared sense of purpose: staff, students, parents, community and partners.

Finally, if there is one thing that "success" can do for a school it is this: you are left alone to get on with things. And the real beauty of this is that we can begin to concentrate on areas that would really make us sing from the rooftops: a much broader definition of success, for a start. On that happy thought it is, at last, time to head for the pub.

Lindy Barclay is assistant headteacher at Redbridge community school, Southampton

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