BANDWAGONS ARE, unfortunately, very easy to clamber on to if you are a member of the school leadership team. You’re time-pressed and searching for new solutions and suddenly this shiny intervention pops up with lots of buzz and praise. The next thing you know you’re sat in a meeting explaining why you may as well give it a go.
It’s a dangerous approach. Changes to our practice should be driven by careful reflection on the progress that our pupils make, not by what is seen as the latest pedagogical panacea. If we follow the former, we will have a very clear vision regarding what we need to do to be better, focused firmly on the children; if we do the latter, we risk wasting quite a lot of time that no one has to spare.
A similar trap emerges when we come to implement planned changes. Even if we come up with an idea that is right, the execution can be sabotaged by looking for off-the-shelf packages. One of the things we try to avoid at our school is automatically purchasing commercial resources to provide a quick fix. Quite often, the tools that are available to buy don’t quite fit the school’s development aims or the needs of the children we teach. We will not compromise on their individual needs in order to get something ticked off the list.
As a result of taking this approach, we have developed a particular way of addressing the ongoing improvement of what the school does. Here’s my guide to growing your own.
Take the best from a range of sources
We don’t invest heavily in overly structured resources that risk defining the nature of progress, but instead look at what a resource is trying to achieve and use elements of it in order to create a bespoke portfolio of tools. An example of this would be our approach to communication and objects of reference in particular. This continues to be refined based on good examples of work in other schools and advice from external experts.
Don’t let what is available shape what you do
We take an analytical approach to learning and the identification of barriers to progress. We question the nature, sustainability and transferability of progress repeatedly. This means that we often find ourselves addressing challenges for which there are no commercial tools. This way of thinking enabled us to consider carefully the risk assessment and curriculum content necessary to enable some of our pupils to travel completely independently, something that has had a transformative effect on their lives.
Create the solutions that don’t exist yet
We make sure that we invest intellectual energy in developing resources from scratch. One such example is our early reading scheme. This takes the individual prerequisite intellectual and reasoning skills necessary for reading and allows them to be applied in combination within a structure that acts as a bridge to formal reading. The plateau in progress that we were previously experiencing as children moved from applying the skills in isolation to working with books has been tackled and we saw a significant increase in the number of children working with formal reading schemes as a result.
Build your knowledge base
We also recognise the importance of investing significantly in the intellectual capacity of the teaching team. A reliance on commercial solutions to barriers to learning risks creating a limited depth of engagement with the challenges that are being faced. You might be able to buy the tool you think is best suited to the job and you can develop knowledge of how that tool works, but without addressing the problem from the point of view of developing your own solution for your own school, I’d question the extent to which the solution has been truly understood.
Develop context specific CPD
We have developed a variety of routes to train our support staff to become teachers with high levels of knowledge and understanding of SEND, and have been taking our staff through these routes for the past fifteen years. The approach has been supplemented by the creation of SEND standards for support staff and teachers coming from mainstream settings. This has enabled the school to manage an increasing number of students on roll while mitigating the risk of reducing our capability through a lack of expertise within the team. It is a team that has grown in size and skill because we have collectively taken the time to invest in that process.
One of the significant values of investing in the development of understanding is that you equip staff with the skills to solve multiple challenges as and when they arise. This is something that serves us well, as the complexity of our pupils seems to be increasing.
As an approach this is not without its risks, it can be frustratingly slow and requires a collective understanding of the importance of the process, not just the outcome. But it breeds consensus and a shared belief that helps to develop a strong culture across the school.
This is essential if children are not to lose developmental momentum every time they move class during their time with us.
To enable us to find the time to make this happen we have one compulsory curriculum meeting a week. Every Wednesday we spend about an hour talking about the challenges we face in ensuring our pupils are the best that they can be and developing the resources that are necessary to make this happen. Every Wednesday, we spend time together developing our understanding.
Simon Knight is deputy headteacher of Frank Wise School in Banbury