Getting the balance right: striving to become a ‘good’ school

2 Feb

Before I became an assistant head, I worked as an AST for several years with a remit of developing teaching and learning across the school I was working in and our Leading Edge partner school. It was a dream job: every day, I would work with Mel on planning training, supporting individual staff and departments, coaching and mentoring, and developing outstanding teachers to build capacity for leading on teaching and learning. At the time, the school was deemed a ‘Good’ school on the road to ‘Outstanding’. A stronger and clearer focus on intervention for vulnerable students, a tighter focus on marking and feedback, and a more rigorous CPD programme all contributed to the school’s upward trend of results, leading to an ‘Outstanding’ judgement in 2012. Everyone was thrilled that all of the hard work had paid off; interestingly, the head said that, while he was delighted that his staff and students’ achievement had been acknowledged, what he was really concerned with was going beyond what Ofsted wanted and focusing on making our school a place where every child would receive ‘a world-class education’.

Then in early October, a job was advertised for an assistant head with responsibility for developing teaching and learning. It was at a school only a mile or so from where Mel and I worked, and it was judged as a ‘Good’ school. My interest was piqued; I knew the school had appointed a new head with a new vision and I thought it would be a brilliant opportunity for me to go to another school and be part of a senior leadership team who wanted to take the school forward. When I was appointed, it was one of the best days of my career. I could not wait to start (it was the first time EVER I have looked forward to the month of January!).

Love January

For those of you who haven’t read my previous posts, you may not know that my new school was inspected that year and judged as ‘requiring improvement’. Achievement was just not good enough. So began my first taste of working in a RI school and the challenges that brings…

Working in a RI school is like walking on a tightrope where your every move is monitored, tracked and recorded. You are no longer free to decide what is best for your school without the LA coming in and monitoring you or HMI coming to ‘visit’ to see if you’re going in the right direction fast enough. It is relentless pressure. Don’t get me wrong: I understand why our school needs to be checked on. Every child deserves to go to a good school and there were certainly things that needed to change. What is difficult for me is trying to maintain a balance between developing a strong learning culture amongst staff and students which will be sustained long after Ofsted carry out their next inspection but also accepting that certain ‘milestones’ need to be met quickly if the school is to move out of its current Ofsted category.

Burnout

This half term exemplifies how difficult it is to get the right balance. On the one hand, there have been more opportunities for staff to develop their practice than ever before. We had our second action research session, delivered by our fabulous Lead Learners. I really enjoyed this session because, by now, everyone has their line of enquiry, has read some important research or blogs, and are trying out some new things with their students. We are now at the stage where the Lead Learners have introduced Lesson Study to their clusters and teachers have partnered up and planned a lesson and are in the midst of going to see each other. The Lesson Study model has been embraced by staff because of its focus on the targeted students and watching their reactions to whatever intervention the teacher is trying out. It’s a whole new way of observing for our staff who are more used to seeing observations as a form of appraisal judgement.

Alongside our CPD model, we have just finished our first Open Classroom fortnight. Apart from a handful of teachers, everyone opened up their classroom to be visited by a colleague. I think some were a little nervous at first but once everyone decided to give it a go, the atmosphere was wonderful. Two thirds of teachers decided to go and visit a colleague and the feedback I’ve had is as follows:

–          It’s been good to see students I teach in a different context and see what strategies they respond to.

–          It’s been quite reassuring; sometimes I feel everyone must be doing a better job than me but I’m doing most of the strategies that I’ve seen others use.

–          It’s been good to see how others lay out their classroom and how they use their space to create different learning environments.

–          I’ve picked up a few good tips that I have tried out with my classes and they have made a positive difference.

–          When are we going to do it again?

The two events above are why I chose to do this job. I love teaching. I love working with staff to develop practice. I love seeing people in their classrooms and finding ways to celebrate what they are doing with other colleagues.

Yet, this is not what I spend most of my time doing. Although these teaching and learning opportunities are important, they do not instantly lead to better results. And when you’re an RI school, you don’t have time to plant a seed and watch it grow. You have to stand over it every day with a mountain of fertiliser and meticulously record all of its changes. Since September, I have spent most of my time reading reports and analysing data to see what gains are to be made before Ofsted arrive once again. I have conversations with heads of department about how many students we need to ‘convert’ and how certain students are more important than others because they are school action plus and pupil premium. I discuss which students will be intervened with and which ones won’t because ‘they’re doing ok and weren’t highlighted as a problem by Ofsted’.  I check that middle leaders have enough evidence for their department work scrutiny to the point where they can’t even plan their own lessons because ‘Ofsted said the books didn’t show progress over time so we have to make it clear to them this time around’. This is the part of the job that brings me closest to quitting. I know this may sound incredibly naive but students are not just numbers for me; they’re not a sig- or a sig+ on a RAISE report; they’re not a bunch of acronyms such as EAL, PP, SEN, LAC or G&T. They are people. So why do I do it?

I do it in the hope that Ofsted will come, we will get a ‘Good’ and then we will be left alone for a while. I am sure I will look back on this time in my career when I am a more experienced leader and cringe at some of the things I am doing. However, I also know that, whenever I can, I try and remove as much non-essential work as possible from the teachers I work with so that we can get on and do what we love the most: teaching. I want to be stronger and ensure there is more time talking about teaching and less about interventions, work scrutiny, data inputting etc… it is something I am working on every day.

Micromanagement

I have just started reading David Woods and Tim Brighouse’s The A-Z of School Improvement: Principles and Practice, and something they write in the introduction made me stop and reread it twice. Their words are guiding me through at the moment, helping me to make the right choices as a senior leader.

In very broad terms there are two main approaches to school improvement. The first can be termed as the pragmatic and rational approach in a system of increasing accountability. This approach stresses the need to set a range of targets and to monitor progress rigorously. Gaps between performance and requirements are identified and the steps to close these gaps are set out in action plans. Success is then measured in terms of the achievement of these targets. The danger with over-reliance on this approach is that a set of targets can be achieved, but it’s possible that no real and lasting changes take place.  The second approach can be termed as creative, stressing ownership and personal motivation. This places attitudes, feelings and ways of working collaboratively at the heart of any improvement process. Changes are collectively endorsed and the individual’s contribution to school improvement is encouraged and developed. The danger of relying on this strategy alone is that there may be little change in terms of students’ attainment and achievement, but only a generalized sense of feeling better, and a tenuous link to school improvement. The challenge for schools is to use both of these approaches and to find a judicious balance that fits the situation of the school.

Getting to good is proving a difficult journey, one where my values and beliefs are being tested every day. However, I hope that I am slowly finding my way to that ‘judicious balance’ that Woods and Brighouse speak of in their book. Essentially, I want to be part of a team where we create a school where – in the words of my old head – students ‘receive a world class education’, regardless of what is currently deemed as important on the latest Ofsted framework.

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9 Responses to “Getting the balance right: striving to become a ‘good’ school”

  1. primaryblogger1 February 3, 2014 at 10:05 pm #

    Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

  2. whatonomy February 3, 2014 at 10:33 pm #

    An excellent article in which you come to a very rationale and fruitful conclusion. I think that you are right in that, going through a process of scrutiny, you need to remain focused on the long term journey towards creating a wholesome educational experience for your children. Very often, when we analyse a situation, we change its nature (exactly like upturning the rock to watch the minibeasts scuttle around). All too often executive bodies responsible for improvement are actually abdicating responsibility by relying on watching (without taking into account the fact that they are changing the landscape as they watch). I do not believe that school improvement should be stressful. The whole journey should be joyful (and in a sense it doesn’t really end). If there is an element where great teachers feel that the pressure is too burdensome, then we need to locate the source of that element and ask whether it is necessary and productive. Ofsted and local authorities should take more responsibility for improving schools and enter into the process in the spirit of nurturing support (exactly as a good teacher would). I wish you the very best in your current situation. It sounds as if you have your head very much screwed on the right way!

    • teachertweaks February 4, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

      Eloquently put, dear sir! Thanks very much for taking the time to leave a comment!

  3. Jill Berry February 4, 2014 at 3:16 pm #

    This is a tremendous post, Debbie, and something which should definitely be read by those who are allegedly committed to ensuring Ofsted is fit for purpose.

    I absolutely appreciate the tension you’re experiencing between wanting teachers to take risks and move forward in their practice and being constrained by the constant refrain of ‘what Ofsted want’. Clearly in a school which Requires Improvement it’s difficult to develop a culture within which people focus on the Big Picture and consider what a world-class education really means for pupils, rather than ticking boxes and jumping through hoops.

    But you must be learning SO MUCH in this difficult climate. Focus on that – and don’t ever think about quitting. That would be the REAL tragedy/casualty of Ofsted! You are an amazing practitioner and will make a fantastic head when the time is right for you.

    • teachertweaks February 4, 2014 at 3:25 pm #

      Hi Jill, thanks for another dose of your wisdom! You’re right – I’m learning so much at the moment which will hopefully stand me in good stead. See you at Pedagoo London? 🙂

      • Jill Berry February 4, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

        Yes! Hope we manage to have a proper conversation then.

  4. Maria February 5, 2014 at 6:09 am #

    We are in Special Measures so multiply this by ten! I sometimes feel we are a feather in the wind being blown at the whim of the ‘next key area’ before the first one has been improved and embedded. I feel very sorry for teachers who are only a year or two in and who are making the mistakes you have to make if you are going to be a better teacher very much under a huge spotlight of half termly observations and everything else.

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