How can we make school improvement sustainable?

23 Dec 2020, 5:00

Driving school improvement is first and foremost a question of capacity, writes Carole Willis

I was delighted to be part of the NAHT’s School Improvement Commission (SIC) and to see NFER’s research play such an important role in informing its conclusions. Too often, school improvement is thought of as something for schools deemed ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’, but the remit of the SIC was much wider than this, exploring how all schools could continually strengthen their approach.

The desire to improve outcomes for children is in the DNA of school leaders and teachers, but it is often difficult to identify which areas of improvement will make the biggest difference. Schools in challenging circumstances – who are facing the biggest pressures from our accountability system – sometimes take a scattergun approach, adopting numerous short-term initiatives and ‘quick fixes’ to to improve results.

External support and challenge can help schools to diagnose their strengths and areas for improvement, and prioritise action – which is why the SIC recommends that all schools should consider the role that peer review can play in supporting them here.

Ofsted can also play a powerful role in providing more diagnostic insights for schools. It is important to monitor our schools’ performance, but we need to address the unintended consequences of our accountability system and create a more supportive environment for school improvement. This includes the need for Ofsted to recognise the importance of family and social context in interpreting school performance data.

Even when schools know what to focus on, finding the capacity to deliver change is a real challenge

Even when schools know what to focus on, finding the capacity to deliver change is a real challenge. A lack of time and the need to deal with more immediate pressures is identified regularly in our research as a barrier to implementing improvement initiatives. The 2018 TALIS survey also found that almost two thirds of secondary and half of primary teachers in England said their work schedule made it difficult to engage in professional development.

We know that the hours teachers work during term time are too high, and significantly higher than in other countries – although there were promising signs before the pandemic. Hours worked had started to fall in 2019, and retention rates had improved by 0.5 percentage points. Teacher recruitment is also up significantly this year. These are positive developments that might enable schools to devote more time to school improvement activities, including the professional development and support recommended by the SIC.

But there is no room for complacency – the sector and the government need to retain a focus on reducing unnecessary workload, and delivering their recruitment and retention strategy. This will continue to help retain teachers, and so create more capacity to enable schools to continually improve.

Teaching quality is critical for school improvement and children’s outcomes – which is why the SIC’s recommendations focus heavily on developing teachers and leaders.

There is one ‘quick win’ that schools can take which is likely to improve both teacher retention and the quality of teaching – giving teachers more control over their professional development goals. NFER’s work on teacher autonomy highlights the extent to which greater autonomy is associated with higher job satisfaction and retention. A striking finding from this research is that almost 40 per cent of teachers have little or no control over their professional development goals, despite this having the strongest relationship with job satisfaction and retention.

That’s why the SIC recommends that schools should designate a senior professional development lead responsible for overseeing, coordinating and championing high-quality development, working with teachers to agree and address their development areas.

School improvement requires a detailed understanding of the areas for improvement in each unique school context. It requires prioritisation of a manageable set of change initiatives, the time to implement them, and a continual process of monitoring and reflection. It requires buy-in and a long term commitment from leaders and teachers. It’s not easy – but it can bring significant benefits. The SIC’s recommendations, if implemented, will help all schools to improve, enable our teachers and leaders to thrive, and give our children the best possible education.

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