We’ll only get sustained school improvement when we start to treat teachers and school leaders as masters of their craft rather than furnish them with flat-pack solutions, writes Chris Kirkham-Knowles

Thirty-two years ago, my first year of teaching was signed off by a local authority adviser who gave me professional development advice I’ve never forgotten. If it was up to them, my second year of teaching would have been taken up with varnishing the handles of the children’s paintbrushes to prevent them from looking messy after a few uses.

Luckily, I’ve had better advice since, not least the Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers (LPSH) that supported my first headship and provided the perfect antithesis to that early introduction to professional development. But my recent involvement in the NAHT’s School Improvement Commission has provided me with an unparalleled opportunity to reflect on what had really made a difference in the schools I have striven to improve.

Far above all else, the most important factor in improving outcomes for pupils is having highly effective teachers. Highly effective leaders therefore need to provide teachers with the right support for them to improve within their context.

So far, so much better than varnishing paintbrush handles! But the commission’s inquiry into post-Covid school improvement also led me to see a danger that has to be overcome. That danger is that we look for flat-pack solutions rather than bespoke ones by master craftspeople.

The flat-pack model is neatly packaged and well marketed

The flat-pack model is attractive, but in reality it is only a step removed from the “varnish your brushes” approach of my early days. It comes neatly packaged by designers who have focused on making the content fit in the box and reduced all waste in the production process. It is well marketed by companies with budgets specifically targeted at catching the eye of professionals with limited time to select the right solution.

The flat-pack solution comes with the tools to do the job neatly integrated into ring-binders or online apps. It promises an immediate reward, a quick fix and safety in numbers. After all, like the Billy bookcase, everyone else has one exactly like it.

Unfortunately, as research and experience tell us, the flat-pack is by nature temporary. Rather than embed itself within the real context of the school, it asks the school to bend to its requirements. Its inevitable results are failure to deliver long-term improvements and a rush to find the next flat-pack.

Too much time and energy has already been wasted on this approach. Following our ongoing Covid-enforced ‘pause’, our profession needs to insist that government allow and facilitate a ‘master craftsperson’ model of improvement. Sadly, the rush to ‘catch up’ through tutoring and other flat-pack schemes is likely to run counter to this. But what schools really need is the time to re-build their own cultures of high and deeply learned standards for all pupils.

What this means is that teachers and leaders alike should be treated like master craftspeople: provided with the best-honed tools and the autonomy to use their professionalism, commitment and collaboration with peers to explore new ways of getting the best from the raw materials. Master craftspeople have ownership of the process as well as the outcome and want to carve their name in the finished product with pride. So it should be for teachers and school leaders.

One of the best examples of this I’ve seen was in a school in which teachers themselves analysed pupil performance data to determine aspirational targets, established their own appraisal targets based on that analysis and then developed a bespoke professional development package to help them to meet their goals. This master craftsperson approach resulted in deep-seated improvement where flat-packs had only provided a Formica veneer.

If the education system is going to truly deliver quality equitably to our richly diverse communities, improvements must be embedded deep within the fabric of its institutions. The post-Covid educational landscape may still seem distant, but waiting too long will lead us straight back to the just-in-time logistics that made the flat-pack so popular.

If we are ever to put the mass-manufactured Allen keys aside and rediscover the real tools of the trade, then we can’t wait this period out by simply varnishing our paintbrush handles.