Turning the corner to a more sustainable improvement model

21 Jun 2021, 5:00

There are encouraging signs that school improvement is being put on a more sustainable footing, writes David Weston. And not a minute too soon

Exhausted by Covid. Worn down by waves of change. Teachers and school leaders have never been asked to give so much nor to be more resilient. But, just in time, policy shifts are pointing in a much more positive direction.

Teachers have been feeling the stress, with one-third planning to leave within five years. Covid has been particularly challenging, with spikes in staff anxiety every time schools have reopened, and workload from teacher-assessed grades has left staff feeling extremely tired.

Economic challenges have seen a surge in applications for teaching, but there are signs that this may be returning to normal levels as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. So, once again, retaining our teachers and leaders is becoming a top system priority.

But the picture isn’t uniform. Across the profession, the intention to leave teaching varies considerably with how supportive workplaces are. In particular, teachers in England are less likely to leave when they feel more supported by leaders and peers, when they have less struggle with classroom behaviour and when they have more time to collaborate internally with colleagues for their continuing professional development.

And the case for better working conditions isn’t just about retention. My colleagues and I have been exploring the impact of staff working conditions on pupil outcomes, finding that these same factors (collaboration, support from leaders and peers and better classroom behaviour) are also clearly associated with improving outcomes for children and young people.

We also find that when teachers are involved in shaping change and improvement efforts, in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect and open communication, this also supports better pupil outcomes.

The case for better working conditions isn’t just about retention but outcomes too

Ultimately, we see that effective and sustainable improvement doesn’t come at the expense of staff morale. It’s respectful and supportive and it puts teachers and leaders at the heart of change instead of making them the victims of it. To contradict a former chief inspector, if anyone says to you that “staff morale is at an all-time low” you know you are doing something wrong.

Fortunately, government policy is encouraging the system in the right direction. The revised headteacher standards ask school leaders to “promote positive and respectful relationships across the school community” and to “prioritise the professional development of staff”.

A new specialist national professional qualification (NPQ) in leading behaviour and culture will build the capacity in schools for every pupil and staff member to thrive and learn in a supportive, calm and warm environment. New specialist qualifications in leading teaching and leading teacher development offer new development opportunities for teachers (another helpful way to retain staff) while also building specialist middle leadership that embeds these same respectful principles.

The new NPQs for senior leaders and for headteachers explicitly support leaders to harness the fact that “teachers are more likely to improve if they feel that they are working within a supportive professional environment, where both trust and high professional standards are maintained”. New headteachers are now eligible for a targeted package of additional coaching support to help them apply and embed these ideas with the help they need in their first roles. And teachers and leaders will be supported to access these with £184 million of new government funding.

It’s only recently that the NAHT-led School Improvement Commission noted that, “first and foremost, the role of the school leader is to create the conditions in which teachers can flourish and pupils can succeed. Yet in recent years this simple truth has […] become lost”.

Now, the new leadership courses my colleagues and I are preparing for these reformed NPQs are rooted in the growing evidence that school improvement must be grounded in the art, craft and science of people development.

Echoed across the system as a whole, that all adds up to a profound and important shift for the sector. And it comes not a minute too soon. We’ve been through some profoundly challenging times, but the signs are very encouraging that the next generation of leadership thinking will help to bring about better times for the whole profession.

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