What does it take to implement off-the-shelf interventions?

14 Jun 2021, 5:00

With pressure to ‘catch up’, off-the-shelf interventions are tempting – but implementation needs to be carefully considered, writes Rowena King

In these times when schools are under pressure to help their pupils ‘catch-up’ , intervention is the new buzzword. Gather teachers together – in person or online – and you will hear versions of the same question repeated over and over: “What do you do about X in your school?” Listen in to SENCo forums and the question has a slightly different inflection: “What intervention do you use for Y?”

This is all well and good if the questioner has an understanding about what to do with the answer they’re given, but if they buy the book/practice/intervention the next day and head into implementation in blind faith, the chances of positive outcomes are slim.

A recent contribution to this column made a welcome point about the importance of tailoring interventions to specific settings. Its focus was on the cultural context of schools and their communities, but there is more to this complexity.  

Consider the different facets which make up a school culture: buildings, local community, pupils and parents, yes, but also staff beliefs and values, leadership and governance. Each of these taken on its own is unique to a school. Multiply them together and we are in a world of difference, even for schools down the road from each other.

None of which will come as a surprise, but it all needs to be taken into account before making any changes in practice. Thankfully, there is an evidence-based method to ensure interventions are implemented effectively.

The EEF’s guidance report on implementation recommends a four-stage approach: explore, prepare, deliver, sustain. Most crucially, this approach is underpinned by two key principles. First, treat implementation as a process, not an event. And second, create a leadership environment and school climate that are conducive to that process.

If we truly grasp that implementation is a process, then the necessity of a September launch event dissipates. We find time to explain to governors and trustees that progress won’t necessarily be seen for a number of years, albeit with staging posts to evaluate progress along the way. Most importantly, we feel comfortable with that idea.

Reflecting first on our current school climate encourages us to recognise where things need to change or where adding new things might over-complicate matters. For example, if staff’s beliefs and values don’t align with the leadership’s, they need to be given the capacity, opportunity and motivation to adapt to the change.  

Capacity and opportunity might come from a re-designed, systematic delivery of professional development, in which case the EEF’s supplementary summary on Professional Development may prove useful.

But key to implementing any off-the-shelf interventions is to avoid a casual relationship with the research evidence surrounding it. Take an intervention like Accelerated Reader, for example. Another contribution to these pages called the whole programme into question, but the problem is clearly one of implementation.

The article in question describes the use of AR as a universal initiative, but the current evidence indicates that it is a useful intervention for targeted pupils. There are also indications that very weak readers will need support and adaptations to its delivery in order to make gains with their reading.

That’s why digging into underlying reports to understand the conditions that will increase the chances of a positive impact is crucial. It is these that allow schools to replicate with fidelity.

Finally, the importance of evaluation can’t be over-stated. As odd as it sounds, a well-planned out implementation has evaluation at its heart from the very start of the process. When and how will you check that the intervention is having the desired impact? This needs to be mapped out. And most importantly, are ready to pivot or change tack entirely if the evaluation suggests you should?

With the pressure on schools to support children to ‘catch up after Covid, off-the-shelf interventions are vital for busy teachers. But it is careful planning and the execution of a nuanced implementation that will decide the level of their success – and prevent them from adding to workload in the long run.

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  1. james cheriton

    Successful intervention starts with successful relationships. These take time, interventions also need to be useful to the student to see short term benefits leading to long term gains. However the journey to successful relationships is not measured and is difficult to assess, Due to this I do not believe that real long term ‘intervention’ or education that truly benefits those in need will really be embedded in schools. Students are different our experiences are different and the current and future landscape of employment, culture, environment and family are undergoing such sweeping changes we are not acknowledging the hidden curriculum required to engage, add value and meet the needs of students enabling autonomous students, able to engage in community and lead within an ever changing global community. However, it could be achieved…So I am ever hopeful.