Always at the bottom – How long should schools have to ‘turn around’?

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This article in the Guardian reports that one council allegedly has a protocol for if a school hasn’t made improvements within two years for the head teacher to go on ‘gardening leave’. Having heard news about several schools in the area, who have had a bad Ofsted and/or had poor results last week, I’ve been thinking about, how long should schools have to ‘turn around’?

Firstly I disagree with the alleged draft from Kent. I don’t think two years is enough and I also don’t think that the head teacher should be the only member of staff in focus.This policy also has the serious negative effect on people applying for headships in that area. What do they plan to do when no-one wants to risk their career as a head? In essence, it’s a poorly thought out policy, however I do agree that something needs to be done about those schools who are ‘always’ at the ‘bottom.

I will start with the premise that I believe that all children deserve to have the best opportunities. They all deserve the chance to achieve, be happy and be safe.

So why is it, that when I look at results and Ofsted reports it’s the same schools at the ‘bottom’ all the time? Over 15 years, should the LA or Government have done something to ensure these schools change?

I’ve been teaching 15 years in the area and I don’t think there have been any dramatic fairytale turn-arounds. I’ve seen new heads go in, academies take over, photos of the education minister visiting and great PR stories of how they’ve improved, but they essentially haven’t. 

What can be done to ensure these schools seriously move forward? (Not just a manipulation of semantics in an Ofsted report or jiggling of headline figures.)

 

It’s not just about the head teacher

In several of these schools, I’ve seen head teachers come and go, however the senior team essentially remain the same. Whilst I agree the head has overall responsibility and accountability, does it make sense for new heads to be appointed to schools where it’s the same senior team in position? Surely a school’s success is as a result of a large team of people and some new heads are dealt with a really tough senior team to manage. Could senior teams as a whole be considered more equally with the head in the accountability process?

The unteachables?

I’ve worked in tough schools. I absolutely loved it. There are many challenges to it but there are a very small minority of children that are ‘unteachable’.

It’s all about what happens in the classroom. If behaviour is good and the teacher knows their stuff then this is the recipe for success. Obviously it is more complex than this. ‘Stuff’ is complex. It is differentiation, relationships, syllabus requirements, behaviour management strategies, assessment, time management, the list goes on. 

I and faculty colleagues, have had some exceptional results from students in these schools. So it cannot be used as and excuse or a reason why these schools do not improve. 

So why don’t all subjects get these results? We were strong teachers. Strong teams. Not everyone is. So how can these schools keep and develop strong teachers? Would it be fair to offer additional benefits to teachers in these schools?

Great expectations

I think that expectations play a huge part in schools. There have always been colleagues in these schools who have an unfailing belief that their students can and will achieve. Maybe some don’t. I’ve heard phrases like ‘ that year group were never going to achieve’. It’s not a great phrase. 

So what if all these schools had some sort of INSET/policy/ethos of high expectations embedded? Those short of phrases would be banned. Everything in the school should be focussed on the ‘I/we can’ not the ‘I/we cannot’. This is probably what some colleagues are doing with Growth Mindset in their schools.

Staff morale & team work

I believe this is seriously under valued. The times where I feel I have been successful is where I have felt valued and respected from the people I work with. We have worked together. We have shared the stresses but celebrated the successes. Leaders who don’t think that staff morale is important, who work as a kind of dictatorship, will see it doesn’t work. Giving staff cake or sending a ‘nice’ email, isn’t enough. It’s about value. Day-to-day behaviour and relationships. Get that wrong and your chances of success dramatically decrease.

Finally, accountability

If you have been the assistant head teacher in a school for 15 years and nothing in your area of responsibility has changed over that time, there’s something wrong. The accountability system is ineffective. Unfortunately relationships sometimes get in the way of people holding others to account in schools. Flakey systems results in flakey outcomes.

To summarise my thoughts have come under the following headings (looking unintentionally similar to Ofsted’s headings):

  • Behaviour
  • Teaching
  • Leadership
  • Expectations
  • Staff morale
  • Team work
  • Accountability

however I haven’t answered the original question on how long should schools have to change.

I have very little to disagree with Ofsted about how it has changed and how it tries to hold schools to account. I believe they or what ever organisation you want to name, should do more. More to drill down on what schools are doing. It is still too easy for schools to ‘get around’ things. 

So, if a school is continuously 3/4, what can be done? As usual, no answers, just suggestions.

  • Specialist training for leadership in these schools
  • An experienced external mentor or team of mentors (I remember this under National challenge but wasn’t convinced so it would have to be water tight)
  • Compulsory, regular, anonymous staff questionnaires to include questions on all the above categories (which MUST be accessible to all including Ofsted)
  • Getting out – all staff should get into another school at least once a year to focus on their role in a different school
  • Different inspections – whilst I think that all schools should have the same basic inspections, surely these schools deserve either more time, more in-depth focus?
  • Dedicated teacher coaches – lots of them. Enough for every teacher to meet every week. It’s time. It’s money. But evidence is beginning to show it’s the way forwards for teaching?
  • External mentors should complete ALL the leadership accountability processes & current PRP process.
  • A national ‘3/4 team’ – Teams of experienced, respected colleagues available for all staff in these schools. A huge programme of national CPD (including online), subjects specialists available for support & coaching (including behaviour specialists)
  • Would time limited contracts, with very clear stated outcomes make a difference? 
  • Get rid of the HMI ‘support’ that R.I schools get. Is there ANY evidence they’re effective? Do they visit schools enough? Do they have the ‘wool pulled over their eyes’?
  • A ban on self PR. OK so this is a little tongue in cheek but if some schools focussed more on the challenges instead of promoting themselves they will have more time to make a difference. However I do acknowledge that one issue that some of these schools have is ‘reputation’ but we know that results, Ofsted reports and student/staff culture does this itself. You don’t need to spend money on it. 

In summary, these schools should get more. More time. more money, more resources put into them. 

How long should they have? I think if you’ve been in a school for 5+ years and there’s no noticeable progress in your area, then the accountability systems should kick in. But this isn’t just for head teachers. It’s for all. Even for that Maths teacher that you can’t replace if they go.

Surely, after 5 years we’re just making excuses?

 

Whose results are they anyway?

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If you’re in secondary education then the past week will probably have involved looking at some results of some kind. I’ve been thinking about results and ‘where’ they come from. Some of us are happy to say ‘it’s down to us’ (the teacher) or the results are the ‘school’s’ or even ‘it’s the child’ but is there any way of really finding what contributed to the mark the student achieved? 

I thought I’d list some of the innumerable variables that may affect a child’s exam performance and consequently their final grade:

  • how much work the student did at home
  • how much support from their parents/peers/family/friends did they have
  • if they had a private tutor
  • the reason they took the subject
  • financial incentives
  • sibling rivalry
  • illness on the day or years before the exam
  • use of online student forums
  • completion of homework
  • how many teachers they’ve had in that subject over time
  • how many minutes a week they had lessons in the subject
  • how frequently they had the lesson
  • when the lesson is on the timetable i.e Monday p1 or Friday p4
  • attendance
  • relationship with teacher
  • how many practice papers they did before the exam
  • size of class
  • attitude of class
  • behaviour of class
  • where they sat in class
  • the month of their birthday
  • the style of teaching*

So can we 100% confidently say why they got their grade?

If the answer is ‘no’, is judging a teacher on the results of their students a little unscientific and consequently basing their pay and/or their ‘Teaching & Learning’ grade on it a little dangerous?

And if we’re looking at the variables for exam performance, should teachers that have a % of non-written exam have different standards to meet?

And finally, can we compare same subject results with others?

* Please feel free to add more

“We’ll change once we’re out of RI…..”

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It is with great sadness when I hear leaders use this phrase.

In many contexts it relates to how they are telling teachers to teach and how they are judging them.

Examples are, “Every teacher must submit lesson plans for all lessons” or “We will grade lesson observations based on whether we see progress in 20mins” and “We will all use ‘this’ proforma to do X”.

In most cases the people who use the phrase aren’t focused on the quality of the process or the quality of the result, it’s just the process itself.

Staff will be given ‘tick sheets’ to check if something is done. It is irrelevant if what is behind the ticks is of any use or quality. For the leader involved they can then confidently say “In this school we monitor X and every teacher is doing it”.

What should they be doing?

Staff should agree together what it is that we’re all working towards. A shared value or outcome. One that has a sound base, that has potential to make a difference.

Example
Marking
Shared outcome: students will understand what went well and what they could improve in a piece of work so that they understand how to move forward. They will show this understanding.

Done badly: Every teacher has to complete a proforma once a half term, stuck into student books. At the bottom is a box saying ‘student comment’. Each half term the head of subject has a tick sheet and goes through all books and ticks when they’ve seen the stuck in sheet in each class set. They pass the ticked sheet to their line manager.
This process is a ‘top down’ one.

Done well: staff share a number of strategies for marking that can fulfil the outcome. If needed subjects can agree particular strategies that meet their subject needs. Subjects decide how/when they will fulfil the outcome. They trial it and ask students for feedback on how they found it. In a department meeting staff share what they’ve tried and discuss how well it went and how they might tweak it. The head of subject shares the headlines from this in their line management meeting including any issues that the T&L team could support with.
This process is a ‘shared’ one.

Why do people use the phrase?
Do they lack confidence?
Do they feel ‘out of control’ with shared leadership?
Do they believe that the power of a school only comes from senior leadership?
Do they think that consistent means everyone doing the same?
Do they think they ‘know best’?
Have they heard of the multiplier effect?

The sad thing about this kind of attitude is that they may ‘scrape’ to a Good but I believe it would be impossible to move to Outstanding. However that scraped Good would have behind it possibly unhappy, under utilised, unmotivated teachers who lack independence, and if you start in a school like this as an NQT, believe it’s the way that Good schools should run.
It doesn’t matter though, they’ll be Good.