What a load of tripe. Someone, somewhere must’ve used this at an education leadership conference and leaders have taken this soundbite and used it in their own school/organisation.
Amongst it’s many flaws are the fact that it’s linking school improvement by Ofsted grade. But more worryingly for teachers, I’ve only ever heard this used to justify making teachers do things the same; to control teaching & systems.
I’ve seen this manifest itself in many ways in schools:
- Books must all have the same format
- Assessments must all have the same proforma
- All lessons must start in the same way
- All lessons must be structured in the same way or feature a set of ‘non-negotiables’ e.g. there must be ‘mini plenaries’ throughout the lesson
- All teachers must say ‘X’ or write ‘X’ on the board for every lesson
It seems to be a common feature of schools that are struggling and leaders that really don’t know how to change things. Christine Gilbert in this NCSL report suggests the same: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/14919/1/towards-a-self-improving-system-school-accountability-thinkpiece%5B1%5D.pdf
There is a fine line between following a set of agreed principles that can contribute to good practice and telling teachers exactly how they should teach, how their lessons should be structured and what they should be teaching.
Struggling leaders jump in on the ‘you will do it this way’ (regardless of subject, teacher, class etc) instead of saying ‘a principle we would like to uphold is X. How might this be exemplified in your subject/teaching/class?’
Why? Because it is much easier to dictate to all your staff to do it one way than to work with individuals on what might look best in their context. To work at a subject level requires trust of subject leaders, giving them time to think about this, giving them time to discuss ideas, time to implement things, time to review it and crucially the expectation that it will never be a complete or perfect system, but can be tweaked or changed without repercussion.
This is an important point. Struggling schools want the ‘silver bullet’. They either think they’ll find it from another school that seems to be doing well and can copy it, in the belief it will instantly transform their school or they come up with something that they implement across the school but as many leaders don’t have a full curriculum comprehension (they don’t understand how all subjects ‘work’ and are pedagogically organised), probably works well in some subjects but is totally inappropriate for others. This is becoming more apparent in some MATs that are enforcing common practices across its schools. Even when the schools are very different.
So when they’ve ‘launched’ this great idea with staff and told them in a 2 hour Monday meeting what it is and how they expect to see it in every book/lesson, they’ve heavily invested in it. They’ve spent time on it, discussed it at senior level, made a nice powerpoint to explain it and perhaps more crucially for them, this is the thing that ‘makes them a leader’. Their ego and reputation as a school leader is attached to it. It HAS to work, regardless if it really does or not’.
I’ve seen schools spend hours and hours doing these things and anyone that’s been in the school a long time, could list all the things that have been introduced and then suddenly ditched without explanation or even an email to say ‘we’re not doing X any more’.
The observational consistency that these things bring is a good thing for leaders. If they see the purple pens being used by students then it must be working. If they walk into the start of a lesson and there are objectives on the board and students are doing a ‘do now’ task then everything is running smoothly. If a visitor comes they can confidently tell them what they will see in the school. It all looks very organised and consistent.
What they lack is any evaluation of the impact that they’re having on learning. Of course, any observations of these things are superficial. Just because a student used the purple pen in their work, how could an external observer ever really know if they’ve made any progress in that work without having an in-depth discussion with the teacher and with the student about context?
There are a few schools where there has worked. But the difference is that their common practices were initially based on the key principles they want to uphold. They are very clear about the what and the why. It’s not just the whim of a leader that’s new to the role and wants to make a mark in their position or something heard at a national conference. In these schools it is part of the whole school ethos, not something that senior leaders enforce on bewildered teachers.
I am also not talking about certain things where I believe teachers should be doing exactly the same thing in their teaching. I believe every child should be taught the same content and a scheme should outline that, and teachers should ensure they cover it. How they do this is up to them. I also believe that any assessment processes should be the same between teachers in the same subject. The crucial difference is that these consistencies have been decided at subject level. They should have been developed as a department, with all staff involved, where practical. They are appropriate for the subject and have been developed with subject expertise.
And now we’re ‘Good’….
The final flaw is that I’ve never heard anyone saying ‘we’re now good/outstanding so you can all do what you want’ or ‘we won’t do X any more’. That would be far too scary. You would then be going back on the things that you said that teachers had to do that got you to ‘good’ and of course they would be seen as worthwhile it’s what moved the school forwards. It’s only used as a justification to ‘get to good’ instead of ‘this is what we believe contributes to make a great school, great education, great teaching and great learning’.
The final part of this misnomer that is really important is the impact it has on staff independence and consequently staff wellbeing. Instead of trying to address work/life balance by putting on a yoga session or putting cakes in the staffroom, do these things because they’re nice things to do, but address wellbeing by involving staff in their own day-to-day practice.
Middle leaders are the power house of schools, often underused. They are the people that should have the resources to develop good practice in their own areas and lead their department in following the common principles. They have the subject knowledge to be able to apply these principles sensibly to their subject. They have the power to change things yet they’re not always given time or space to develop key ideas that impact curriculum, assessment and teaching.
This doesn’t mean taking the forced idea to middle leaders and telling them to enforce it. It’s about deciding the basic principles and giving middle leaders the time to work on them. The senior leader gives the power of development to those that will be using it on a day-to-day basis.
Consistency doesn’t mean everyone doing exactly the same thing across a school or MAT. It means that everything that people do, follows the same principles that underpin what the school needs to do to develop. It is communal not dictatorial. It can be invisible. It develops over time, it’s not a silver bullet. It promotes the use of colleague experience and expertise over the role of a senior leader, leading. It’s not ‘anything goes’ or ‘anyone can do anything’ in the classroom. It’s not the entire staff of individuals making up their own thing as they go along. Its consistency comes from the staff themselves and everyone knows that if people are invested in something they will work hard to make it work, way beyond having something forced on them.
So ‘tight to good’ can go in the bin, along with ‘getting the people on the right seats’ and ‘surviving to thriving’.
2 thoughts on “‘Tight to good, loose to outstanding’”
Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.
I agree with much of this. For me the focus should be on the “loose”. Innovation and the sharing of good practice, where a good idea genuinely improves learning. In my experience this creates a fantastic working culture. The “tight” should be the Leadership teams clearly communicated vision for school improvement, with learning front and center. We rightly tell children that taking risks is part of learning. We should offer our staff the same courtesy.