Tips on effectively leading school improvement that maintains staff buy-in

This post was written by David Weston, Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust. It is one of the articles in our National Teacher Enquiry Network October half term newsletter (sign up here).

Leading improvement is a tricky balancing act. On the one hand you are responsible for setting and enforcing minimum standards, holding people accountable for errors, and dealing with those whose performance is lacking. On the other hand you are responsible for setting out a vision for the improvement journey, encouraging everyone to ‘buy-in’ to it, and inspiring and supporting them along the way.

There is an inevitable tension in this argument, in that the desire to support may make a leader reluctant to impose any sanctions because their imposition may undermine trust in the leader and make people angry. It is easy to see why some people prefer to separate out improvement from accountability. There’s a comfort here for those people who have to do the inspiring – if they’re not responsible for administering the unpleasant bits then their relationships may be easier to build.  At the same time it’s all too easy to fail to adequately challenge under-performance and start making excuses for people instead as they’re ‘trying their best’.

However, the tension between these two is, in my opinion, important. The best classroom teachers are able to clearly communicate to their pupils that they want the best for them, and that any sanctions that they put in place are there in order to help the pupil improve and become successful, not to shame them in front of their peers. This is an extremely tough balancing act, but by mixing the vision and aspiration with clear expectations and boundaries in a supportive way these teachers are able to maximise their effectiveness.

Is this just an excuse for weakness? Absolutely not. The knife-edge of accountability is absolutely necessary, but to use it by itself is lazy. You need to start with a clear aim to foster excellence, create strong relationships, implement a trustworthy and intensive support and improvement structure, and then put in place the accountability to make sure people understand that under-performing is an unacceptable as failing to do anything about it. The accountability needs to be understood by, and supported by, the whole team. Everyone needs to know that the aim is for everyone to improve, continuously, and that problems will lead to intensive, positive support – from peers, mentors and leaders – but that in those rare cases where improvements are not being made, it’s time to face agreed sanctions.

School leaders need to use the same principles when leading professional development.

  • Take time to listen to staff and decide on learning and performance goals that can shared by everyone. These should be built from people’s aspirations for the pupils’ learning, rather than external accountability targets, if possible.
  • Work with staff to discuss, refine, and agree on a basic level of minimum expectations for lessons, with intensive support available where they are not met, and the clear expectation that it is a professional duty to improve. There should be a publicly endorsed recognition that sub-standard teaching will be intensively supported (by leaders and peers), but ultimately teachers will be dismissed if they are not making sufficient effort or improvement.
  • Build trust by making sure members of the leadership team (followed by middle leaders) are the first to ask others to observe their lessons, and involve colleagues of all levels in observations and evaluations.
  • Foster a collaborative culture of continuous learning and improvement, where teachers are always searching for ways to improve the learning of their pupils. This should be based, wherever possible, on high-quality evidence of effective teaching strategies and it should be evaluated rigorously. There needs to be an acknowledgement that mistakes will be made as a normal part of improvement, and also that they will be acted upon swiftly with extra help.
  • Finally, you need to grow an understanding from the ground-up that failure to evaluate and improve your practice is unacceptable. This is absolutely not something that can be simply imposed from the top – you’ve got to work hard to sell the benefits, and build trust in your leadership that demonstrates that this isn’t just a stick with which to punish people, but a genuine attempt to create a supportive, self-improving environment.

This principle can also apply to whole-school improvement, and Ofsted have already acknowledged their role to support as well as hold accountable. However, I suspect they would gain the profession’s support more effectively if:

  • …inspection frameworks were subject to clearer public consultation that explicitly involved practising teachers, and were subject to ongoing review in the light of feedback from inspections and teachers. The framework should be explicitly about school improvement, not naming and shaming some and giving prizes to others.
  • …inspection teams invited local headteachers and middle leaders and classroom teachers to accompany their inspection teams (although the latter would be there to observe and not pass judgement on the school) and ask these individuals to give feedback on the process of inspection. Even better, these teachers could be explicitly drawn from school who are due for inspection in the next 6-12 months, to build trust. Sir Michael Wilshaw has already appealed for more headteachers to take part in inspections, which is an excellent start.
  • …Ofsted put much more emphasis in its reports on the quality of continuous professional development in the school as the fundamental process behind improving the process of teaching and learning. Schools should be seen to use ‘high-leverage’ strategies to improve teaching where possible (such as continuous refinement of feedback and questioning), and should be clearly evaluating its effect on attainment and engagement.
  • … Ofsted should be an active participant in this, publicly describing collaborative, evidence-informed professional development being carried out by its inspectors, disseminating findings to the rest of the profession, and making their inspectors available to support classroom enquiry being carried out in schools.

How does this compare with your experience of teaching, of CPD, and of Ofsted?  Do you disagree with this approach? Comments and discussion welcome!

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