Having recently moved from being a headteacher to Senior Education Lead with SSAT, I have been reflecting a great deal on the nature of school improvement. What follows, my five most important insights, are based on the lessons I learned during the nine years in which I was privileged to lead a school community. I hope they are helpful.
School improvement is a shared endeavour
From governors to senior and middle leaders to staff, students and families, school improvement is the business of all members of your community. Many hands make light work, as the saying goes, but many minds make the light brighter. Improvement rests on the vision of the school community: tapping that wisdom is a vital but challenging task for leaders.
Debate and disagreement are glossed over by most leadership literature, but movement towards a genuinely shared ambition and language for improvement involves creative tension. With conviction that all are committed to school improvement, such tension is generative of new ideas and solutions to that end.
School improvement is grounded in social justice
Viewing improvement as a shared endeavour is rooted in the core moral purpose of school leaders to enhance the levels of social justice experienced by members of our communities. In the school I led, for our latest improvement journey, we described a commitment to inclusion alongside excellence. We conceptualised this metaphorically, with specific areas of improvement work that focused on developing the hearts, minds and futures of all community members. This became more important as the pandemic changed the education landscape.
School context always shapes what social justice means, but SSAT programmes, such as the ones on improving attendance and punctuality, the RACE Charter Mark and Equalities and Race Equality Audits, can help our members deepen their thinking about that context and shape their social justice interventions.
School improvement is clear, coherent and visible to all
Seeing improvement as a shared endeavour rooted in social justice enables school leaders to help their staff, students and families communicate their improvement intentions and progression milestones through everything they say and do. From the walls of the school to letters to stakeholders, and from staffroom to classroom to meeting spaces, community members should be able to see and to learn how to both ‘talk the talk’ and ‘walk the talk’. Highly visible priorities that are clear and coherent hold us all to account for how we enact improvement in our schools.
Such authentic accountability has its roots in community and, at the same time, strengthens that sense of being a part of something both meaningful and special.
School improvement requires resource alignment
Thus formulated as shared, grounded, and visible, school improvement becomes the daily work of all. The success or failure of the improvement journey from here on becomes largely about effective resource alignment. As well as directing financial resources towards the improvement plan, it is vital that school leaders direct people towards the same intent through alignment of performance appraisal and quality assurance at whole school, team and individual levels: HR policies, professional development and self-evaluation processes are crucial.
At SSAT, we provide bespoke school improvement consultancy to support school leaders to these ends. Towards the end of our most recent improvement journey, this form of support from SSAT – with a focus on our curriculum – enabled my school to validate our evaluation of our progress. The process gave leaders at all levels the confidence we needed as we entered our inspection window, as well as the insights we needed to make final tweaks towards a positive outcome.
School improvement is authentically accountable on an ongoing basis
Exam outcomes and inspection judgments are recognised metrics against which school improvement is rightly measured. But indices of success, as those of us who have led in schools know, go well beyond the data around performance. These indicators are visible through the words and actions of the people you work with and, as a result, they are worth keeping in view throughout your improvement journey. The everyday lived experiences of staff, students and families are vitally important for evaluating improvement.
Auditing less quantifiable aspects of school life, such as school culture and parent partnership (areas where the SSAT has tools available), is probably the most authentic way of capturing true improvement.
As I said at the outset, school improvement is a shared endeavour. If I have learned one thing about such crucial work, it is that shared endeavour need not stop at the gates of your school. SSAT is a proud partner to member and non-member schools and we are happy to be able to contribute to improving schools. Please get in touch to find out what we can offer to you, your staff, your students and your community.