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Is school improvement actual improvement or just something different?

Updated: May 14, 2022

At the weekend, Mr Withers @MrWithersAHT, posted a photograph with the caption 'You know if you know'.

The photograph made me smile. My husband thought it was an egg!? Do you know what it is? I certainly recognised it straight away as a mouse ball! If younger colleagues are still wondering what one is - these images might help.

(You regularly had to remove the ball to de-fluff the mouse, making it scroll more easily. Of course, now, there is no ball in a mouse and often no mouse!)

Anyone who ever used a mouse with a ball will know that upgrading to a mouse that used an LED emitter was truly an improvement! (There was nothing more frustrating in a computer suite than being allocated a computer with a dodgy mouse where the ball didn't move smoothly or one that you had to rattle and bang on the table to get it working.) The industry identified a problem, a genuine problem, and sought to eradicate the issue. Other developments also took place, e.g. different sizes, more ergonomic shapes and even moving to a wireless device, but these were only slight improvements compared to the magnitude of changing from a ball to an optical mouse. One development which did add quite a lot of value was the scroll wheel, particularly useful when browsing webpages and scrolling down social media posts. This is an example of the mouse changing to meet the new needs of the user as the internet took off.

How does this relate to school improvement? Senior leadership teams could ask themselves "Is enough time being spent identifying the big problems that if solved would make a substantial difference to our pupils? Or, are we diluting our focus to work on lots of more minor issues / easier to fix issues? If we channelled more of our efforts into the bigger issues, what would happen?"

What would you identify as some of the big issues in primary education? At a national level? At a school level? Are they sometimes one and the same? Are we as a profession thinking radically enough?

One point nationally that is talked about frequently is teacher workload. I would suggest that whilst ever we ask teachers to teach 8-10 subjects across a week, we will never crack the workload problem. Being an expert in so many subjects and preparing so many lessons is always going to be an issue. When schools have employed more specialists, e.g. coaches for PE and specialists for modern languages, there has been an improvement in teaching. What are the pros and cons of increasing specialisms? What is currently delivered in your school by an 'expert'? How could the issue of specialisms be explored as a way of raising outcomes and reducing workload? If we did a radical rethink - how could we improve workload and increase outcomes? Do we need to think more creatively about staffing?

What real improvements are needed? What are the big ticket items?

What might you put on the agenda for radical change? The 39-school week, the school day, the teacher-pupil ratio, the level of technology use, funding, school building design? If you had a blank piece of paper to start again - what would you change. Give yourself the freedom and permission to think radically - you might be surprised with the answer you produce.

Blue sky thinking, without constraint, can identify unusual solutions - often it is our own imposed ideas about what can or can't be done that holds us back.

An important 'take away' from the improvement to an optical mouse is to identify really important issues and spend an increased amount of time seeking solutions for things that will make an important difference to outcomes. These are usually large issues that require a multipronged solution, perhaps issues that have been on the agenda for quite some time, but have never quite being resolved.

Example of a big ticket problem:

We've identified that too many pupils have a word reading speed that is well below the optimum level. This is impacting on working memory, enjoyment of reading, levels of concentration required, comprehension, quantity of text consumption, independent reading, in-class use of texts across the curriculum... How can we change this? What would have to happen in every year group? What would be the long-term and short-term steps? Do we have enough knowledge of the issue to put in a place a plan that will deliver the desired results?

Sometimes, the first step is considering leadership knowledge of the problem. As school life is so broad, can leaders have the expertise that enables them to take effective action on every issue? Do leaders have the resource capacity to devote sufficient time to really understanding the issues and utilising the research?

We need to ask, is it just 'different' or is it 'better'?

I use my mouse upside down. When I pull the mouse down, the arrow moves up the screen. When I shift the mouse to the right, the arrow on the screen moves left.

At school we used a BBC computer (showing my age) which didn't have a mouse. At home, I combined Christmas presents and savings from my part time job to buy a brand new Amstrad computer that came with a mouse. As I had no lessons on how to use a mouse, I had to work it out for myself. I thought the name must be significant - why otherwise would you call it a mouse? I thought, mice have tails, therefore the tail must be at the bottom. When you learn to use a mouse, you watch the screen not your hand. I actually didn't even know my method was incorrect until I started teaching and people kept asking me why I used it upside down! In a computer room, you could always tell which computer I had been working at because the mouse was left upside down. So much so, that a lovely colleague, Joanne Orton, made me a leaving present of a modrock hand (more than 25 years ago). A gift I cherish.

School improvement identification of issues

I still use my mouse this way. It is ingrained in my muscle memory. Now the question is, should I change to do it the same way as everyone else? Why? What would be the pros and cons? Would it make any difference to the outcome?

There is no need for me to change. For me, the method is quick and efficient and effortless. Changing would be hard, slow, frustrating and actually make it more difficult (certainly in the short term) to complete tasks using a mouse. Making the change would not bring about a change in outcome. It would be different, but the mouse would still move about the screen.

In education, there is often more than one way to achieve an outcome. If I was teaching someone how to use a mouse from scratch - I would not choose to teach them my method, but that doesn't mean it can't work for me.

Does change bring about improvement?

Sometimes I see schools introduce something shiny and new. It is just that - new. That doesn't automatically make it an improvement. Perhaps the best course of action would be to improve the current solution. If you are convinced that the current solution can not be improved, then perhaps something new is required. Does it need to be replaced fully - or is it just one part of the system that needs to be changed? Have you considered how the current solution works in every year group? Sometimes it is something new that is needed in just one phase because that segment in the whole process is the root cause of the issues.

The second or third year of implementing a solution is often overlooked. It is not as sexy to work on consistency and fidelity of implementation as it is to introduce something new. New teachers receive only a fraction of the support and training previous colleagues received. And, as leaders we often want something to be 'our thing' so if the solution currently in place was introduced by someone else, we are even less likely to want to dig deep and fix the issues that exist in the current solution.

If you are implementing something new - make sure you spend the time needed to really unpick the issues and plan fully for the change. Often, plans do not go far enough to ensure the new systems will be successful! ...and the cycle begins again with something new.

We are sometimes caught up with the idea that there is a magic solution that will be easy to implement. I have certainly seen this with schools swapping to different mathematics schemes. Swapping to something new can mask deeper rooted, more difficult to fix issues which, when left unaddressed, means the new solutions are no more effective than the old ones!

When we are considering school improvement, we should ask ourselves:

  • What are the current problems?

  • Who is telling us that it is a problem? Where is our evidence that it is a problem?

  • Is it a genuine problem?

  • Which problem(s) have we decided to tackle and why?

  • Is the problem significant?

  • If we fix the problem, what will be the benefits?

  • Will the benefits be substantial or just minor improvements?

  • Are we ensuring that our current systems are matched to any changes - think about how the mouse was adapted for use with the internet!

  • Are we thinking radically enough about the problem (e.g. many generations of computer mice still used balls)?

  • Are we being specific about exactly what we need to improve? Are we being specific enough about which year groups it applies to? Are we being specific enough about how individual colleagues may need to make changes to their practice?

Be wary of the struggle between urgent and important

So the urgent drives out the important; the future goes largely unexplored; and the capacity to act, rather than the capacity to think and imagine becomes the sole measure for leadership. (Hamel and Prahalad 1994: 4–5)

One difficulty a senior leadership team can experience is not setting aside sufficient time to explore, think, research, develop knowledge, talk, plan. The plan is only as good as the thinking behind it! I would urge leaders to start planning early so colleagues have time to ponder and set aside a good amount of time to think. Consider also how you can get the team to the required depth of thinking - this often requires uninterrupted time, facilitated time, long chunks of time (which might even include corporate style longer days / weekend), reading materials.

How can we motivate our teams to tackle the substantial improvements?

Steve Jobs when trying to motivate his team to shave a few seconds off how long it took to start the Apple computer said, "You know, I've been thinking about it. How many people are going to be using the Macintosh? A million? No, more than that. In a few years, I bet five million people will be booting up their Macintoshes at least once a day.

Well, let's say you can shave 10 seconds off of the boot time. Multiply that by five million users and that's 50 million seconds, every single day. Over a year, that's probably dozens of lifetimes. So if you make it boot ten seconds faster, you've saved a dozen lives. That's really worth it, don't you think?" Making the Machintosh start faster was hard work and required colleagues to think big picture. How are you helping colleagues see the bigger picture of the impact they can achieve? Can you write your own speech?

Motivating colleagues on hard to fix issues

How do you motivate colleagues on tackling the hard to achieve issues? Making substantial improvements requires substantial effort. The amount of time to manufacture a new mouse design will have been far shorter than the time devoted to research, thinking and talking, development, drawing and designing, prototyping, adapting designs. Too often in schools we jump to 'manufacturer' and as such usually end up with an end product that is less than what we hoped for. Occasionally, there are quick wins, and we should grab them when they come along, but we should be mindful of identifying the big issues.

school improvement requires substantial effort

The mouse is still around - even though there are other ways of getting the cursor to move around the screen - and sales are actually growing. The first computer mouse prototype was designed by Bill English, then the chief engineer at SRI, in 1964. You might be surprised to know that there are global marketing reports about potential mice sales.

"The global mouse market is expected to grow from $17.37 billion in 2020 to $19.24 billion in 2021 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.8%. The growth is mainly due to the companies rearranging their operations and recovering from the COVID-19 impact, which had earlier led to restrictive containment measures involving social distancing, remote working, and the closure of commercial activities that resulted in operational challenges. The market is expected to reach $24.07 billion in 2025 at a CAGR of 5.8%."DUBLIN, June 23, 2021 /PRNewswire/ -- The "Mouse Global Market Report 2021: COVID-19 Impact and Recovery to 2030" report.

Whilst we do not have a sales market, we do have an end user market. In 2020/21 there were over 10.5 million students in UK schools. There are currently 32,163 schools in the UK. Of these, 3,079 are nurseries or early-learning centres, 20,806 are primary schools, 23 are middle schools and 4,190 are secondary schools. There are 2,461 independent schools, 1,546 special schools, 57 non-maintained special schools and 348 pupil referral units (PRUs). What problems do our pupils (and by extension their families) experience? What would make their use of education more pleasurable, more effective, more efficient, better? When they leave school - what are the issues? Do they have everything they need when they leave to progress fruitfully? If not, can we track back to the root cause of the problem(s)?

If we were a consumer market, with our profit margins and customer satisfaction levels on the line, what would we change about our product? Would we tinker at the edges? Would we seek creative solutions? Radical rethink? Unfortunately, much of our industry is heavily regulated which makes radical development difficult to achieve. It is more like manoeuvring a tanker ship than a speed boat. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't try - individually, as a school team, as a collective body of educationalists. There is still quite a lot that we do control.

Are we the only one with the problem?

Is the problem(s) just in our school or across the whole industry (more than one computer manufacturer made mice)

Interestingly, the problems that a school faces are usually problems that other schools are also trying to develop solutions for. Do any of the following issues apply in your school? What would you put on your list? Do you think other schools are trying to solve the same issues? Is this an issue multiple schools could work together to achieve?

We can seek to use research to help us understand key issues and seek ways of sharing ideas and understanding, e.g. through social media. However,

  • having the time to read all the research and unpick it is near on impossible (and the researchers don't always agree).

  • We find it difficult to move from research identified effective practice to delivery on a day-to-day basis in the classroom. There is plenty of evidence of this, e.g. there is substantial research on the importance of handwriting with solid advice about the best way to develop handwriting - but often schools do not implement this; there is substantial research on the value of nonfiction texts - yet schools struggle to invest in texts; there is research on effective ways to improve word reading fluency with older pupils - yet schools often stick to 'hearing pupils read' rather than use more effective interventions.

  • We allocate insufficient time and resources to professional development.

  • We place near on impossible demands on how much curriculum knowledge colleagues should know, requiring them to teach about 8-10 subjects - please be an expert in teaching mathematics, please be an expert in teaching reading, please be an expert in teaching geography....

How might you as a school address the above? Despite the constraints of the national system that we operate in - schools can make choices about what to focus on - schools / school leaders write their own school development plans, set their own training agendas, direct teacher time, allocate funds, set out staffing structures, choose what solutions to implement.

There is substantial research on transcription skills and yet handwriting remains an issue for far too many pupils. Too often handwriting is simply equated to 'presentation' because the research on the impact of handwriting is not known by the teachers. If it was known, more action would be taken. When it is known, teachers often don't know the best way to tackle the issue and the solutions, although well meaning, often don't go far enough to solve the problem.

Is this something that would be true in your school? (Could you replace 'handwriting' with a different issue in your school?)

Chris Dyson, HT at Parklands Primary in Leeds, posted the above on twitter. What is the picture in your school?

If colleagues are a member of the Chartered College (which is not that expensive) access to EBSCO database is provided as part of the membership package. However, colleagues need time to search for relevant research + time to read, analyse, discuss and plan. Alternatively, is there a particular journal that you think all colleagues would benefit from reading and therefore each term there would be shared reading on which discussions could be based? Or perhaps a book that all the SLT could read and then discuss? An important way of moving forward is for colleagues to have something to share.

How do you grow the type of knowledge that is needed to bring about substantial improvement?

In his leadership books, John West-Burnham outlined three modes of learning.

Modes of learning

If substantial school improvement is to be achieved then the knowledge base can not be shallow. How can you plan for deep and profound states to be achieved? How long would you envisage this taking? How can you break this into steps - to help keep colleagues motivated, to track incremental developments? Instead of a single twilight - is it worth considering a series of linked sessions across a longer period of time? Instead of a single person attending a face-to-face course can be use technology to ensure all colleagues have access to an online course? Can we combine reading, research, group thinking sessions, online learning, paired planning....etc., to bring about a shift in the knowledge base? Can we set up working bodies to explore an issue?

Looking at current successes

It is easy to get caught up with what needs to be improved. Take some time to consider what is working well / what elements of school life are successful. Can you work out why these are your successes?

Unpick what led these areas to be successful. Think about what is currently in place that makes it work well. Can you learn from this? Can you use this knowledge to help you solve existing problems?

When trying to work out what to focus on, the following grid might be helpful. Based loosely on the Boston Matrix, colleagues stick post it notes onto the grid for then prioritisation and discussion.

First - choose an area to explore.

  1. Products, e.g. the subjects / curriculum being delivered, pastoral support, aspects of teaching, pupil outcomes.

  2. Processes, e.g. systems for attendance, paper work for SEND, IT, communication, relationships.

  3. People, e.g. skills, knowledge, effectiveness in relation to a particular aspect of their role; staffing structures.

  4. School elements, e.g. finance, admin, HR, buildings.

Pick an aspect to explore and then add post- it notes to the table. Remember, at the end of the storming part of the session to prioritise post it notes and then discuss.

If you have a lot of post-it notes, return to the questions at the start:

  • Will this make a significant difference (to one or more stakeholder groups)?

  • Is it real school improvement?

  • Why do we think it is worthy of development?

  • Is this holding back other forms of success?

  • Do we need to change because the world around us has changed?


  • What will we need to do to further explore this issue before we start planning for improvement?

I hope that these questions and prompts might be a good jumping off point for SLT discussions as a prelude to summer term school improvement planning.

TOOLS for school improvement planning

  • What's working well, what's working so-so, what's not working well grids and post it notes. Useful for increasing contributions from different stakeholders.

  • SWOT analysis - strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats.

  • Picture planning - using post it notes to plot actions and consider the wider issues of a school improvement issue.

  • Garden celebrations - thinking about how your garden blooms.

  • Audits and checklists to consider how near or how far current practice is from the most desirable position.

  • Google forms for collecting teacher / parents / governor voice.

  • Staff interviews - perhaps carried out by someone neutral.

  • Calendar - remember to map out key milestones, events and leadership activities.

If you would like support for school improvement planning, please get in touch.


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