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Make School Improvement Part of the Design

Start with ‘Why’. Within education, this is the basis for interrogative and inquiry-based learning. In fact, it could be argued that it’s fundamental to all learning: asking ‘why’. So when I came across Simon Sinek’s book of the same title, “Start with Why”, it caught my attention. And dutifully, it presented me with the following wonderful anecdote for what it means to be a school improvement consultant.

In one of the chapters, Sinek tells the story of American automotive executives visiting a Japanese car manufacturing workshop. The American executives wondered why, at the point where the car doors were attached, the workmen did not use rubber mallets to tap the doors in to make sure they fit perfectly. When they asked the Japanese executives why they did not perform this task, which, according to them was necessary, they smiled sheepishly and said that they made sure the doors fit at the design stage.

So, what is it about this story that resonates with what I do?

Making Sure the Doors Fit at the Design Stage

I am a school improvement consultant. I work in partnership with Headteachers and their SLTs to build systems for monitoring every aspect of their provision in order to identify areas for improvement and address them as they come. When implemented effectively, these systems lead to a consistently better quality of education for their pupils.

Unfortunately, my first contact with schools is usually after they have had an Ofsted inspection and things haven’t turned out well. It is at this point when most school leaders focus on school improvement.

Inevitably, we begin working together to identify and address areas for quick and immediate development so they can demonstrate improvement at the next inspection. At this stage, there’s rarely any time to talk about, let alone plan for, building a continuous improvement system.

This is like using the rubber mallet to tap in the car doors to make sure they fit at the end of the process.

I wish we could all make school improvement part of the design.

Time to Design Systems With School Improvement in Mind

When school improvement is only considered after a poor inspection outcome, all efforts are about addressing the issues identified during the inspection, and not about doing things better to benefit pupils. As a result, actions taken are usually short-term fixes that are driven by the short timeframe in which schools have to demonstrate that they have addressed issues identified during the inspection. This timeframe is a lot shorter for non-association independent schools. Consequently, this phenomenon is more pronounced in such schools.

These short-term solutions rarely lead to long-term impact. Because when they are formulated, there is no time to conduct detailed consultations with staff or to ensure that what is proposed fits within the school’s existing culture in order to get the buy-in from staff that will lead to consistent implementation.

And if the required solution involves actions that do not fit within the school’s culture, there isn’t enough time to explore, let alone initiate, a change in culture.

In other words, those who only think of improvement when they get a poor inspection result are bound to repeat the cycle endlessly.

However, this only considers leaders who think of improvement when things go wrong. But, what about the others?

The Self-Evaluation Cycle

Some school leaders think of school improvement when it’s time for their annual self-evaluation. The self-evaluation cycle, when implemented effectively, can be relied upon to identify a school’s areas of weakness and address these, typically over a period of one year. When implemented effectively its impact can be seen long-term in the form of meaningful improvements in the quality of education experienced by pupils (as illustrated below).

Unfortunately, this cycle is not always implemented effectively. Also, the self-evaluation cycle is typically suitable for making big changes over the long term, it is not responsive enough to address issues that arise in the short term.

The Continuous Improvement Cycle

To address short term issues the continuous improvement cycle would be more suitable. For this cycle to work, leaders need to monitor every aspect of the provision regularly in order to identify issues as they arise, then take actions to address these issues, and then check to see if the actions have been effective. This cycle can generate continual small, incremental improvements throughout the year.

In my experience, in order to drive school improvement, leaders need to build systems that not only address areas for improvement annually but are responsive enough to identify and address issues as they arise during the year. Systems that combine an annual self-evaluation cycle and termly continuous improvement cycle running parallel to each other.

This is what I mean by making school improvement part of the design.

Marell Consulting Limited School Improvement System

So why do most leaders only think of school improvement when things go wrong or when it’s time for self-evaluation? Usually, because their time is so taxed by day-to-day operations that there is no time for strategic thinking let alone planning for improvement.

This is even more pronounced in non-association independent schools which tend to have small senior leadership teams and no middle leadership. Headteachers’ involvement in teaching and other daily tasks is so heavy that they barely have enough time to carry out their leadership tasks. So, what should be done?

Well, there is the obvious solution of hiring more teaching staff and developing middle leadership so that senior leaders can carve out time to build improvement into their school’s design. But the proprietors of many non-association independent schools will tell you that there is no funding in the budget for that. If this is truly the case, then school leaders might consider working with a school improvement consultant to build customised school improvement systems, that fit in with their culture and can realistically be implemented within the time they have.

At Marell Consulting, we have produced a guidance document outlining how to build such a system. We will also be delivering a training workshop on the 29th June for school leaders to expand on this guidance on school improvement systems.

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