There’s never enough time. This is a standard response within many professional settings when asked to do something new. Something different. Change established working practices. Within schools, in particular, it’s an all-too-common complaint. But it’s true. There’s never enough time. The day-to-day business of planning, teaching, assessing, data entry, behaviour management, meetings, phone calls, amongst the million other things that may arise in a school day, is all-consuming, frenetic, and leaves little room for anything else. Even the sporadic smattering of inset days across an academic year, provide little opportunity for teachers to develop and embed new school improvement systems.
And yet, in a bizarre and somewhat unfortunate twist of fate, time is exactly what we’ve all been given, recently. As a result of the coronavirus lockdown, we have all found ourselves with a lot more time on our hands. And it’s put things in sharp relief.
Of course, this is not necessarily the case for all, and to make such a sweeping generalisation would be unfair, unsympathetic and a great disservice to the large majority of teachers and school leaders who will have been really busy during this period of uncertainty.
Those teaching vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers who continued to attend school, even during the holidays. Those putting safety measures in place for both staff and pupils attending school throughout lockdown. Managing daily risk assessments of the schools' capacity to remain open for vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers. Conducting safe and well checks for pupils at home. Organising online learning. Dealing with never-ending updates and requests from the DfE and local authorities. Organising vouchers or free meals for pupils who are eligible even if they are at home.
Whichever way you look at it, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely obliterated business as usual. But it has also allowed us to reflect on and evaluate our established practices and systems. How robust are they? How effective? How responsive to change? How adaptable?
In schools, the impact has been substantial, leading to significant changes in the way we think about everything to do with education.
That’s why now is the perfect time to build your school improvement system.
Time to Get Back to Normal?
It’s been a trying time during the coronavirus pandemic. And many of us can’t wait for things to get back to normal. Because it’s what we’ve grown accustomed to. It’s how things have always been. And it’s easy to just slip into established ways of doing things because they feel familiar, safe, and easy.
But will things ever get back to normal? Can they get back to normal? Should we even want things to get back to normal?
Many key figures in education believe now is the time to rethink everything.
Now is the perfect time to fix all those issues (some major, many minor) that have been kept on the back burner because we haven’t had the time to address them. The current conversation around education is about pulling apart the pieces of the entire system and rebuilding them. Not only so that we can be ready to face any future world-changing events, such as the one we are currently experiencing, but also to get ahead and fix those things we have never had the time to fix.
Like it or not, the reset button has been pressed. So, before we reboot the old operating system, we have this perfect opportunity to rebuild it. Iron out the kinks. Make improvements. Now’s our chance to get things right from the new beginning.
Don’t Let Short-Term Solutions Eclipse Long-Term Improvements
As the debate rages on about fixing or improving the entire education system, my focus continues to be the way we approach school improvement.
Of course, there are many who think that school improvement is hardly the thing to be focusing on at the moment. Many believe we should be looking at how we can ensure that the procedures we put in place as pupils return to school are robust enough to keep pupils, staff, parents and other stakeholders of our schools safe.
The big questions up for deliberation are:
how and when will pupils catch up academically?
how will pupils cope with the return to school after the long isolation period?
how can we support their mental health?
That’s not to speak of the dilemma of sorting out qualifications for pupils who were supposed to sit examinations and the multitude of other practical considerations that need to be addressed immediately.
The short-term outlook looks chaotic, at best. And yes, we should be looking at all of these things. However, we should also be rebuilding the systems that are needed to run our schools. Systems that would have been abandoned during the crisis. Systems that need to be adjusted to suit who we are now and what we aim to achieve.
One of those systems is the school improvement system. And this goes way beyond any immediate short-term fixes schools require. If we are to be prepared for the long term, we need to begin working on it now, alongside the more pressing short-term considerations.
Building Robust School Improvement Systems
Whilst numerous schools have school improvement systems in place there are still many that don’t. Now is the time to build them.
Because unless we make school improvement part of the fabric of our schools we cannot offer a consistently good quality of education for our pupils. This means we will not be able to address issues as they arise. We will always be scrambling to improve after getting a poor outcome from inspection. And we cannot consistently do everything better.
It is now, whilst routine inspections are on hold that schools need to capitalise on this opportunity they have been given. Whilst there is still time to do it, schools should be building systems that incorporate the inspection evaluation criteria. Systems that include strategies for consistent compliance with the independent school standards. Systems that allow us to deliver our school’s unique educational vision without having to worry about Ofsted.
Conversely, for those schools that already have some systems in place ⸺ possibly built around the self-evaluation cycle ⸺ now is the time to ask yourselves:
How effectively have you been implementing this system?
Do you monitor every aspect of your provision?
Do you then use this information to evaluate your provision and identify strengths and areas for improvement?
Do you involve the whole school in the evaluation process and get input from your key stakeholders?
Do you do all of this before compiling your self-evaluation report?
Does your self-evaluation process measure how well you implement your school’s unique vision?
Does it measure the effectiveness of your provision according to the criteria with which Ofsted will evaluate you?
What about the extent to which you meet the independent school standards?
Does your school improvement plan address all of the areas identified through self-evaluation?
Are staff consulted in the process of setting improvement actions?
Do you search relevant published research for suitable improvement approaches?
Does your improvement plan truly have SMART actions?
Are the people responsible for implementing these actions consulted about the practicality of implementing those actions?
Does your school know what is on the improvement plan?
Do you have someone who holds people to account for implementing actions?
Do you review progress?
This is by no means an exhaustive list of questions to consider in relation to established school improvement systems. But it’s a starting point.
And even if your school has all these elements fully under control as part of your annual self-evaluation cycle, are your systems flexible enough to cope with issues that arise across the year? Or do these have to wait until self-evaluation time?
Robust school improvement systems factor in all these disparate elements. Everything is taken into account in order to remain responsive and proactive throughout the entire cycle. And now is the time to really assess, review, and evaluate our pre-lockdown practices and begin working towards building a new system of school improvement.
Let’s not get back to normal.
Let’s build a better normal.