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Being the best at getting better

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It was at one of the first meetings of the NAHT’s School Improvement Commission that Stephen Fraser, Deputy CEO at the EEF, proposed that “the best schools are getting better”. Seductive in its simplicity and powerful in its import, the definition stuck and guided much of our work as a commission. In my role as CEO of Challenge Partners too, it resonated strongly - because it evokes our mission to achieve upwards convergence in education through continuous improvement which grows the top and stimulates faster improvement in schools that have furthest to travel. It starts with the conviction that excellence in education is not a zero-sum game, even if norm-referenced examination and accountability arrangements create that appearance.

The Improving Schools report focuses substantially on staff development as the driver of improvement, noting that “schools are only as good as the people who work in them”. Ensuring leaders, teachers and other staff have access to evidence, the ‘know-how’ to apply it, and behaviours which enable them to do so in a principled and sensitive way is of course important. But if we are to ensure all schools always “improve on their previous best”, we need systems thinking to supplement what is going on in schools and with the development of staff.

“School improvement should be a collaborative, collective endeavour”, as the report says. This collaboration may be rooted in localities, but not bounded by them. The risk of focusing only on the local is that it further entrenches the regional inequities that blight us. Expertise and responsibility for improving the lot of all children must be shared by us all. As a profession we should care as much about the life chances of young people at the other end of the country as we do about those at the other end of the road. Digital collaboration is giving us the means to ensure now more than ever this isn’t some lofty, vague aspiration. It is one we can do something about.

The report rightly cautions against ‘drag and drop’ tactics where schools copy the observable features of effective practice without really understanding why it works, and how. The proliferation of schools reflexively producing knowledge organisers without doing the deep underpinning curriculum thinking following changes to the inspection framework is one recent example of this.

Again, as the commission’s report notes, “greater understanding of the research combined with teachers’ professional knowledge of ‘what works’ in their particular context is critical to success”. EEF’s syntheses of the evidence and practical guides offer one way for teachers and leaders to develop their professional knowledge. Learning with and from their peers, and being able to see effective practice in action is another - and has the added benefit of fostering relationships and incidental learning that strengthen collective improvement endeavours further.

Of course, the current environment has created huge barriers to collaborative learning between schools and staff. Even within schools there is understandable reluctance to bring staff together; mixing staff between schools is considered by many to multiply the risk to an unacceptable level.But there are also opportunities.

The nationwide shift to doing more online can open windows into schools and practices that can be overlooked if they happen to be at the end of a poorly-served branch-line. It also offers new ways for great practice to reach the so-called ‘cold-spots’. Our programme of free, digital Sharing Leading Practice events have enabled many schools to benefit from understanding accredited leading practice in schools across our diverse national Network of Excellence. Schools have benefited from sessions on building a culture of oracy led by Bengeworth CE Academy in Worcestershire; strategies to support children who have experienced trauma from The Sigma Teaching School, Dorset; and diversity in the curriculum from Claremont High School in London.

This is no ‘drag and drop’ approach; the events offer the chance for practitioners to get under the skin of the observable practice and impact, to think deeply and engage in professional dialogue about whether and how something similar could work in their particular context. We know it is having an impact because participants tell us in follow-up surveys how they have adapted what they’ve heard to their context and the impact it is having.

The fact that the practice shared within our network is accredited is important because it ensures we are not recycling mediocrity. Accreditation comes through robust peer review - which the commission’s report urges all schools to engage in - where rigorously trained leaders from schools beyond the locality, work under the watchful, coaching eye of an expert Lead Reviewer to critically, but supportively, evaluate schools’ practice and impact.

In the current circumstances, our peer review process too is moving online and we are this week piloting a virtual Leadership Quality Assurance Review in primary, secondary and special schools. The review team will evaluate leadership from emerging leaders to governors; school improvement strategies (including pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, staff development and more); as well as recovery and remote learning. They will gather systematic evidence about the extent to which these benefit pupils, particularly those challenged by socio-economic disadvantaged or additional learning needs.

Such feedback and peer accountability has a particularly important role to play when Ofsted can’t - and shouldn’t - be resuming inspections. It is also integral to realising the commission’s core ambition that all schools strive to continuously improve on their previous best. It is something we can do for ourselves and our school communities, for which we don’t need permission.

Dr Kate Chhatwal OBE is CEO of Challenge Partners and a member of the School Improvement Commission

First published 20 November 2020