An inconvenient truth? The surplus model of school improvement
Schools often seem to be run on a ‘deficit model‘: “this attributes scepticism or hostility to a lack of understanding, resulting from a lack of information. It is associated with a division between ‘experts’ (school leaders, Ofsted inspectors, consultants etc.) who have the information and non-experts (classroom teachers) who do not. The model implies that communication should focus on improving the transfer of information from experts to non-experts.” But what if we ran our schools on a surplus model? What if we assumed that teachers were basically trustworthy, hard-working, and knew what they were doing? What it were agreed that school leaders achieve their lofty positions not because they ‘know best’, but because their ambitions are different?
Ever since the ‘get rid of lesson grades’ band wagon began to gather momentum, there have been certain awkward lingering questions. These questions are usually to do with accountability, quality assurance, appraisal or performance related pay. It’s easy to take the purist’s view that school improvement should be focussed entirely on improving pupils’ outcomes and that anything that doesn’t support this grand plan can go whistle, but that leaves many school leaders feeling nervous and exposed.
It should go without question that a great school needs great systems. If you doubt this, read Tessa Matthew’s post on why every school needs a behaviour system. And read Harry Fletcher-Wood’s on creating a system for great CPD.
But in the end, the accountability question boils down, I think, to this: What do we do about teachers who cannot or will not improve? As always, Dylan Wiliam is good for a quote: “Ask teachers if they have anything to learn. If they say yes, work with them. If they say no, fire them.”
The inconvenient truth is that there are ineffective teachers. They fall, broadly speaking, into three camps:
- Those who are desperately struggling but continue to be ineffective.
- Those who SLT believe to be ineffective but are actually pretty good.
- Those who couldn’t give a shit.
Lets deal with each group in turn:
1. Teachers who want to improve are a relatively simple nut to crack. Firstly, any school leader worth their salt already know who they are; there is nothing to be gained from making them even less effective by scrutinising them further. If we’re serious about helping them improve we should think about the following:
- What are they best at? Most ‘support’ focuses on improving what a teacher is perceived to be bad at, and is consequently, pretty dispiriting. What if instead we started by focusing on and growing teachers’ individual ‘bright spots’ then we have a chance at getting them to believe they can be better.
- Sort out the basics. If behaviour is a problem, take responsibility for the fact that children think it’s OK to misbehave in any lesson, no matter who the teacher is. In good school this doesn’t happen. Make sure groups are functional and that systems are in place to deal with problems; help teachers set up routines to ensure high expectations. Never ever tell a teacher that poor behaviour is their fault. While it’s true that a well-planned lesson can contribute to good behaviour, it is most certainly not true that good planning can solve behaviour problems.
- We learn most by observing others and then having an opportunity to ask questions and discuss assumptions. If we want to help struggling teachers improve free them up to observe colleagues. Absolutely don’t expect them to do this in their PPA time – SLT should cover their lessons so that actual support is provided.
- Use observations as an opportunity to explore mistakes. It’s right that we should have the highest expectations, but this doesn’t mean we should smash people when they fail to live up to them. We would never take this approach with children but it seems pretty standard with teachers. The message must be that it is OK to make mistakes. I’ve heard teaching described as being like air traffic control and that any mistake will cost lives. This is nonsense. We can all always try again and fail better next lesson. Supporting teachers with this message is more likely to lead to something sustainable rather than simply expecting them to get a ‘good’ at the end of a short term intention programme.
2. There are loads of teachers in schools who are misunderstood and unappreciated. Maybe they’re not able to ‘turn it on’ for a one-off observation. Maybe their methods are out of step with what the school views as the ‘best’ way to teach. Maybe their face just doesn’t fit. Ofsted’s recent pronouncements reiterating the fact that there is no right way to teach and that putting on a show will not work are good news for these teachers. Sadly, if you fit into this category it’s unlikely that any support will be useful if they see you as too quirky, too old-fashioned or just too long in the tooth. It is lamentably easy to destroy a good teacher through such ‘support’. Obviously though, we need someway to ensure that teachers really are effective, so what can we do? This is where we need robust performance management measures; not for the pupils’ benefit per se, but to ensure that we are right in our judgements. These measure might include the following:
- Data – How well do pupils perform in internal and external tests? How well do pupils perform against other teachers’ classes? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’ve got a problem.
- It’s absolutely reasonable that a school requires that certain standards are ‘non-negotiatiable’. Are they standards being met? How do you know? Formalised classroom observations and work scrutinies are mechanisms for ensuring these basics are in place with out the need for any clumsy grading, but in a good school, leaders will know these things because they are constantly out and about. They will know what different areas of the school ‘feel’ like and they will know who is on message and who isn’t. If a member of SLT is present in corridors and classrooms every lesson then there should be no surprises.
- If it’s reasonable that every teacher should improve not because they’re rubbish but because they can be better, it must follow that every teacher is deliberately and visibly trying to improve. The oft cited research of Messrs Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain tells us that teachers tend to stop improving after the first three years. We settle for competence instead of striving for mastery. So appraisal should include targets that will require teachers to select and practice ares of practice that they wish to improve. To my mind, it doesn’t matter whether these efforts are successful in any measurable sense, it’s the fact that you’ve tried to do something different and difficult that counts.
- I’m suspicious of Student Voice. Just asking kids whether or not they like a teacher is a ridiculously blunt instrument. But a well-designed questionnaire or interview may be able to capture something useful about pupils’ experience of lessons. Just because this is hard to do well is not a reason for not trying to do it at all. I’d really like to see some good examples of these, so if you have one, please get in touch.
3. There are teachers that couldn’t give a shit: I’ve met some. These individuals are toxic and give us all a bad name. They don’t mark their books, they resort of videos at the slightest provocation and they give kids a thoroughly raw deal. Thankfully they’re relatively rare, but I’m sure every school has one or two. And as with the other categories of teachers, everyone will know who they are. How you decide to deal with them is up to you. Is it worth the effort of trying to save them, or should they be fired as soon as is expedient? That’s a judgement call.
It’s also worth looking to those schools that have already taken the plunge, and seeing what they’re doing:
Chris Moyse: Professional Development at my academy – No Lesson grades EVER!
Liam Collins: Know your school by not grading lessons
John Tomsett: This much I know about…why we should never grade individual lessons again!
Tom Sherrington: Keeping up with OfSTED’s Goalposts. What SLTs should do.
But whatever we do in our efforts to improve schools, remember this: any policy or pronouncement that is predicated on the idea that teachers can or should work harder is bound to fail. Teachers already work hard and can’t reasonably work harder. If you want staff to do x, you need to take away y. As Alistair Smith says in High Performers: The Secrets of Successful Schools, the job of a school leader is to strip out every demand on classroom teachers save that they plan and teach to the best of their ability. There is always an opportunity cost. Anything you ask teachers to do just for the sake of accountability is time that cannot be spent doing something more worth while.