The Infrastructure of School Improvement

In a previous blog I wrote about the risk of shallow mimicry when it comes to collaboration between schools.  By this I meant the risk that weaker schools replicate successful schools on a surface level, rather than understanding the root cause of their success.  Here I want to explore a deeper and more sustainable approach to school improvement.

Joe Kirby has written an excellent blog about Hornets and Butterflies in which Joe compared non-renewable resources, such as a teacher’s written feedback of a student’s work; with renewable resources, such as ‘knowledge organisers’ for each subject which lay out the core knowledge that students are expected to learn and retain.   Such resources are renewable because once created they support students and teachers for months and years to come.  The same distinction between renewable and non-renewable resources might help us when it comes to whole-school improvement.

Let’s imagine we go to a school where we see 1-hour same-day detentions when a student is late, and zero-tolerance towards mobile phones and uniform infringements.  It would be easy to go back to our own school and introduce each of these policies.  But a better approach might be to question whether there is something deeper than these individual initiatives which we can try to improve.  So in the school described above, I would guess that it has a carefully crafted home-school agreement which explicitly sets out the school’s expectations.  This agreement, reinforced by assemblies and daily consistency, enables the school to tackle mobile phones, punctuality and uniform issues.   If we were trying to learn from this school, we would be much better off investing time and energy in a new home school agreement – a renewable resource which will strengthen so much of what happens in school, rather than trying to borrow individual initiatives.

Similarly, if we see a school in which lessons tend to contain high quality written work, we should resist the urge to return to our own school and insist that all teachers get students to write more.  Instead, we should question whether the lesson planning sheet that teachers use encourages them to focus on a rich central task that allows high quality writing (is it just me who worries that lesson planning proformas often reduce the lesson to a series of fragmented activities?).  We should also question whether each department has a clear enough understanding of what quality academic writing looks like in their subjects, and what teachers can do to support this in lessons (Teach Like a Champion has some great techniques for cultivating rigorous writing).

So the rule for borrowing an initiative should be to question whether there is anything that underpins that initiative, and keep asking that question until we can go no further.  We will then have arrived at the foundational resources that are really worth investing in for long term sustainable growth.  We can think of these foundations as the infrastructure of the school.  Investment in this infrastructure provides a secure base for long term growth.

When Bazalgette designed London’s sewers he was given data on peak rates of sewage flow.  Rather than building sewers to accommodate these rates, he trebled the numbers to ensure that the sewers would serve London for generations to come (a point made in this brilliant Great Lives episode on Bazalgette).  Sure enough we’re still using Bazalgette’s sewers 150 years later.  When it comes to school improvement, we should avoid imitating individual initiatives and focus instead on the infrastructure which will underpin the school for years to come.

Postscript – A short list of renewable school-improvement resources:

  • A school curriculum which provides balance and continuity for students as they progress through the school
  • Learning programmes which set out the key knowledge, skills and understanding in each subject, in each year group – a five year revision plan, to borrow from Joe Kirby again.
  • A home school agreement which commits parents, students and the school to clear standards
  • A lesson planning sheet which prompts teachers to focus on the things that matter in the classroom
  • A training programme for middle leaders, sharing the basics in managing people
  • A consistent framework for line management of departments
  • A balanced school calendar which distributes pressure-points throughout the year
  • An assessment framework which helps teachers identify students in need of support
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