CUREE and Teach First on School Improvement

Gaining and Sustaining Momentum: Accelerating progress in schools project is a new study on school improvement published by Teach First and CUREE.  It consists of two papers – the first compares the characteristics of exceptional schools with more average schools (which are confusingly called ‘strong’ schools in the report).  The second paper focuses on ‘emerging schools’, and the characteristics of schools at difference stages of emergence.

The researchers reviewed international evidence, analysed key documentation from the schools and then gathered evidence in each school by speaking to students, teachers and leaders.

Inevitably when we read such papers we notice the evidence that chimes with our own experiences and biases, but the key findings that I take from this study are:

  • Schools which are more successful create a rich professional learning community for their teachers, characterised by mentoring, coaching, and involvement in national leadership programmes.
  • More successful schools strike a balance between whole-school systems and autonomy for individual departments and teachers. They take a whole school approach for pedagogy, behaviour and literacy, and they recognise the importance of the curriculum.  Curriculum content, along with subject knowledge, is more likely to be overlooked in weaker schools.
  • There is greater coherence in more successful schools. Teachers understand the purpose of their work.  Instead of isolated pockets of success, success is spread between different areas (probably because this success is underpinned by the core systems above).
  • Behaviour is important, with successful schools moving from a focus on compliance towards behaviour for learning based on high expectations.

A culture of learning permeates the more successful schools, with school leaders modelling excellent practice.  These schools use Advanced Skills Teachers to ensure that successful teachers can remain in the classroom and coach others.  Exceptional schools contain a ‘whole school focus on teacher accountability’.  These schools “may be using data more extensively to focus hard on teaching quality and individual accountability than some of the strong [average] schools.”

The one piece of evidence that shocked me was this: “as a general rule about a quarter to a third of students in most schools identified daily disruptions in lessons as a problem. There appears to be a slight mismatch between leaders’ perceptions of behaviour management in school and that of the students.”   The report adds: “A significant minority of students across the schools believed that their lessons were regularly disrupted by low level behavioural issues (e.g. ‘talking’ and ‘rudeness’).”

The quotations above are from the paper which looked at average and above average schools, not underperforming schools.  It saddens me that even these schools struggle to eliminate disruption from lessons.  In any case, the report adds to our understanding of how schools can manage behaviour.  Weaker schools appear more interested in enforcing behaviour through rewards and sanctions, whereas more established schools cultivate “behaviour for learning underpinned by high expectations for students”.  The authors suggest that noticing “when and attending to how to move from a focus on behaviour toward a partnership with students focused on behaviour for learning would be an important issue for focus schools and those who support them to focus on.“

I was struck by these lines on pedagogy: “Evidence about teaching and learning from the two groups seems to indicate that most of the exceptional schools were more prescriptive when it came to identifying and promoting effective pedagogy. There was also evidence that some of the strong [average] schools were moving closer to this approach. Teaching and learning policies or frameworks in these exceptional schools explicitly articulated evidence-based good practice and usually contained plenty of suggestions for (e.g.) starters and plenaries, questioning, peer and self assessment etc. One school framework operated under six key areas: planning for progress, AfL, differentiation, dialogue, literacy, engagement. Teachers in these schools are expected to apply these in their daily practice and there is a shared understanding among staff of what constitutes quality learning and teaching, reinforced through QA, learning walks and other forms of monitoring and feedback.”

This reminds me of Allison & Tharby’s ‘tight but loose’ framework for great teaching.  When I see teaching and learning flourish in schools it tends to be when there is a shared understanding of the common features of great teaching, combined with personalised coaching and mentoring which supports all teachers in applying these common features in their own teaching.

Another line which chimed strongly with my experience was, “in a number of strong [average] schools, leaders and teachers firmly believed that it is pedagogic expertise rather than specialist (subject) expertise that matters.”   It reminds me of working in challenging schools where teachers were judged on their ability to manage their classrooms and establish positive relationships, rather than their ability to deliver their subject with clarity and precision (alongside positive relationships of course).

Weaker schools contained pockets of excellence, but they struggled to spread this success into other areas.  By contrast, “in exceptional schools key policies were consistently applied across the school”.  It’s a point brought to life here in relation to weaker schools which “had achieved significant improvement in one or two areas prior to the research project. These achievements were often at a very advanced level, to the point where schools were legitimately cited as centres of excellence in those areas. However, these achievements, rather than acting as a springboard for further improvement, instead seemed to cause the schools to be ‘distracted’ by their success and to e.g. focus on facilitating the learning of other schools. This is particularly noticeable as an issue when comparisons were made with Exceptional Schools, which were routinely relentless in targeting any area of performance which slips even a relatively small amount; but did not usually feature any single area of particularly excellent practice.”

Finally, I was glad to see that high performing schools take a whole school approach to literacy: “Several project schools had literacy as a focus, but underestimated the extent to which whole-school efforts targeting literacy could help students access the curriculum and demonstrate their understanding. Specifically, these schools needed help in recognizing the size and nature of the challenge, developing progress monitoring systems for literacy progress in all subjects, and developing all teachers’ understanding of and skills in diagnosing gaps in students’ literacy. Focus schools and those who support them should review whether sufficient priority is given to supporting the identification of literacy barriers to genuine access to the curriculum in every subject and by every teacher.”

Earlier this year the report by the Centre for High Performance suggested that much of what passes for school improvement is actually based on personnel changes (of students and teachers).  Thanks to CUREE and Teach First we can now gain a deeper understanding of the specific things that exceptional schools tend to do.

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