On Purpose and Pace

At what pace should our schools operate?

A spectrum of speed can be found in our schools.  At one end, the pace might be a little pedestrian.  Pupils amble to lessons and drift to their desks.  The bell serves as a guide rather than a mandate.

At the pacier end of the spectrum, the bell summons students and staff to their next post. Senior leaders hotfoot from one hotspot to another, and lessons zip along with an electric buzz – a stream of pacy, punchy activities divided by the piercing beep of a stopwatch. Posters remind students that every second counts and the plasma screens provide a daily update to Year 11 on the number of school days remaining until their first exam.

I prefer our pacy school to our pedestrian school, but I wonder if we might be wrong to assume that pace in our schools is always a good thing, and whether we might benefit from dropping down a gear so that our schools move at a brisk canter, rather than an all-out sprint.

This all-out sprint involves hyperactive, interventionist school leaders where every member of SLT promotes their latest wheeze, drive and initiative in a frenzied bid to rapidly improve the outcomes of all students.

The words ‘rapid’ and ‘rapidly’ feature ten times in the Ofsted handbook, for example:

  • Pupils ‘trust leaders to take rapid and appropriate action to resolve any concerns they have.’
  • ‘Leaders pursue excellence. They improve provision and outcomes rapidly and reduce achievement gaps between groups by monitoring the quality of teaching, learning and assessment as well as learners’ retention, progress and skill development.’

Hot on the heels of ‘rapid’ and ‘rapidly’; ‘quick’ and ‘quickly’ appear 8 times in Ofsted’s handbook:  inspectors will note ‘how quickly leaders tackle poor teaching.’   Meanwhile ‘strategy’ or ‘strategic’ is found just 3 times.  ‘Thoughtful’ occurs 4 times, though three of these relate to students, not the school e.g. ‘[pupils] are thoughtful, caring and respectful citizens.’   You won’t find any instances of ‘judicious’, or ‘cautious’, and while the word ‘careful’ and ‘carefully’ feature 3 times, two of these are directed at the inspectors e.g. ‘Inspectors must consider carefully the effectiveness of safeguarding’.

At the other end of the Ofsted process, this preference for pace is evident in their reports, with all of the comments below featuring in reports written over the last few months:

  • the performance of the school has declined rapidly since the previous inspection in 2014
  • Leadership and outcomes of the 16 to 19 study programmes are improving rapidly
  • The ethos of high aspiration this creates is leading to a school which is rapidly improving
  • The attendance of pupils in key stage 3 and 4 is improving rapidly, as a result of the determined work of school leaders
  • Outcomes at GCSE have rapidly improved since the last inspection
  • Consequently, pupils make excellent progress towards rapidly improving outcomes at GCSE and in 16 to 19 study programmes
  • The school continues to improve rapidly
  • Leaders make very good use of the additional funding available to them to make sure that the gap in progress between disadvantaged pupils and others is closing rapidly
  • The gaps between disadvantaged pupils and others closed in 2015 and are now closing even more rapidly
  • Standards in the sixth form are not yet rising rapidly

A rapid rise in standards sounds impressive, if perhaps a little unconvincing.  The word ‘steadily’ appears far less frequently in Ofsted reports.

Beyond Ofsted, there’s something about our profession that lends itself towards hyperactivity.   Alex Quigley likens a teacher’s predicament to that of a goalkeeper in a penalty shootout.  The goalkeeper feels that he ought to pick a side and dive to the right or the left, as he would look a bit silly if he stood his ground in the middle (even though statistically he’d save more shots if he held his ground occasionally).  Similarly, in education we want to be able to say ‘there’s nothing more I could have done’.  Quigley questions the impact of this throw everything against the wall and see what sticks approach –  ‘Perhaps, counter-intuitively, what if all that extra work a teacher does isn’t productive?’

I worry about the impact of this relentless busyness on our teachers and leaders. Fuelled by caffeine and Berocca, colleagues leap and bound through their days, grabbing a quick snack while on break duty and hoping that their immune system can hold out until the next holiday.

So how could our schools replace their mad dash with a purposeful clip?

The first solution might lie in building slack into key processes.  One of the best teachers I’ve worked with describes his lesson planning as identifying the destination he wants his students to get to, along with two or three stepping stones to get there, but leaving plenty of space in each lesson for him to gauge understanding, fill gaps and recap prior learning.

Similarly in our assessment schedules we should ensure that the frequency of our formal assessment points allows plenty of time for meaningful learning in between.  I think three formal assessment weeks per year should be the upper limit, and two might be optimal. These assessment points can be followed by a review week in which teachers and students can reflect on performance and return to gaps in knowledge.

Slack can also be built into CPD schedules, allowing leaders to respond to teachers’ needs as they emerge.  Leaders should be encouraged to give CPD time to teachers to invest in long term planning.  For those schools with an INSET day on the first day of term, why not give the day to colleagues to use as they wish, with the one condition that they should do work which will support them for the rest of the year, rather than catch up on a couple of odd jobs from last term?

In this Long Read in The Guardian Oliver Burkeman explores the dangers of an obsession with time management.  Here he draws on a conversation with software engineer Tom DeMarco:

“An organisation that can accelerate but not change direction is like a car that can speed up but not steer,” DeMarco writes. “In the short run, it makes lots of progress in whatever direction it happened to be going. In the long run, it’s just another road wreck.” He often uses the analogy of those sliding number puzzles, in which you move eight tiles around a nine-tile grid, until all the digits are in order. To use the available space more efficiently, you could always add a ninth tile to the empty square. You just wouldn’t be able to solve the puzzle any more. If that jammed and unsolvable puzzle feels like an appropriate metaphor for your life, it’s hard to see how improving your personal efficiency – trying to force yet more tiles on to the grid – is going to be much help.

If the jammed puzzle feels like a metaphor for our schools, we should grapple with the obvious but challenging question of what to stop doing.  Fewer assessment points, fewer meetings and briefings, fewer ‘data packs’ for every class to be presented to classroom visitors, fewer emails and fewer ‘focus weeks’ might just enable our teachers and leaders to turn the treadmill down a notch or two.  New priorities and initiatives should meet the 5-year rule: if a proposed priority would not be relevant in 5 years’ time, then perhaps we shouldn’t introduce it now.  Another solution lies in avoiding the temptation to chop and change mid-year.  Teachers need to know that the things that matter in their school will matter for the duration of the year and beyond, and not just until the Assistant Principal in charge of teaching and learning stumbles across another buzz word or blog post.

I’m all for urgency and purpose in our schools – we have one chance to educate our children. But education should not descend into a mad dash, and as we approach a new year I wonder if we can work towards schools that are purposeful, not panicked; focused, not frenzied; measured, not manic.

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3 thoughts on “On Purpose and Pace

  1. Hi Steve. A really interesting blog post. There are certainly echos of the ‘surgeons’ vs ‘architects’ debate in what you have blogged. I found this post particularly timely. This morning I am writing a presentation on the ‘Principles of Time Management’ whose content I hope will be equally useful to trainee teachers, NQTs and middle leaders alike. It all really comes down to clarifying your role(s), planning and scheduling so you spend your time in ‘quadrant 2’ working on important but non urgent matters rather than fire fighting in ‘quadrant 1’ dealing with urgent and important matters. My view of school leadership is that spending our time in quadrant 2 building strong systems that will last (e.g. behaviour management, curriculum design, assessment methodology, T&L practices) will ultimately mean we spend much less time fire fighting in quadrant 1 (e.g last minute year 11 exam intervention). Highly thought provoking as always. Bw, Darren.

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  2. Really like this, Steve. I enjoyed Alex’s ‘goalkeeper’ post, too. I understand why policy documents might not favour the word ‘cautious’ but it’s hard to argue against the value of having ‘carefully considered’ in there somewhere!

    In the light of all the discussion about unsustainable workload for teachers and school leaders at all levels (and how many are being put off headship altogether), a greater focus on how less can be more, doing less but doing it better, and taking our time to ensure purposeful change is properly embedded, might have many benefits.

    Have you read ‘Making the Leap’ yet? Would be really interested to know what you think to it…. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Making-Leap-Moving-Deputy-Head/dp/1785831615/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480329089&sr=8-1&keywords=making+the+leap+jill+berry

    Happy New Year!

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