Imagine a delegation from a developing country visiting London to learn how to create a successful metropolis. They could admire our cultural attractions, our vibrant neighbourhoods, our international businesses. We could dazzle them with our sky-scrapers, our stadia and our calendar of sporting and cultural events. But these visible symbols represent the trappings of success, not the underlying foundations. They might indicate success, but they don’t enable success.
Rather than looking up at these trappings of success, our delegation might learn more from the infrastructure beneath their feet: a tube network which handles almost 5 million journeys a day, a sewage system which hygienically disposes the waste of ten million people, a network of cables which connects millions of homes and businesses to an endless supply of cheap electricity and broadband.
One of the toughest decisions for a multi-academy trust is where to draw the line between central prescription and local autonomy. I’ve found a tentative answer to this in the rule of thumb that academy trusts should focus on the infrastructure of school improvement.
This infrastructure includes 5 foundations: leadership, behaviour, curriculum, assessment and teaching. No matter which government is in power, no matter who holds the post of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, no matter which performance measures schools are judged on, this infrastructure will serve as the platform on which to build exceptional schools.
Leadership matters because schools are tribal institutions, driven by rituals and routines; habits and history. Schools are intensely human, which makes them especially well-suited to the grip of a figurehead who takes ownership of the school. As a colleague recently put it, you walk around a school, taking in lessons, corridors, break times and assemblies, but it’s only once you’ve sat down with the headteacher that your view of the school comes into focus.
Behaviour matters because it’s difficult to teach or to learn in classrooms where disruption is a constant risk. Successful schools cultivate respect for the authority of adults and the sanctity of the classroom, creating a complete intolerance of one person disrupting the learning of another. Recruitment and induction (of staff and students) are critical to the communication and consolidation of this culture.
Curriculum matters because it’s the stuff that teachers teach and students learn; the stuff that we pass on to the next generation as their cultural inheritance; the stuff that gives our young people at least half a chance of making sense of the world around them. This curriculum should be guided by a commitment to coherence and continuity, with each subject setting out a 5 year journey which gradually builds secure understanding.
Get the curriculum right and we can then turn our attention to assessment, striking a balance between summative assessment which addresses the macro issues of how our students are doing, and which students might need more support; with formative assessment which addresses the micro issues of whether each student has sufficiently understood each key element of the subject to enable progression to the next element.
Our final foundation is teaching. Don’t be fooled by the relegation of teaching to number 5 on the list – from our teachers’ perspective getting better at teaching will be the absolute priority, and getting the other 4 foundations in place will enable teachers to focus on this. I think the best approach to teaching and learning starts with a clear agreement on the common features of excellent teaching, such as the skilful delivery of challenging content, modelling of excellent work, astute questioning and precise and frequent feedback. Teachers and heads of subject then adapt these common features to their own subject and bring them to life in their own classroom.
In United Learning academies, where I work, you’ll see significant differences on the surface. Some schools have 50-minute lessons, others have 100 minute lessons. Some have a vertical house system, others a year group structure. Some schools set students rigidly by attainment, others favour mixed-ability classes. Yet beneath the surface you’ll find similarities in the pipes, sewers, roads and bridges.
Look beyond the gleaming trappings of success; invest in a common infrastructure and watch schools flourish on their own terms.