Infrastructure of School Improvement

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.

5 Enemies of School Improvement

I recently had the pleasure of listening to Daisy Christodoulou and Christine Counsell talk about curriculum and assessment.  They were both frighteningly insightful, explaining the intricacies of curriculum and assessment with incredible precision and conviction.  They make a compelling case that a coherent curriculum and intelligent assessment should be front and centre of any attempt at school improvement.  It’s reassuring that Daisy and Christine are in key positions at Ark and Inspiration, two trusts committed to improving schools in challenging communities.  We need intellectual heavyweights to be involved with our toughest schools.


At United Learning we’ve committed to subject-driven school improvement by investing in a team of subject specialists who support heads of department and teachers in their subjects.  Their impact is huge.  It’s easy to over-complicate school improvement when in essence it means students performing better in their subjects.  It makes sense, then, that subject specialists should be at the heart of this.

Yet I fear that schools struggle to prioritise curriculum, assessment and subject specialism because they get bogged down by day-to-day strife.  Such schools can easily find themselves in a death spiral, overwhelmed by operational challenges and unable to make the time and space for the stuff that will actually lead to sustainable, long term improvement. Take a few issues that can easily suck all of the energy out of a school and prevent leaders from investing in proper improvements:

  • Disproportionate obsession with Ofsted
  • Disproportionate obsession with Year 11
  • Falling roll
  • Poor behaviour
  • Recruitment and retention of staff

None of these require huge explanation, so I’ll be brief.

Obsession with Ofsted can hamper improvement because schools at risk of a poor inspection need to devote all of their energy to the ingredients of long term success, such as behaviour, curriculum, assessment and teacher development, whereas Ofsted preparation can suck time from these pursuits, and promote instead a desire to make the school look as good as it possibly can in its current state.

Obsession with Year 11 can hamper proper improvement because resources are finite, so throwing key resources (best teachers; time money and energy for after-hours intervention; 1:1 instruction) at Year 11 inevitably means denying these resources to other year groups.  If we didn’t have performance tables to worry about, secondary schools would surely prioritise Years 7 and 8, rather than Year 11, as they would then benefit from the gains in learning made by these younger students for years to come.

A falling roll can hamper school improvement because it reduces still further those limited resources coming into the school. Perhaps more damagingly, it can create a sense of failure in the school community, with each empty seat in the class representing a boy or girl who chose the school down the road instead.

Poor behaviour hampers school improvement because teachers struggle to teach and students struggle to learn in classrooms where disruption is a constant risk.  In such a situation, a sense of damage limitation dominates, as leaders try to get through each day without any major disturbances.

The cumulative effect of these 4 challenges is a school culture that is no fun for students, parents or teachers, all of whom can vote with their feet in search of another school.  Recruitment and retention of staff soon becomes a fifth deadly killer.

Just as medieval cities struggled to flourish when they were at risk of war, revolution, fire, plague or flood, so our schools will struggle to flourish when they’re grappling with these five mortal threats. So how can we free our schools from the clutch of these killers?

Academy trusts are well placed to invest in long term fundamentals on behalf of individual schools.  We do this at United Learning through our common curriculum which has been designed for most subjects from the beginning of primary through to Year 9. Not only does the provision of this curriculum relieve schools of the burden of curriculum planning and ensure that all of our schools have a challenging, knowledge-rich curriculum, but it also enables us to develop resources that fit around the curriculum, such as termly tests, low stakes quizzes and knowledge organisers.

In doing so, academy trusts are able to invest their resources in the front-end of school improvement, rather than the back-end.  By the back-end I mean the evaluation: Ofsted, mocksteds, performance tables, department reviews, and quality assurance processes.  These things might have their place, but they don’t do much to actually make things better; they simply attempt reveal the quality of the current end-product.  Instead, academy trusts must invest in the front-end by sharing systems that work, connecting teachers from different schools, developing its leaders and building all of its support around a shared infrastructure comprising a coherent curriculum, intelligent assessment and subject specialism.

Beyond the work of academy trusts, we need to develop a culture of honesty about the time and effort required for proper improvement. This involves saying to Ofsted “we haven’t got any in-year data yet because it’s November and our first round of summative assessments is in December, but you’re welcome to look at the books and the low stakes tests that we use to identify gaps in understanding.”  And what if December comes along and the in-year data fails to indicate significant improvement on historic data?   It’s worryingly convenient that in-year data presented to Ofsted always paints a rosy picture.

Part of this culture of honesty means avoiding the blame game.  We know from DFE performance tables that it’s more difficult to secure good outcomes with disadvantaged students, and we know from data on Ofsted inspections that the more disadvantaged students you have, the tougher it is to secure a good inspection judgement (e.g. HERE).  There should be no shame in a school seeking help to shore up the fundamentals in order to create room for the things that will matter in the long run such as curriculum, assessment and subject specialism. Similarly, Ofsted should listen to schools who ask to delay their next inspection so that investment in fundamental improvements can take root.

Sending Christodoulou and Counsell to a school which has not secured the basics would be like assigning Usain Bolt as a personal trainer to a patient in intensive care.   When schools are struggling to get through the day, they’re unable to grapple with the stuff that their long term success depends on.  Let’s make space in our schools for the stuff that matters.