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Making a difference: How can schools empower every professional to play a part in school improvement

Making a difference:

How can schools empower every professional to play a part in school improvement?

A Bluewave.SWIFT white paper

January 2015






The discussion


Case studies

Further reading



We would like to express our thanks to the following round table participants for their time and their valuable contributions. They were:

Dr Martin Airey Head of School, Darrick Wood School, Kent

Nigel Ashley Headteacher, Meadowside Community Primary School, North Yorkshire

Debbie Barkes Headteacher, St Faith’s Infants School and CPD lead, KYRA Teaching School Alliance, Lincolnshire

Jon Boyes Deputy Headteacher, Sandwich Technology School, Kent

Louis Coiffait Chief Executive, NAHT Edge

Philippa Cordingley Chief Executive, CUREE

Professor Peter Earley Professor of Education Leadership and Management, Institute of Education

Carol Jones Specialist for Leadership and Teacher Professionalism, ASCL

Dame Reena Keeble Consultant and formerly Headteacher of Cannon Lane Primary School, Middlesex

Jonathan Walsh Strand Leader, Manor Academy, Nottinghamshire

David Weston Chief Executive, Teacher Development Trust

Denise Willis Head of Collegiate Management, Queen Ethelburga’s College, North Yorkshire



This white paper looks at how every professional can be empowered to make a full contribution to continuous improvement in our schools.

It captures the discussions prompted by this question at the second annual Bluewave.SWIFT round table, held at the Institute of Education in London on 28 November 2014.

The discussion looked at the challenges faced by schools in this area as well as the approaches schools and the wider system could take to move towards this ideal.

It was a wide ranging, provocative and thought provoking discussion and our hope is that this white paper accurately captures that discussion and the ideas that emerged out of it.

Keith Wright

Managing Director




Leadership has never mattered more in our schools.

But leadership isn’t just a case of a strong headteacher or senior leadership team. In order for schools to fully realise their ambitions leadership has to run through the core of an organisation and involve professionals at every level.

A school system in which every professional plays a full part in their school’s success should include at least one of the following characteristics:

  • expert teachers are free to learn from and with each other best about current and developing practices - within schools and across formal and informal collaborations

  • performance management, including appraisal, is focused firmly on professional growth

  • structures and systems are in place that will allow every member of staff to make a direct contribution to school improvement

  • there is a strong culture of distributed leadership, in which those in middle leadership and other roles are allowed to take the leadership initiative and be responsible for developing and driving through change.

Put together, these elements represent the ideal picture, but a number of major challenges are preventing schools doing this. They include:

  • Fragmentation. The school system is less of a system nowadays and is increasingly fragmented. Schools are encouraged to support and develop each other but in practice this is patchy. Collaboration often sits uneasily with financial priorities and even competition across schools.

  • Lack of distributed leadership. There is still a strong tradition of top down decision making in our schools. Even where distributed leadership is perceived to exist, full devolvement is often undermined by an unwillingness to ‘let go’. Teacher Development Trust research shows that this is restricting the role of teachers in their own development.[1]

  • The spectre of Ofsted. Accountability pressures 'shape and distort' professional development of school leaders, according to the Teacher Development Trust.[2] Many school leaders have spoken about how they see league tables and inspections as being the most common motivations for CPD. This view is most common amongst secondary leaders, according to the TDT.

  • There is too much focus on CPD “done to” teachers and not enough on the professional learning process in the work place according to CUREE’s extensive research.

So how can schools overcome these barriers and truly empower all staff to play a part in school improvement?




The discussion: How exactly can schools empower staff to play a full part in school improvement?

Focus on professional learning

Philippa Cordingley, chief executive of CUREE, suggested that the starting point for schools was to ensure that teaching and learning was making a difference to children.

A key way of enabling this was to focus on professional learning – not training and development on its own – for teachers.

“We do systematic teacher reviews of research about teaching and learning that makes a difference to children,” she said. “We do a lot of work and research in schools to help them identify how well they are connecting teacher learning and student learning, taking evidence of pupil learning and using this to feed teacher learning.

“We did a study for Teach First to find out what exceptional schools do to transform challenging communities. We are also doing follow up studies of schools that are not making the progress they want to make.

“CPD is an important ingredient, but what works best is professional learning”

“CPD is an important ingredient, but what works best is professional learning. The way we get power into teachers’ hands is by focusing on teachers’ day to day learning.

“We should be thinking about work based professional leaning, not CPD, and provide this through collaboration between schools. When teachers take risks together that is when they build up trust.

“Schools have rarely shared their understanding of what constitutes professional learning. Pupils are being given increasing responsibility for their own learning so that they can take control of their learning but this hasn’t been pursued in the same way for teachers.

“The point is that if we had all this pedagogy at the heart of what we teach pupils why on earth do we not have it for our teachers? Leaders should be treating their staff as their classes.

Pooling knowledge

“We are doing a series of essays for the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) looking at how we can develop ways of taking collective responsibility. ASTs (advanced skills teachers) were good but we need collective ASTs.”

“Collective discussion amongst teachers is crucial”

David Weston, Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust agreed that a collective approach was important. “Collective discussion amongst teachers is crucial. They need this so that they can get a clear understanding of where their students are now, what they know and what they don’t know, where they are going to take them and how they will do this.

“When you get teachers involved in clarification of pupil progress that is when teachers get really engaged. That is when they realise the difference that they can make. It lets them pool their knowledge.

“To empower staff sometimes requires leaders to take a lot of control away. Sometimes in order to empower staff you have to hand over control. But it does depend on where your school is on its journey.”

Leading the culture

David Weston cited the research of education academic Prof Viviane Robinson[1], saying the most important element of school improvement was how leaders led professional learning. “They need to show how as a school leader they are going to learn and improve practice. They literally have to give teachers time and space to do that as well,” he said.

“Leaders have to give teachers time and space to learn and improve practice”

Peter Earley, Professor of Education, Leadership and Management at the Institute of Education, agreed. “I do think that the leader’s role is to create a culture within the organisation where empowerment is an expectation,” he said. “Creating culture is the most difficult thing.

“There is some excellent practice around and we need to make sure that this becomes the norm but it is patchy at the moment.”

He suggested that creating ‘learning enriched’ schools would create that expectation of empowerment. He cited seminal 1980s research by US academic Susan Rosenholtz which characterised schools as being either learning enriched or learning impoverished institutions.[2]

“How do we ensure that all of our schools are learning enriched places? That comes back to leadership,” he asserted. “NCTL (National College of Teaching and Leadership) has been disempowered but the setting up of a Royal College of Teaching has been a positive development. This could play a part in creating a culture of professional learning in our schools.”

Dame Reena Keeble, consultant and former headteacher of Cannon Lane Primary in Middlesex, suggested that if headteachers immersed themselves in learning then this would encourage a climate of learning in the school.

“I have always called myself ‘lead learner’, not the headteacher. When I was doing my doctorate I started to understand what it was really like to be a professional learner.

“There is an issue around leadership creating a culture of professional learning”

“I think there is an issue around leadership creating that culture of professional learning. If the leader starts first then this gives the staff permission. ”

The challenge of time

Debbie Barkes, Headteacher at St Faith’s Infants School in Lincolnshire and CPD lead of the KYRA Teaching School Alliance, highlighted the practical difficulty of achieving a culture of professional learning.

“The day to day pressures that schools are under makes it difficult to make time, even if you know in your heart that it is the right thing to do,” she said. “A lot of schools that we work with at KYRA are very committed to sharing good practice but they are also concerned about their best teachers being out of the school a lot.

“The day to day pressures make it difficult to make time for professional learning, even if you know it’s the right thing to do”

“The key question for me is how practically can we do this? Most school leaders recognise the value of developing collaboration but it’s managing this practically.

“School leaders feel so accountable for everything so it is as much about empowering leaders as empowering staff.”

Need for collaboration

Jon Boyes, Deputy Headteacher at Sandwich Technology School in Kent, said collaboration was crucial. “Talk to any headteacher and they will say that collaboration is something that has got to happen. They are going to struggle going it alone. Everyone will be a part of a federation, trust or alliance in 10 years time.

“I do not think there are enough really strong, outstanding leaders in the country. In order to drive schools you need outstanding leaders. That is why multi-academy trusts will increasingly come into play.

“Leaders have to be on the ground, giving staff the capability to drive improvement. Then there has to be time to ensure that any professional development that is carried out in school translates into impact in the classroom. It takes time for that to happen.”

System failure?

Schools were faced with a fundamental challenge to their efforts to lead what the coalition government characterised as the school led, ‘self improving’ system when it came to power in 2010, Reena Keeble said.

“On a system level I do not think that we can tell schools to lead a self improving system because the structures are simply not in place,” she said. “Schools are fending for themselves. Sometimes it is hit and miss. We could recreate these systems but ministers do not want to appear to be dictating to schools.”

Accountability was a major barrier to this empowerment of leaders and teachers, said Louis Coiffait, CEO of the NAHT’s new union for middle leaders, NAHT Edge.

He said: “We did research with members of Edge. Some said that they did not want to be a head because of the spectre of Ofsted. When we asked them what CPD they needed they said that they wanted to be able to help staff look good for Ofsted. I think that neatly summed up the incentives driving the system at the moment.

“It is good that we have been given the opportunity to become a self improving system, but we needed a transition period and there has been no time for that.

“We do need support for it to be fully realised but no one is likely to think that expectations will be lower on our schools in the immediate future. Resources will be flat. It will be up to leaders, teachers and schools to help themselves.”

Keith Wright suggested that it was up to schools to take some significant risks and try to break the short term cycle referred to by Louis Coiffait.

“It is worrying that expectations could be dashed by this endless desire to scrap things and start again,” he said. “But if it is going to be a school led system then it is surely up to schools to change that cycle.”

The problem with evaluation

Martin Airey, Head of School at Darrick Wood School in Kent, suggested that teaching school status could be a significant driver of a school led system.

“Since becoming a teaching school we are doing a lot more sharing of best practice. But when I talk to staff the biggest difference is going and observing other teachers. This is something that a few years ago was not happening in the school as much as we would have liked. What they really want to do is observe someone in a context and learn from that context.”

The biggest challenges of improvement initiatives within and between schools was measuring its worth, said Martin Airey. “I am constantly thinking about how my middle leaders are going to identify what will be successful and how we will know if it has been a success,” he said.

“We need collective agreement of what success for our students means”

He continued: “We need collective agreement of what success for our students means. That’s a big driving focus for us. It’s about encouraging discussions about what makes good learning and consistency across the school.”

Time for schools to take control?

Keith Wright suggested that instead of the school improvement agenda being imposed from the top through Ofsted inspection criteria it might be time for schools to drive the agenda and define for themselves what school improvement looked like.

“Perhaps we should be saying that school improvement criteria has got to come from the bottom up and that it is up to schools which know their pupils best to define what that means to them,” he said.

Nigel Ashley, headteacher of Meadowside Community Primary School, North Yorkshire, agreed. “We are a teaching school and I am an NLE. Schools that are struggling often have a situation where CPD is not interwoven with performance management. They visit a development topic but then never go back and look at it in detail.”

He added: “We are all focusing on targets so there is no time to really change practice. What I am seeing from our teaching school work is that it now is a case that if we are going to have school led system it has got to understand how to change itself.”

“Ofsted has reached its sell-by date”

Peter Earley highlighted the work of the New Visions Group[3], which he is a member of. “We are saying that Ofsted has reached its sell-by date. It has driven schools to a situation where whatever gets inspected gets done and there is no emphasis within schools on the improvement of pedagogy. The College of Teachers might help here and give schools some strength to be able to say that they are not prepared to be as dominated by Ofsted as they are.”

Peter Earley said that about a fifth of school leaders were enthusiastic about policy changes, such as academies and teaching schools, but a significant proportion - around 45 per cent of schools – were “concerned, constrained or cynical” about such developments.[4]

“Those engaged schools are in a good position to improve. There is a clear link between schools with good results and schools that do lots of other things. Headteachers need to be driving this more instead of letting the Ofsted wagon roll over us.”

Keith Wright questioned whether there was enough space for headteachers to put their heads above the parapet and be prepared to lead school improvement in a way that wasn’t dictated by Ofsted.

“These courageous heads and SLTs are probably in the minority,” he said. “Because the timeframe for impact is so short there is almost no time to be brave. The process might take two years and the headteacher could be out of their post by then.”

Peter Earley agreed that schools in a category had no choice but to focus on standards. “Good or outstanding schools should be driving the agenda about what we understand to be a good school. Raising standards is just too narrow a definition.”

Carol Jones, Specialist for Leadership and Teacher Professionalism at ASCL, said that the impact of current accountability structures should not be underestimated.

“I think back 10 years ago when I was a relatively new head. At that time we had ASTs, the National College and networked learning opportunities which encouraged professional collaboration. This led to fantastic conferences and collaborative processes but that has been systematically destroyed by a fragmented system which has led to increased isolation for some schools and senior leaders.

“The power has been taken away and the autonomy that was spoken about doesn’t really exist, other than amongst schools that are already in a network, for example Teaching Schools and their alliances.

“There is also this assumption that ‘successful’ schools are able to support other ‘failing’ schools without it impacting on their own success. The whole system is based on a fabricated premise which emerges from an Ofsted judgement which is not always accurate. We need to return to a culture of genuine collaboration.”

Collaboration for ‘struggling’ schools is difficult, she added. “Heads and school leaders may move between being graded themselves as a one or a three and, depending on an Ofsted judgement, their own leadership journey will be affected. For example, if a school is judged as ‘requiring improvement’ it has less opportunity to participate in collaborative networks, the staff are no longer invited onto national programmes such as National; Leaders of Education or Specialist Leaders of Education. The schools that require improvement are left to sink or find their own way forward unless they’re already in a partnership.”

A crisis in teacher recruitment is adding to the collaboration challenge, Carol Jones added.

“We (ASCL) recently held a series of nine regional conferences. We asked senior leaders to indicate their experiences of teacher recruitment. In every single conference in the country the majority of headteachers said it was more difficult to recruit this year than last year and, in some cases, at any other time previously. The different training routes and communication of those routes into teaching is adding to that confusion.

“It is difficult to get people to think beyond the ‘O word’ – we should not underestimate the impact of heads and principals losing their jobs because of results. This creates a climate of fear and anxiety for most school leaders. When Ofsted leaves you alone you have freedom to do what you want, including developing good professional learning with and for staff. But when you are in a three or a four category you cannot do that because the fear restricts your actions and planning.

“When schools develop a strong CPD culture, possibly using people who were formerly ASTs or lead coaches, or a training team, then there is hope for the culture of schools but this is not all schools, particularly those awaiting the Ofsted call.”

“Sharing good practice doesn’t work…it’s the sharer who benefits, not the other side”

Philippa Cordingley suggested that the approach of sharing “best practice” between schools didn’t work. “It’s the sharer who benefits, not the other side,” she said. “Part of what rebuilding the system is about is spotting talent wherever it exists and building out from that.

“There are some things that we know about learning that if systematised, would help. It’s about understanding more about learning.”

The importance of networks

Despite structural challenges and the pace of change schools can still reach out and link into effective networks, said Carol Jones. She highlighted the Securing Good programme in London, which is part of the London Leadership Programme.

“Once schools are out of a three and four rating they’re able to enjoy working with each other because they can share experiences and work collaboratively. They can develop together. There is a sense of optimism and hope when working collaboratively and growing together. There are some very good examples of schools leading CPD partnerships together.

“This is one of the reasons why programmes like Pixl[5] are popular. They provide staff with opportunities to meet other subject heads from across the country. Whenever there is an opportunity for professional challenge this is very much appreciated. Schools struggle to find a structure nationally for that.”

“There needs to be a national network to enable schools to collaborate”

She added:” There needs to be a national network to enable schools to collaborate if they are able to.” ASCL is currently developing a blueprint for developing a school-led system in order to achieve this”.

Does expert led collaboration actually work?

Debbie Barkes questioned the effectiveness of the ‘expert led’ model of school collaboration. “A lot of classroom practitioners and leaders have lost confidence if their school has been rated at three or four.

“There is nothing that reduces confidence more than a teacher judged to be inadequate to be shown lots of outstanding practice. That’s not to say that there is not a place for experts but you have to build up staff from where they are rather than continually showing them those who are best.

“Often the best learning takes place if the learning is with someone in same position as you”

“I wonder if peer to peer support in your school is a better approach. We pair our teachers who require improvement together with other teachers in the same position. Often the best learning takes place if the learning is with someone in same position as you.”

This approach resonated with Philippa Cordingley, who said that it was important for peers to take risks together, especially if there was a “reciprocal vulnerability” as well because that helps to speed up the trust building that is essential for taking risks.