In my previous blog ‘Being Special’ I wrote about what it is like working in a school that is in Special Measures. I feel I only scratched the surface but don’t want to wallow without looking for solutions. Reading several tweets, reports, research findings recently has led me to think that, the biggest challenge of a school in SM is looking after the staff while implementing rigorous and often much needed changes. Dylan Wiliam (2014) has said,
‘There is not an infinite pool of good and outstanding teachers who are queuing up to join under-performing schools. Research suggests that we are better off improving the teachers that we have, than attempting to force them out of the profession or the school, so as to recruit potentially better staff.’
I don’t know what research he is quoting but the sentiment does make a lot of sense. If a school is under-performing, then it is not being adequately led, and this must include the development of staff, who may not have been well supported to improve their practice over the years. If teaching and learning was not an issue then the school would probably not be in SM. I firmly believe that no teacher gets up in the morning with the intention of doing a bad job but some people have not had the skills development over the years to improve, they have not had the time or encouragement, or indeed modelling of looking outwards to find best practice and latest research ideas. You don’t have to agree with it or use it, but a professional should have a working knowledge of current thinking.
Schools must have a proper programme of staff development if they want to improve the quality of teaching. This might mean reducing the teaching load of teachers who are struggling to allow them to work with others who are in a better position to share good practice and who are confident in supporting their colleagues. The latest Sutton trust report advocates that,
‘To make significant changes to their practice, teachers need multiple opportunities to learn new information and understand its implications for practice. Furthermore, they need to encounter these opportunities in environments that offer both trust and challenge’ Timperley (2008).
The key words here are ‘significant’, ‘trust’ and ‘challenge’. Good leaders will know the strengths and areas for development of all their staff and will be able to team people who will work effectively and be mutually supportive. Trust is especially important when the school is in difficulties and staff feel under the SM spotlight but change in weak practice needs to be quick and sustainable; not turned on for a 60 minute snapshot lesson observation. The education of our young people is too important for it to be otherwise however; leaders have to tread a fine line between supportive development and the rigorous challenge that is expected by Ofsted, HMI and governing bodies. Exley (2012) succinctly states that staff can be,
‘aggressively micro-managed and bullied through observations, particularly in the wake of an institution criticised by Ofsted.’
This quickly leads to a climate of suspicion, mis-trust, negativity, low morale and a culture of isolation that then moves to a downward spiral of resentment towards SLT, withdrawal of goodwill, reluctance to embrace new ideas and more worryingly the departure of the very staff you desperately want and need to keep. The staff who are left have to struggle with the problems caused by over use of supply teachers and the implications for their own health and well-being.
Having a transparent and supportive monitoring structure, which has been set up and agreed by all staff, can go some way to avoiding this scenario; if people buy into the problem they will engage with the solutions, even when the decisions and outcomes are not always pleasant. Leaders of all levels and experience need to realise their role and responsibility to move the school forward and to be accountable for their team. This also means having the confidence to ask for help when they need it, and to know the right questions to ask to get that help. Again this comes down to keeping up to date with current thinking and ideas and being given time to implement and monitor the inevitable plethora of changes.
I am not saying anything I have written here is right, true or indeed worthy of a read, these are just my musings at the end of a tough half term.