Roger Whittall, headteacher, The Westwood School, Coventry explains the school improvement strategies that have raised attainment and standards at his school

While it is true that some of our school improvement strategies at the Westwood School are responsible for raising attainment and standards, it is also true that the school now attracts more able pupils, although still in small numbers. There is, then, something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum around whether the school is now more successful because it attracts more able pupils with supportive parents or that more supportive parents now choose the school because we are more successful. However, what we can be sure of is that, if we had not chosen to embark on a programme of school improvement, the school would be facing an uncertain future with declining roles and poor attainment and achievement.

Against this background of improved parental support and positive selection, the school still faces considerable challenges in the cohorts and the social issues of the catchment area.

The overall trend in the percentage of pupils gaining five or more A*–C GCSEs over the last five years is increasing (Panda 2005). The small numbers of pupils in a cohort — typically around 100 — emphasises the different ability profiles, resulting in an oscillating graph but with an upward trend. The contextual value added measure for 2006 KS2 to KS4 is 1005.3, a substantial increase on the previous year (988.1, according to the 2005 Panda).

School context
The Westwood School serves 11- to 18-year-old students drawn from an area of significant social and economic disadvantage in an outer-city area of Coventry. The outer-city council estate from which most of its 625 students are drawn is in the top 5% of the most deprived in the UK.

Parental attitudes to the value of education are negative, with only 15% of parents having been involved in adult higher education. Standards of attainment on entry fluctuate between well below average and below average, depending on the cohort.

The school is undersubscribed but increased its numbers from 563 to 625 between 2003 and 2007. The increase in numbers reflects an improvement in parental confidence, with many parents now selecting the school from outside the catchment area and in preference to some of the larger comprehensive schools in the south-west of the city.

A total of 95% of pupils are of white heritage and 5.4% have English as an additional language. More than one-third of pupils are designated as having special educational needs (SEN), including 5.3% with statements — the highest in the city. Pupil transience in 2005 was 18%, and 22% of students are currently eligible for free school meals (FSM). While the number of students entitled to FSM is gradually reducing, the number of pupils on the SEN register remains well above the national average.

Short-term success or long-term improvements?
With just 13% of students achieving A–C GCSE grades in 1999, the pressure was on the school to improve rapidly. From governors and the local authority, this pressure was focused entirely on the percentage improvement that could be achieved by 2000 and not, it appeared at the time, on any long-term vision of how it would be possible to build capacity and ensure that school improvement was sustainable. So, as a leadership team, our efforts were devoted to short-term tactical strategies. From the perspective of the Year 11 cohort, this would have been the right decision. However, as a school, we had neither the capacity to look to the long term, nor the knowledge of how to build capacity for sustainable and continuous improvement. With hindsight, a combination of both the short-term tactical strategies and the capacity-building strategies would have been the correct model.

Too often, school improvement has been taken as a straightforward task, sometimes undertaken by headteachers being parachuted into schools to break them out of a spiral of decline. The recent history of school improvement successes seems to be littered with such schools falling back into patterns of failure once the superhero has departed to save another day. Behind many success stories, there are hidden accounts of permanent exclusions, inevitably predominantly in Key Stage 4 pupils and not in those pupils with the potential to achieve five or more A*–C GCSEs.

Our story at Westwood School is not an example of a superhead saving the day, nor is it an example of how a school, the local authority or the headteacher planned strategically and effectively to develop a model of school improvement that would begin a journey to be emulated by others. However, it gives an insight into which strategies were effective and why they were effective in this specific context. The context will not be very different from many other schools in the UK and there may be some lessons to learn, but experience has shown that there is no one-cap-fits-all approach.

Informed prescription and short-term strategies
Teachers did not feel any sense of ownership for the early centrally driven reforms arriving almost daily in ringbinder format from Government. Without ownership, what could have been effective strategies became top-down reforms done to us, rather than a strategy promoting real engagement in school improvement.

Similar mistakes were made in trying to replicate the one-cap-fits-all solutions learned from external Inset. Sending a member of staff away for the day to learn about short-term and quick-fix solutions did not mean the strategies were effectively disseminated or implemented. How many of us have sent teachers on courses about, for example, the C/D target group, ICT packages to cure all, behaviour management for the underachievers and target-setting?

Centrally driven reform and external solutions lacked what Michael Fullan referred to in System thinkers in action: moving beyond the standards plateau (DfES, 2004) as ‘a unifying focus and ownership by a critical mass of teachers.’

Knowing what had not worked, the school, known then as Alderman Callow School and Community College, was ‘invited’ in 2000 to become a DfES pilot school for the Schools Facing Challenging Circumstances initiative. We joined with five other similar schools in Walsall Local Education Authority to work with Professor David Hopkins on the Improving the Quality of Education for All (IQEA) project. The overall approach of the project at that time was to ‘strengthen a school’s capacity to provide quality education for all its pupils by building on existing good practice’ (Hopkins, D., 2002, Improving the quality of education for all, David Fulton). The approach was fundamentally different from previous attempts to develop sustainable improvement in that it moved from a deficit and short-term tactical approach to schools facing challenging circumstances to an approach that used a different vocabulary, related to developing professional learning communities within and between schools.

The approach put teachers at the forefront of the school-improvement movement by recognising them as leaders of learning, but retained an approach to educational change that focused on pupil achievement and the schools’ ability to cope with change. It was rooted in the classroom.

A number of factors made the ‘offer’ attractive to the school at that time — although the reality of 13% achieving five or more A*–C GCSE grades would have required a very brave acting headteacher to refuse such a kind offer from the DfES. Working with schools that were in similar circumstances but in a different local authority took away any element of competition, at least at headteacher level.

Within Coventry Local Education Authority, the school continued — and still continues — to operate in an atmosphere of competition brought about by performance league tables, admissions and the reputations of schools in the neighbourhood. Suddenly, there appeared to be a model that did not rely entirely on the headteacher implementing strategies from a hierarchical position and attempting to promote another approach to school improvement. This model, which was radically different to the short-term quick fixes, became part of the normal school community and system and effectively took the school out of isolation by working collaboratively with other schools at a number of different levels.

Collaborative enquiry
The work, led by Professor David Hopkins, then Dean of Nottingham University School of Education, created a win-win situation for classroom teachers. From a situation of informed prescription, where ringbinders and externally imposed initiatives took away the professionalism and skills of classroom teachers, we were beginning to consider aspects of the teacher as a leader of learning in their classroom and reaching out to long-forgotten areas of the brain.

Teachers would be treated as researchers and would be encouraged to try out techniques in a no-blame culture; the work would be swathed in educational theory and the classroom practice would be rooted in action-based research. Since the previous quick-fix strategies did not appear to be working, we needed to try something else.

The impact has been all pervasive. The cadre group (an invited group of respected teachers – later opened to all staff, including TAs), formed a cross-hierarchical school improvement group (SIG) to enquire into classroom practice and develop its own skills that would later be disseminated to other teachers. The group quickly became a critical mass and influence and has led on many of the schools teacher-training days over the last four years. A teacher talking to other teachers about teaching and learning creates an unstoppable momentum and it is a focus not easily achievable by a headteacher standing up on teacher-training days and telling others how it should be done.

Teacher-led training
An early focus on developing more independent learning resulted in an advanced skills teacher (AST) for French delivering a workshop at a national geography conference on inductive teaching and teaching an inductive geography lesson to those teachers. The technique was to:

  • identify the domain/focus of inquiry
  • collect, present and enumerate data
  • examine the data
  • form concepts by classifying.

Each phase demands a higher level of thinking than the previous one.

We make the work of the SIG integral to the daily life of the school in the ways outlined below.

How school improvement group (SIG) is integrated

  • Once a fortnight the morning staff meeting is taken by a teacher, who shares an example of good practice with teaching and support staff (known as the ‘hotspot’). Examples from the autumn term hotspot sessions are given below.
  • SIG meetings are calendared meetings and part of the directed-time budget.
  • An assistant headteacher, responsible for teaching and learning, has responsibility for the SIG and ensuring that its priorities are aligned with the school strategic-plan priorities.
  • A termly newsletter is produced to keep all staff up to date with the work of the SIG and share effective practice (an example extract from this termly newsletter is shown below).
  • The SIG trials national strategy materials as resources and disseminates its findings.
  • The SIG encourages and supports staff, both financially and with time, to undertake active classroom-based research, either through the General Teaching Council teaching and learning academy or through externally provided courses, such as Masters degrees in education.
  • The SIG ensures that the majority of staff continuing professional development (CPD) is delivered through the SIG and Coventry Teaching and Learning Partnerships, thereby making the school a professional learning community, and its teachers leaders of learning in a community where leadership of learning is distributed. Our investment in staff training within these parameters means that the learning is not lost and improvement through developing effective teaching and learning is continually building capacity and is ultimately sustainable.
  • A staffroom noticeboard builds on the work of the SIG, creating opportunities for staff to display good ideas and to celebrate staff achievements.

Examples of good practice shared at staff meeting ‘hotspots’

  • ‘Jumping gnats’: motivation techniques to use with students. The idea that setting a ceiling for pupils will ensure they will not always look beyond it.
  • Unifix blocks: ideas for using the different coloured blocks as learning aides, for example, for sequence of dates and sentence structures (all staff were given a box set after this hotspot)
  • Structuring written work in history. The teacher presented a successful technique used in her classroom and asked for examples from other subjects. The information and communications technology (ICT) network now has examples from science, technology, religious education, French and geography.

Extract from the 2006 autumn term newsletter
This extract from the school improvement group newsletter Leading learning focused on literacy.

‘The school resources team can produce for you:

  • taboo cards – great for working with new key words l big picture – excellent for stimulating discussion – oracy is the way we can have gain gains particularly with boys
  • big words – for display, word games.’

Classroom environment
Walking around the school, parents see varied teaching and learning styles with classroom furniture used so that the furniture layout matches the teaching and learning style.

My expectation while walking around the school is not to see pupils in neat rows, with the teacher directing learning from the front in all classrooms, but I do not have a problem if I see this style used in the right context and as part as the armoury of a skilled teacher.

Improvements in the nature of classroom displays have flowed from the focus on developing a variety of teaching and learning styles. We have our standard displays of behaviour policy; key words and, increasingly, national curriculum levels in ‘pupil speak’. What is also immediately evident is an attractive environment (I have lost count of how many different colours we have on classroom walls); photographs of pupils succeeding and taking part in activities; displays that are the result of groupwork as well as individual work; materials to challenge and stimulate; information on how to improve their work and celebrations of work produced from the last topic.

Is it working?
The SIG still exists after four years and is still very much at the forefront of teaching and learning in the school. The fact that it was never a bolt-on extra reform, added to all the other reforms that have since come and gone, means that its impact has been sustainable and, to a degree, in these evidence-based times, measurable.

Our 1999 Ofsted noted that pupils were not independent learners and much of the teaching was didactic in nature. Three years after the introduction of a focus on teaching and learning, the conclusions of the 2002 Ofsted were:

  • teaching for control replaced by teaching for learning
  • improved student enjoyment and engagement in learning
  • a wide variety of teaching and learning strategies taking place in all lessons
  • improvements in pupil behaviour.

The SIG is responsible for the school continuing professional development programme focus but is supported, when necessary, by external consultancy support and facilitation through a local authority core-training programme.

In the summer of 2002, the local education authority recognised the progress and improvement made by Westwood School and the dissemination of the model in a headteachers’ meeting became the catalyst for the local authority to establish two teaching and learning partnerships, one in the east and one in the west of the city.

Each partnership has a well-attended headteacher management group that meets half-termly with a wideranging brief. Partnerships share good practice and new approaches and offer twilight CPD sessions, as well as two annual conferences when SIGs share their work with the staff of Coventry schools.

We have used external consultancy support to assess the impact of the SIG focus on developing more independent learning and to judge teaching and learning styles in the classrooms. In this case, the evidence of teachers using more active techniques and moving away from didactic teaching was seen in the final research paper. The box on the left shows what Ofsted noted about the teaching and learning improvements in the school. In an age when the focus is very much on collaboration, and external consultants exist in their hundreds, it was refreshing to work with a non-profit-making organisation (IQEA) that had the capacity and empathy to work with classroom practitioners.

One of the lessons we have learned is that the model is not rocket science and any good local authority able to engage with its schools and others outside its responsibility can implement a school improvement strategy based on these principles, if they move to a brokering role. More information on disseminating effective practice at local-authority level is given below.

The approach will only work if the school leadership embraces the cadre group as a temporary maintenance system (focused entirely on enquiry and development) as opposed to the normal maintenance activities of a school that have evolved to support system-efficiency stability and functional stability. The model is not cost-neutral and, unless recognition is given in terms of time (increasingly as part of the directed-time budget), resources and status, it will become a bolt-on extra, with limited impact. In fact, the influence of the model is increasingly seen in publications coming from the DfES, since Professor Hopkins became the director for the Standards and Effectiveness Unit (SEU). The National Secondary Improvement Strategy material is essentially promoting very similar principles and practice.

Disseminating practice at local-authority level
While the strategy of Improving the Quality of Education for All relied, to a lesser or greater degree on external expertise, it is entirely possible for local authorities to realign their work and develop the expertise within their own service and schools to deliver the CPD for the model.

The ability to influence and work with schools, rather than work on schools, requires personnel skills in holding CPD with a strong emphasis on reflection and enquiry, and a range of teaching and learning styles. Most delicate of all is to support schools in creating their own improvement models, based on their original principles, rather than impose externally validated models of improvement. How much more powerful is a school and its staff if it has established ownership of the process and principles?

In 2002, Coventry Local Education Authority used the experience of Westwood School to hold a residential teaching and learning conference in which Westwood staff held workshops on effective teaching and learning (see below). Now all Coventry schools have school improvement groups developing their own effective practice. The, now annual, residential course, attended by nearly 200 teachers on a Friday evening and Saturday, has workshops run by SIG members across the city (see: Whittall, R., 2006, ‘Learning across the city; networked learning’, Managing Schools Today, April/May 2006, pp26–28).

Examples of workshops at the 2006 Coventry Teaching and Learning Partnership annual conference

  • Deconstructing the ‘outstanding lesson’ — SIG members shared their work on coaching trios and analysed with attendees what makes an outstanding lesson, using a filmed Westwood School lesson
  • Rainbow learning — led by Coundon Court School — a workshop looking at accessing preferred learning styles in the classroom through colour
  • Pupils’ voice — led by Lyng Hall School — responding to survey findings on teaching and learning and exploring how the work can be developed to aid both staff and pupil development

Why is ownership so important? Educational changes that directly impact on the learning of pupils are difficult to achieve because they involve teachers at classroom level adopting new or additional resources and pedagogy, acquiring new knowledge, adopting new behaviours and modifying their beliefs and values. Michael Fullan implies that real change, whether desired or not, represents a serious and collective experience, characterised by ambivalence and uncertainty for the individuals involved. So much of the imposed informed prescription seems to have been deliberately created to avoid such ambivalence and uncertainty and has consequently remained at the edges of effective school improvement. Michael Fullan referred to this phenomenon as the implementation dip.

Focusing on system improvement
The idea that headteachers have to be almost as concerned about the success of other schools as they are about their own would have been unthinkable in the year that only 13% of Westwood School’s students achieved five or more A–C grade GCSEs. We are not there yet, but results and strategies are shared throughout the city’s two teaching and learning partnerships and, at the classroom- practitioner level, the collaboration across the school comes into its own.

However, there was some uncertainty developing about how much more improvement was actually possible or whether the school had reached its potential and was at a plateau. Michael Fullan believes that sustained improvement is not possible unless the whole system is moving forward:

And even more than that: they need to make sense not just of their own reality and work, to reconceive the system at the same time. (System thinkers in action: moving beyond the standards plateau, DfES, 2004).

Taking stock
Would this model of school improvement that is dedicated to developing effective teaching and learning in a collaborative culture have been enough to improve standards and reputations? The answer, I am afraid, is negative but, equally, without this key aspect, school improvement can prove to be short term and unsustainable.

Alongside this improvement, we have also developed effective systems and processes related to short-term and long-term management. We have a strategic plan with strategic intentions and priorities, and not just the ubiquitous annual action plan. Staff feel both responsible and accountable and share the vision for the school. The model of leadership is essentially distributed in both theory and practical day-to-day reality. All of these have worked with the IQEA model to bring about our whole-school improvement.

The key elements of the journey will remain in place but further improvements in achievement and attainment will only occur if plans for the regeneration of the area go ahead and we are able to continue to build our links and opportunities with the local community. The next stage has to be to build social capital.

Improvements in teaching and learning noted by Ofsted (2002)
1998                   

  • 90% satisfactory or better
  • 50% good or very good
  • 15% very good or better

2002

  • 98% satisfactory or better; some very good and excellent teaching across the majority of subjects
  • 70% good or better
  • 33% very good or excellent

Roger Whittall is Headteacher of The Westwood School, Coventry

Category: