Ruth Bradbury explains why it is vital to create development plans for support staff in schools, and outlines a range of practical measures to make the process more manageable in your own school.

For schools, long- and medium-term strategic planning is extremely important to ensure that they identify, anticipate and prepare for change, and that they maintain a culture of continuous self-review and improvement. In keeping with this, all schools are required to go through an annual self-evaluation and improvement planning cycle in which the headteacher and leadership team evaluate the school’s performance in key areas. From this, they should identify a number of aims and objectives for development and specify how they will act to achieve these. This should then form the basis of the school improvement plan (SIP).

Whilst the improvement planning process at leadership level is crucial for setting vision and direction, on its own it is often not enough to ensure that strategic plans are converted into real actions and real change. Especially in larger organisations, there is a danger that production of high-level strategic plans may exist simply as a paper exercise, especially if they are not publicised or accessible to the main body of school staff. In order to become a fully effective ‘live’ process, therefore, school improvement planning needs to be cascaded downwards to departments and teams within the school and – in turn – to the aims and development objectives of individual staff members.

In many schools, this process is already established for teaching departments and teaching staff through a requirement for departmental development plans in each teaching area which are linked to the objectives of the school improvement plan, and for individual performance management objectives which reflect departmental and/or whole-school plans. However, at present it is relatively rare for this kind of process to be replicated for school support staff teams. Bearing in mind the recent and ongoing expansion of school support staff functions and numbers, and their increasing involvement and influence in school management and performance, I would argue that it would be potentially detrimental to school progress if this were to remain the case. In the remainder of this article, therefore, I will look at some practical ways in which support staff teams can become full participants in the improvement planning and implementation process.

The role of support staff in school improvement

There are two clear arguments for ensuring that support staff are fully integrated into the school improvement planning process:

  • Firstly, the growth of student-focused roles such as cover supervisors or pastoral managers, together with established ones such as teaching assistants, means that an increasing number of school support staff have a direct impact on the quality of teaching and learning in the school.
  • Secondly, whilst many other support staff may not be on the ‘front line’ as far as student contact is concerned, their focus and purpose should still be firmly linked to the core business of the school. For example, premises staff such as caretakers should see their role as providing the most appropriate environment for learning; and administrative roles should be defined in terms of the support that they provide for teaching staff and/or students.

There is no doubt in my mind that all support staff can and should have a part to play in the development of high-quality learning and support for young people, and that this should be recognised by and included in the strategic planning process.

The level at which support staff improvement plans can operate will depend upon the size and complexity of your school, and the staffing structure which you currently have in place. In a small primary school, it would probably be appropriate to have one development plan encompassing all support staff roles. In a larger primary or small secondary school it may be more suitable to have three plans in place:

  • one for classroom support
  • one for infrastructure – eg premises and ICT
  • one relating to administration.

In a larger secondary school, especially one with a support staff team structure and a degree of middle management responsibility for team leaders, it would probably be most appropriate to have a development plan for each separate team.

Identifying development planning priorities

The first stage in any improvement planning process is – logically enough – the identification of key areas for development. As a general rule, the more methods that you use to identify these, the more comprehensive and relevant your development planning will be. Nevertheless, it is recommended that you put a time limit on this information-gathering stage of the planning process, if only to ensure that you don’t get bogged down in research and analysis at the expense of action. This said, this stage of the process is crucial for identifying the main focus areas, and can be undertaken as follows.

1. Refer to whole-school improvement plans

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, all schools should undergo an annual self-evaluation process which culminates in the completion of a Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) which is submitted online to Ofsted. The categories defined in the SEF are as follows:

  • Achievement and Standards
  • Personal Development and Wellbeing
  • Quality of Provision
  • Leadership and Management
  • Overall Effectiveness and Efficiency.

The SEF form requests answers to a number of questions on each of these areas, and then asks the school to identify its key priorities for development. It is these priorities which should be taken into account when drawing up development plans for support staff areas. For example, if the ‘Achievement and Standards’ section identifies the use and evaluation of student performance data as a key priority for improvement, then the development plan for the administrative support team could include the introduction of clerical support for data entry and analysis. Similarly, if the ‘Quality of Provision’ section highlights a desire to improve the integration of ICT into teaching and learning, then your IT support development plan could (funds permitting of course) include the purchase and installation of interactive whiteboards in classrooms together with the provision of training sessions for staff in their use. If you have not been provided with a copy of your school’s Self-Evaluation Form, then request this from your headteacher.

Another important document to inform your development planning will be the school improvement plan (SIP). In most schools, the self-evaluation and SIP processes will be linked. However, it is possible that there will be additional priorities identified for improvement which are not necessarily included within the self-evaluation form, either because they do not fit easily with its categories or because they are not considered significant enough to be identified as ‘key’ priorities in the context of the SEF. There is no specific reference to premises developments in the SEF, for example, and although many schools may include these in the ‘Leadership and Management’ section, others may not. You should, therefore, make sure that you review the SIP to identify any additional whole-school aims and objectives which should inform support and infrastructure development plans.

2. Survey the teaching staff

Whilst the SEF and school improvement planning process will give you information on whole-school initiatives which will require support, they are unlikely to provide you with sufficient detail in terms of areas for improvement in the day-to-day functioning of support staff teams. Also, from a customer service perspective, it is important to gain an understanding of how your main customers (ie the teaching staff) view the service you provide, and what they define as the main areas for development.

Questionnaire-style customer surveys are a tried and tested method of gaining this kind of overview and can be extremely valuable in informing future practice. The format of the questionnaire will be up to you, and will depend on the structure and nature of your support staff provision. However, the proportion returned will be higher and the analysis of results will be more straightforward if you use predominantly closed questions (choice of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers only) with additional spaces for written comments at the end of the questionnaire. Areas covered in the survey could include:

  • responsiveness of staff
  • levels of overall customer service
  • promptness of service
  • quality of work
  • ratings on a scale of 1-10 of the support for teaching and learning.

Once surveys are returned, key outcomes should be identified and noted for inclusion within development plans.

3. Lead support staff team discussions

It is vital to get external views of the service provided by support staff as outlined above, but internal views of the support staff themselves are also important – not only because they have valuable day-to-day knowledge and experience of the work that they do, but also because it gives you the opportunity to encourage staff to review their own work and to reflect on what they do, and to give them a sense of ownership of the development of their own working practices.

I would, therefore, suggest that you create an opportunity for support staff to get together and discuss some of the issues around the service that they provide. At the very least, this could be a team meeting at the end of the school day. If possible, however, a designated development/ support staff conference session in an off-site location would be the ideal method, as this will send a message to staff that their contribution is valued. Providing refreshments will also reinforce this message!

You can be creative with the content of such a session, but some suggestions for an effective session are outlined below:

  • Start with an ice-breaking activity, as this will loosen people up and set the scene for open discussion. You may well have an idea of a suitable activity to use (maybe something that you yourself have participated in on a course), or you can find one from a number of online resources, including www.funattic.com/game_icebreaker.htm or www.wilderdom.com/games/Icebreakers.html.
  • Set the context for the event by giving a 10-minute presentation on the school and its current development objectives (referring to the Self-Evaluation Form and school improvement plan as appropriate). Take the opportunity to emphasise the role of support staff in supporting all areas of school improvement, and also to congratulate the staff on their current commitment and contributions in this area. If possible, invite the headteacher or another leadership team representative to contribute at this point as well – this will reinforce to staff that they are valued by the school management and that their input is valued and viewed as important.
  • Ask staff to focus on their own understanding of excellent service as they have experienced it themselves – on holiday, for example, or in a supermarket. Either in groups or as a whole team (depending on the number of staff involved) identify the key characteristics of excellent service. Lead a discussion about these, and about how they may apply in a school context.
  • In a similar exercise, ask the group or groups to identify what they feel their key purpose is within the school structure. Then ask them to consider honestly whether they feel that they are currently delivering the best service that they can and – if not – where they see areas for potential improvement. Get teams to identify the four or five things that are most important for them to develop, and then to identify how they could improve in those areas. If there are barriers to development, ask them to identify these and to consider methods of overcoming them. If you have been through a teaching staff survey process, then this is the time to introduce the outcomes of those surveys in appropriate way – although it is important to ensure that any over-critical or demoralising aspects are presented diplomatically as challenges rather than outright criticisms.
  • Make sure that the event does not simply turn into a ‘moaning shop’, but nevertheless try to give staff the opportunity to get any frustrations out of their systems. Schools can be difficult places to work: the environment is often rushed and pressurised, and some support staff (rightly or wrongly) still may feel that they are regarded as ‘second-class citizens’. A chance to offload some of their dissatisfaction and feel that they are listened to may well clear the air and put people in a better frame of mind to discuss future development.

4. Draft a development plan

Once you have taken into account the whole-school improvement plans, the views of teaching staff and the perceptions of support staff, it is time to review the responses, identify key areas for development and gather them together into an overall action plan. This plan should include clearly-stated objectives for each area of the support staff and school infrastructure, together with a list of identified actions to be taken in order to achieve those objectives.

It is also important to ensure that realistic timescales are included in the plan, and that responsibility for the implementation of actions is assigned to named individuals. Finally, any resources required to implement the plan should also be assessed and included – these will include not only financial and physical resources, but also staff time and/or support and collaboration from other quarters, eg teaching staff or the school leadership team.

For example, the teaching staff survey may have identified difficulties with the physical condition of some teaching rooms and a lack of responsiveness to requests for repairs and maintenance. This could be translated into development plan objectives and actions.

This process should then be repeated for each identified objective for each area of the support staff. To ensure that the process is manageable and that focus is maintained, I wouldn’t recommend that an initial plan have more than four or five key objectives for each support staff area. However, as the process becomes more familiar and as the reviewing and monitoring aspects become embedded, there will always be the opportunity to expand and modify development plans.

Making it happen

Whilst the production of development plans is the end of one process, it is of course only the beginning of another – the implementation stage, which is where the genuine impact on the school will take place. Once plans are written up, it is vital to maintain the impetus through to implementation, and some ways of ensuring that this happens are outlined below.

Publicise the plans

If support staff development plans are published within the school, it will not only reassure teaching staff that their input in the survey has been noted and acted upon, it will also mean that the content of the plans will become common knowledge. This may be a high-risk strategy in some respects – problems with delivery could become very public failures – but it will also up the stakes for the support staff team in terms of motivation to implement their plans. If whole-school publication is not felt to be appropriate, then a presentation to the leadership team could be a means of achieving a level of publicity without making staff feel quite so exposed.

Review progress regularly

Make sure that you sit down with key members of the support staff on a regular basis to review progress against the plan. This should include monitoring of actions and outcomes against proposed timescales, and discussion of any unforeseen difficulties or alterations to the original plan. If necessary, a revised plan should be drafted – if implementation has deviated a long way from the original scheme, then this should definitely be done to avoid the plan becoming meaningless. If proposed actions have not taken place, then it is the business manager’s role to ascertain why they have not taken place and to ensure that revised activities and/or timescales are allocated.

Incorporate into individual performance review

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, one way of reinforcing the content of organisational plans is to translate their objectives into the individual performance targets. Whether or not you have a formal performance management in place for support staff, good practice would dictate that you should have some form of regular review discussions. If you include written performance objectives, then it is a good idea to make some reference to the development plan, whether general (eg ‘implement the relevant aspects of the support staff development plan’) or specific (eg ‘develop a high-quality and responsive repairs and maintenance system’). This will ensure that personal objectives are linked to team and organisational objectives.

Review and update the plan

Development plans are ‘live’ documents and should never be regarded as completed. It is good practice, therefore, to review and update the plan as the year progresses, but also to redraft the document completely on a regular basis – probably every one or two years, depending on the timescales of the objectives and actions contained within the plan. In doing so, the processes described in this article – reference to whole-school plans, staff surveys, support staff views and contributions – should be revisited either in full or in part. Whilst it is appreciated that time constraints may come into play here, I cannot stress strongly enough the benefits of incorporating these kind of aspects into the planning process. Support staff and infrastructure teams exist ultimately to support the development, improvement and activity of the whole school, and it is therefore crucial that input from the whole school informs and shapes the future development of those teams.

Ruth Bradbury is assistant headteacher (resources) at Westhoughton High School in Bolton.

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