In this e-bulletin we consider the pressure for schools to produce better results year on year, and the alternative approaches and strategies that can be taken to try and achieve it

We are entering the ‘mad season’ in secondary schools. This is a time when all eyes are focused on year 11 and the much-anticipated end-of-year results. By this period in the year schools will have collected a wealth of data on each student and will be able to identify precisely where they are falling short in each subject area. This data is scrutinised almost daily, with headteachers getting twitchy if there is a sudden drop in predicted standards. The old football saying that ‘you’re only as good as your last game’ seems to be the mantra in schools now with ‘game’ being replaced with ‘set of results’.

The current educational climate places a high premium on standards, most noticeably with the new Ofsted framework and the need to address the ‘narrowing the gap’ agenda. This obsession with always improving standards will have an impact on all schools and fuel much debate about how to do it. Do you opt for a raft of interventions designed to ensure exam success or adopt a longer-term strategy designed to build capacity?

The case for intervention
There is no escaping the fact that standards are crucial to a school’s reputation. They feature prominently in the media and through Ofsted inspection reports. Headteachers know that they cannot afford a ‘dip’ in performance because there could be serious repercussions, not least the spectre of ‘Notice to Improve’ or ‘Special Measures’.

Interventions can come in many forms and need to be chosen carefully to suit the needs of the students. Example strategies include:

  • removal from lessons where the student is under-performing to commit extra time to a subject in which they have more chance of success
  • removal from lessons to spend more time on English and maths
  • coursework catch-up sessions (half or full-day)
  • use of sixth form students as mentors
  • additional time allocated to maths and English through one-to-one tuition
  • compulsory revision sessions
  • early entry for core subjects.

All of these strategies have a place, however I believe there is a danger in becoming over-reliant on them. Once they have been used to good effect there is a need to do the same the next year and the year after that, as it is inconceivable that standards could drop. Is this what most of us had in mind when we entered teaching because we wanted to make a difference?

The case for building capacity
The core business of schools is teaching and learning and this is where we must focus efforts if we are to make significant differences over time. High-quality lessons where teachers differentiate work effectively and plan learning activities that engage and inspire students is where time needs to be spent. The problem is that this does not happen overnight, but is essential to long-term improvement.

In order to bring about the necessary changes that lead to a sustainable rise in standards we must look to our Continuing Professional Development (CPD) strategy and target our actions accordingly.

There is an easy three-step process that can be used for this:

1. Collect appropriate data and evidence on teaching and learning within the school. This can be done through:a. lesson observationsb. student interviewsc. department reviews

d. data analysis

2. Analysis of all the available data should identify teaching and learning priorities

3. Design appropriate CPD strategies to tackle the key priorities
a. there is a need to consider the support required to secure a shift in the practice of a teacher.

Successful schools tend to focus on a small number of priorities and commit to doing them well rather than tackling a multitude of areas and making superficial progress. The same is true when trying to improve teaching and learning.

In my school we identified ‘questioning’ as the key priority for improvement with the need for more interactive tasks a close second. Questioning became the focus for whole-school training whilst each department was given the responsibility of developing the second target area. It is my belief that each school has the solution to their own problems; the onus is therefore on senior leaders to create time, space and the right conditions for solutions to emerge. For us this involved devoting extensive time for staff to engage in professional conversations within departments and across departments often stimulated by a relevant piece of research or academic think piece.

After six months the staff would have happily given up on this strategy as they found it difficult with little evidence of progress, however two years later the real benefits are starting to emerge. The quality of lessons has improved, student behaviour is much better and standards are rising significantly. That said we are still using some interventions – you can never be too sure!

This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2010

About the author: Kieran McGrane and the leadership team at Bedlingtonshire Community High School, Northumberland