Jane Golightly discusses how to make sure that your educational establishment makes a difference in your pupils lives

Sometimes a headline catches your eye and imagination. Recently I was glancing through the Times Educational Supplement and was struck by the headline on page 28, ‘How much difference can schools really make?’ (23 October 2009). Immediately I was transported back more years than I wish to remember to my first week at Teachers’ Training College. In a hall packed with students the college principal asked the very same question. At that time my view of education was based on my own stable but narrow experience of one primary school and one secondary school. Move the clock forward four years and when the same question was asked at graduation my view was rather different. More mature and with a rich variety of teaching practices behind me, some more challenging than others, I had learned that schools are in a position to make a real difference to life chances for children. Keep moving the clock on and years later I remain convinced that schools definitely do make a difference. What happens for children every day does matter and remains the reason why we continue to strive to give children the best possible experiences of education.

So, what do we need to do in our schools to make a difference?
In all e-bulletins this term I have been urging readers to identify the right priorities for the school and to stay on track to achieve them. We set the priorities because we want to continue to improve so that we can be sure that what we do will be even better for children. Now we are well into the term I am hoping that there are no butterflies emerging. What do I mean? Even at this early stage of the academic year there will be some schools that have already become distracted from their priorities. The consequence of this is that they will not achieve what they set out to achieve. Like the young child in the foundation stage who ‘butterflies’ from one activity to the other without really engaging with anything in depth, parallels can be seen in schools that don’t sustain energy or engagement in addressing their priorities. At the foundation stage, staff members know how to support a butterfly. School leaders should be very concerned if the butterfly approach to school improvement is making an appearance or – even more dangerous – is already in place. Now is the time to take action quickly so that you can be sure that your work will make a difference.

Over the years I have visited many schools across the country, rural and urban, large and small and I have observed common elements to those that successfully make a difference for children. In these schools, irrespective of role, everyone talks about children and families; what they have done, what they are doing now and what their plans are for the future. Yes, I know it seems obvious but it isn’t always the case. Sometimes, and thankfully not too often, people seem rather grumpy and find it difficult to smile or say hello! But, in schools that are making a difference they don’t have a hit and miss approach to improvement. They are good at planning and priority-setting based on evidence; butterflies are only allowed in the school grounds. They stay focused and evaluate what they do. And, if what they are doing is not giving the results they expect then these schools are prepared to rethink and change tack. This isn’t done on a whim but is a well thought-through decision.

But the feature that makes the biggest difference in the work that is done in these schools could be summed up by Gordon Strachan’s comments as he took over as manager at Middlesbrough Football Club, ‘It’s got to be about their actions and not my words’ (The Guardian, 27 October 2009). Gordon Strachan may be referring to his football team but for you as school leaders this means the actions of the leadership team, all staff, governors, children, families and the community.

Sharing a common language
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could be sure that everyone’s actions showed your school’s commitment to making a difference for children? I know that this isn’t easy to achieve and you will know where the weak spots are in your school and where more work is needed for people to see the part they have to play and their responsibilities. Keeping your message uncomplicated and straightforward will make it easy for everyone to do their job well. Start by ensuring a common language so that people understand their contribution, starting with these key areas:

  • Improving learning and teaching
  • Closing the gap
  • Personalisation of learning
  • Every Child Matters
  • High expectations

Perhaps the next time you meet with lunchtime supervisors you could talk to them about their contribution to learning and teaching. Have you ever made explicit to them the importance of their role? When children feel safe at lunchtime, have fun, eat a healthy lunch, they come back to class ready to engage in learning. The lunchtime team are key people in ensuring that lunchtime is a positive experience for all children. Do they see themselves – and do others see them – as staff who make a difference?

So, making a difference for children has to be about what children and families experience in your school every day. Everyone has to be an active contributor to making sure that school is a place where children are supported to grow and be successful learners in a secure and stimulating environment, experience great learning and teaching, be valued for themselves, know that it is OK to make mistakes, have fun and if things aren’t going well for them know that there are people who care about what happens to them.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2009

About the author: Jane Golightly has written extensively on school improvement and has more than 30 years experience in primary education