School improvement can be a challenging aspect of primary headship. The first issue of our e-bulletin Primary Leadership Focus gives primary headteachers practical suggestions and takes a common sense approach to school improvement

My name is Jane Golightly and I am delighted to welcome you to a new fortnightly e-bulletin written especially for primary school leaders. Over the forthcoming months Primary Leadership Focus will offer information and inspiration for leaders of all experience. In each issue I will share with you my school improvement knowledge and experience gained from more than thirty years in primary education, with practical suggestions and a common sense approach, recognising the complexities of leading and managing primary schools today. I hope you find the e-bulletin informative, useful and supportive.

In our first issue
Schools may be ‘on the receiving end of more government regulations than any other public sector’ (TES, 31 October 2008), but at the core of every school’s business is school improvement. We work to ensure that each child succeeds as a learner and makes the best possible consistent progress in an environment that is engaging, safe, happy and a place children want to be.

So why is it that we start off the school year with a clear school improvement plan but other things get in the way? No matter how hard we try or what we do, there are times when things don’t work out the way we planned. This could be due to a variety of reasons. Perhaps you have staffing issues including key staff leaving, an increasing number of pupils with challenging and complex needs, or budget problems. Sometimes we don’t achieve our priorities because we are in established ways of working that may have run their course.

This first issue of Primary Leadership Focus will support you in identifying the obstacles to the delivery of your plan. We highlight some of the characteristics that underpin successful school improvement activity and provide a useful tool to support sound school improvement processes.

The school improvement calendar
The school year is punctuated by festivals, each one surrounded by its own specific activity and customs, providing a landmark point in the school calendar. I always think that school improvement and festivals have much in common. As a visitor to a school, you can define the point in a school year by the songs sung in singing practice, the displays celebrating school culture that welcome you as you enter the building and the list of events for parents and children highlighted on the school notice board. Similarly, you can identify the point in the school improvement year by the type of activity taking place.

Each term has its school improvement business. Autumn term sees us delving deeply into target-setting for individuals and cohorts of children and we agree what needs to happen in classrooms to ensure that children make good progress. In spring term we review the early impact of our work. Are we doing the right things? What do we need to do more of? What do we need to do less of? And what should we stop altogether? Summer term is the time for evaluating the impact of our school improvement activity throughout the year and planning for next year. Can we demonstrate impact, and was that impact strong enough?

So if we know what we have to do each term, why does it not work out the way we planned? I would love to say that there is a magic key for successful school improvement, but unfortunately this is not the case. It is not always easy to translate intention into action and sometimes we start with the best of intentions but lose our way at some point across the year. We spend a lot of time analysing: where did we go wrong? Why did we not achieve what we expected to? At these times it is useful to step back and, as a school, consider how you fit with the common characteristics of schools that sustain effective and efficient improvement.

The 20 question tool: supporting sound school improvement processes
The list below is not comprehensive and is in no particular order, but it will provide you with a starting point for identifying and agreeing what you do well, where there are gaps that you could fill and what might make that sought-after difference. Why not spend some time as a leadership team or school considering the list? Compare the statements with practice in your school, highlight those that you think need further discussion and plan the work to address these.

As a school, do we:

1. Know, understand and demonstrate our core business of improvement – is it everyone’s responsibility
2. Use every opportunity to talk and share school improvement such as: learning walls in classrooms, corridors, stairways and staffroom; newsletters; school councils; displays; celebrations of children’s work; governors’ communications with parents
3. Achieve transparency about school improvement work by communicating the priorities and progress towards them throughout the school year
4. Think creatively about how we share the effectiveness of our work with the school community on an ongoing basis
5. Invest time to ensure that improvement strategies are organised, planned and systematically and consistently applied
6. Pay attention to detail
7. Focus performance management for all staff on improving progress and outcomes for children
8. Stay focused on our vision for improvement, avoiding distraction from our goals
9. Have a headteacher who stays close to and involved in improvement activity across all phases
10. Have optimism about the improvement process and its outcomes
11. Demonstrate a commitment to moving forward
12. Have no fear of change
13. Recognise, believe in and celebrate success
14. Evaluate ruthlessly, learn from our mistakes and successes and move on
15. Invest human and financial resources in achieving our priorities
16. Feel prepared to take risks
17. Move from intention to action
18. Stay passionate about making a difference to children
19. Involve staff in classroom-based action research
20. Use professional development to enhance and support school improvement

To be successful, the above characteristics need to be underpinned by sound school improvement processes. A tried and tested programme which many schools are now embracing is the Improving Schools Programme (ISP) (previously known as the Intensifying Support Programme). Originally designed as an intervention programme in schools where standards and progress had to accelerate rapidly, the programme’s attraction is how quickly it demonstrated that schools could achieve sustainable improvement with consistent application of the core elements.

Above all, use quantitative and qualitative evidence to inform school self-review and set your priorities for improvement. Stay resolutely focused on achieving them throughout the year and you will be successful.

Find out more

  • The recently published Personalised learning – a practical guide can be downloaded from teachernet or ordered from DCSF publications Tel: 0845 60 222 60, Reference: 00844-2008DOM-EN. The document covers the key areas for improvement in most schools; you will find it particularly useful if you are in the process of evaluating your work in the development of personalising learning. Also there is helpful signposting of further resources to support your work.
  • Optimus Education publishes a comprehensive toolkit: Self-evaluation for school improvement, which is especially useful for embedding the self-evaluation process within your school and using it to raise levels of achievement.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2008

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