Sue Pidgeon, National Strategies primary senior regional adviser, and Karen Jarmany, National Strategies primary regional adviser, explain how the Intensifying Support Programme works to raise standards in low-attaining schools.

The Intensifying Support Programme (ISP) is the Primary National Strategies key programme targeted at supporting whole-school improvement within low-attaining schools. It focuses on children’s learning and the skills, knowledge and the understanding teachers need to enable children to make progress as learners.

ISP develops school-wide systems to raise standards and build sustainable improvements. It is designed to meet the professional development needs of staff, to sustain progress and support school self-evaluation. The programme involves the whole school community including governors, families, carers, children from Foundation Stage to Year 6, teaching assistants, mentors, teachers, school leadership teams and the local authority consultants and adviser.

At the 2007 Annual International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) colleagues from the Primary National Strategy (PNS) joined teachers, school leaders, researchers, policy makers and professionals from over 14 countries. The purpose of the congress was to share ideas, promote research and encourage practices that will improve the quality and equity of education for all students.

We took the opportunity to share the considerable body of knowledge about effective school improvement practices at school, local and national levels that has been built up through involvement in ISP. Our paper outlined the implementation and impact of the ISP and analysed the tensions between accountability for national outcomes and professional autonomy within school. We drew on experience and evidence from school, local authority and national levels including HMI evaluation, self-evaluation from participating schools and local authorities and independent evaluations commissioned during all stages of the programme’s development.

ISP: What is it?

ISP began in 2002 as a pilot in 13 local authorities and now operates in 94 as well as over 1,000 schools. Schools in the programme are often those in very challenging circumstances associated with high levels of social deprivation, pupil mobility and rapid staff turnover. The programme is linked to the public service agreement target to raise standards in English and maths so that by 2008, the proportion of schools in which fewer than 65% of pupils achieve level 4 or above is reduced by 40%.
ISP is based on the simple premise of bringing together all who work in the school, including local authority consultants and advisers, around a coordinated agenda with a single focus on improving outcomes for all children and accelerating progress in the context of a broad and rich curriculum.

Since the pilot, ISP schools have improved at a higher rate than national averages and sustained progress. External validation shows that the schools involved value the programme and make clear that the programme’s processes are robust.

ISP has supported schools to improve the learning, teaching and assessment of children’s progress. Evaluations confirm the effectiveness of the programme in strengthening leadership across the school, particularly the role of the subject leader.

‘It gave me the confidence to take responsibility for the things in my school.’ (subject leader)

‘Improvements in management and leadership were seen as a fundamental success for ISP.’ (NTU Evaluation 06)

It works where the leadership is willing and where local authority support and challenge is robust and aligned around the single focus, thus reducing the number of conflicting priorities or initiatives facing the headteacher. Ultimately the school has to make the programme their own, maintaining fidelity to the structures and processes while ensuring that the focus on learning and teaching meets the priorities that have been identified.

How does it work?
ISP is based on evidence of effective school improvement and is built around four inter-related key themes:

  • Raising attainment and accelerating progress focuses on developing leadership at all levels in the school and on the use of data from school to classroom. This includes assessment and pupil tracking to monitor progress, the identification of target pupil groupings, intervention support and review of impact.
  • Improving the quality of teaching and learning focuses on the identification of whole school-based key areas of learning and whole school-layered curricular targets. Professional development meetings provide support for the planning, teaching and assessing of children’s progress in relation to curricular targets and create opportunities for teachers to reflect on their own learning and teaching.
  • Improving the conditions for learning considers how the immediate physical environment supports learning through the use of, for example: working walls. Conditions also refer to the deployment of other adults to support pupils’ progress and building positive learning behaviours and relationships.
  • Developing the school as a professional learning community builds a collective responsibility for the progress of all children where all members of the community, including children, participate in continuing dialogue about learning.

The processes and the core tools of the programme draw on each theme and the programme uses a termly supported school improvement cycle (see diagram above).

The cycle begins with the audit of non-negotiables – a simple tool to establish the starting point for each school. This aligns with the evidence form, the school’s SEF, and is completed by the school leadership team with the local authority consultant and adviser. The outcomes of the audit establish the key priorities and actions in each of the themes. These then form the raising attainment plan (RAP).

The RAP is a short-term plan to address the priorities identified. It is aligned to the whole-school development plan and is linked to the four key themes to raise standards and accelerate progress in English and maths. The raising attainment plan acts as a map to support step by step success and is shared with all staff and governors. A key element within each RAP is the professional development meeting, that will act as an anchor for discussion of the whole-school priority.

Professional development meetings (PDMs) take place twice each term and address relevant strategies to support the achievement of identified curricular targets. PDMs support staff in reflecting on current practices and lead to individual actions in classrooms that impact on accelerated progress. They help to share effective practice and identify colleagues who need additional support or guidance in the classroom, that is put in place and evaluated before the RAP is reviewed at the end of term.
The RAP review meeting reviews the impact on pupil progress of the actions taken. It is led by the senior leadership team of the school and draws on the evidence from monitoring and evaluation of activities in the RAP. LA colleagues contribute to the review, supporting discussion and challenging judgements as appropriate.

Core tools of ISP

Pupil tracking and pupil progress meetings are at the heart of the programme. ISP makes use of a simple pupil tracking system. The tracking system is used at whole-school and classroom level and supports continued discussion about pupil progress. This is achieved by using assessment data to identify where individuals and groups are in relation to national age-related expectations, and by identifying ‘target groups’ based on prior attainment that can make accelerated progress towards age-related expectations. The tracking system also supports provision mapping of appropriate interventions.

Pupil progress meetings use information from the tracking system and day-to-day teacher assessment to discuss the progress of groups or individuals. The meetings identify successes and factors that need to be addressed to support pupil progress. They encourage all staff to reflect on the impact their actions have had on children’s learning. Evidence from pupil progress meetings feeds back to the review of the raising attainment plan and, in some schools, is linked to performance management.
‘Schools involved in ISP have had their institutional self-esteem raised. The teachers reported that they enjoyed working in these schools. They felt as though they have been given responsibility to “raise standards” and have accepted that responsibility.’ (NTU Evaluation April 2006)

Accountability and autonomy

Balancing the requirements for public accountability and the need for schools to take on the programme and make it their own has been an important area for discussion and learning.

The evaluations of the programme reflect on the need to retain the key elements of the cycle and the core tools and also identify the importance of building capacity by ensuring understanding of the rationale for the programme and take up of changes to practice and thinking about children’s progress. Coaching forms an important element of the support for teachers as continuing professional development is tailored to meet their needs and those of the  learners. Networking within and across schools in the programme is designed to share practice, discuss barriers to progress and encourage action research within regional hubs. Children are involved in evaluating and reflecting on their learning, feeding back into the evaluation of the impact of the programme.

ISP supports the New Relationship with Schools, including the involvement of the school improvement partner, in identifying priorities, building the capacity of schools to drive their own improvement, make informed use of data and developing whole-school accountability for progress. Schools have welcomed the additional support from local authorities to reach the targets for which they are accountable.