The first in a A-Z series examining important, but sometimes overlooked, aspects of your role in managing your school

It’s said that it is a sign of age when time seems to go too fast. But, surely I can’t be the only person who feels that this academic year is flying past. The summer term is particularly important because there is still time to make a difference for the children and at the same time you will be putting in place plans for the forthcoming year. But we mustn’t let this term progress without looking closely at what matters for the development of our schools. So, over this term I will be looking at the A-Z of school life and highlighting those aspects to which I think leadership should be paying close attention. I will be providing starter suggestions for each letter and focusing on one specific suggestion. There’s plenty more that can be added to each letter so why not get busy, add your own and then discuss with staff and governors?

A = attention to detail, attitudes, aspirations, attendance, approaches
You may be surprised that I have chosen to highlight attention to detail above the other suggestions in the ‘A’ list. But many schools have ongoing problems because of a lack of attention to detail whilst others are held in high regard because they are good at paying attention to detail. As an example of what I mean let’s consider what attention to detail means in terms of how you present your school to parents, visitors and children. The entrance says much about your school. When schools pay attention to detail they ensure that the entrance is welcoming, has a comfortable waiting area, provides information about the school and is used to celebrate learning. What you don’t find in these schools are tired entrances which have tatty and out-of-date displays, piles of stuff waiting for collection or to be put away, the sick bucket, dirty toys for pre-school children to play with and low and uncomfortable chairs for visitors. The entrance sets the tone of your school and tells anyone who wants to know the standard and expectations that they will find in the school. It’s rare that the high standard set in reception isn’t followed through in all aspects of school life. So, where standards in the reception area are good, policy and procedures are likely be in place and followed through. Parents, staff and children will know what is expected of them and what they can expect. They can be sure that things won’t be haphazard. These schools are well managed and well led. Communication within and beyond the school is good, parents are well informed, performance management arrangements are effective as is the policy for the recruitment, induction and retention of staff.

B = breaking bad habits, behaviour and behaviours
Breaking bad habits ties in well with attention to detail. Where you have attention to detail you generally don’t find a school with bad habits. It isn’t hard for schools to slip in to bad habits. But it can be hard to get rid of them. This requires determination, perseverance and a ‘never give up’ approach. Bad habits are one of the first things that new school leaders often encounter and then have to spend an enormous amount of time and energy breaking. How do they come about? Usually because the school leaders, for whatever reason, stop paying attention to detail, take their eye off the ball and fail to monitor what is happening in their school. Here are some of the most commonly seen bad habits:

  • Overlong collective worship/playtimes/singing time etc. Every extra ten minutes adds up to a lot of lost teaching time over the year.
  • A hit and miss approach to newsletters. This can be a major issue with parents who want to know what is happening in the school and have information about dates well in advance so they can make plans. Bad habits in communication are often the first things parents comment on to Ofsted.
  • Last-minute cancellation of teaching observations. Teachers usually regard observation as an important part of professional development. Cancellation, unless it absolutely cannot be avoided, gives the message that observation isn’t really important.
  • Slackness by staff in their teaching, including planning of lessons. Children deserve good teaching every day. If school leaders don’t keep on top of what is happening in classrooms through observations, work scrutiny, talking to children, learning walks and pupil progress meetings, satisfactory and possibly weak satisfactory teaching can become the accepted norm.
  • Staff meetings and professional development meetings which focus on low level activity and discussion. The time you spend together as a staff should be planned with the same detail as you give to all other parts of your work. It’s not a time to get lost in the mundane or to be frittered away but is a time to work together to improve expertise, knowledge and understanding.
  • Leadership which fails to monitor what’s going on in classrooms, around school and doesn’t take enough notice of the behaviours and attitudes of the staff. This is one of the worst bad habits in schools. The job of school leaders is to raise standards and you can only do this if you have good habits in monitoring the quality of learning and teaching. You need to be out and about, in classrooms, talking to staff and children before, during and after the school day and generally keeping your hands on the helm. As soon as the leader detaches him/herself from the everyday work of the school, things start to slip.

This and the following e-bulletins are all about holding a mirror up to your school and seeing what is good and what could be better. Use this term to tackle what needs to be done and your school will be in a much better position to bring about even greater improvement.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in April 2010

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