Josephine Smith and Paul Ainsworth describe how school financial managers can contribute to school improvement by becoming involved in class observation and work scrutiny
Financial managers in schools, especially those aspiring to be leaders, now play an increasing part in every aspect of whole-school management. The growing tendency for financial managers to be part of a school’s senior management team means school administration and financial strategy can no longer be separated from the day-to-day business of a school, which is generally seen as providing young people with the chance to develop and achieve both inside and outside the classroom. In this article we will explore this classroom dimension in more detail.
Managing improvement inside the classroom
The National College of School Leadership (NCSL) recognised the growing strategic role of finance managers in schools by developing the Diploma of School Business Management (DSBM), a course that was first piloted in September 2003. The course, aimed at experienced bursars, encourages applications from school financial managers who are either a member of their school senior management team, or working closely with them. The content of the programme focuses on the following areas:
- change management
- managing school improvement
- strategic management.
The NCSL are now up to cohort five with over 500 successful graduates so far and a further 300 places will be available for 2007-08. In our view managing school improvement and strategic management cannot be separated from an awareness and understanding of how classroom practice can be continually improved. Considering students spend roughly six hours a day inside classrooms, a key role for financial managers must surely be having a sharp awareness of just how successful students are during this time, the quality of work they are producing and the effectiveness of a school’s most expensive resource: its teaching staff. This article considers the practical steps a financial manager might take to contribute to school improvement by becoming involved in classroom observation to improve teaching and learning, and how they might gain a more concrete understanding of what student success looks like through work scrutiny.
The challenge facing all senior leaders is how to ensure that high-quality teaching and learning regularly occurs in every classroom of their school. One response to this is a cycle of lesson observations of the staff by the senior management team. However senior management observations are presented to the staff, many teachers feel under pressure and believe the aim of the observer is purely to discover weaknesses in their teaching. Many teachers consequently spend hours planning their best lesson of the year. The result? The observer sees a fantastic lesson, the observer goes away reassured but the teacher’s practice doesn’t necessarily improve. And you should expect even the most successful and experienced classroom practitioner to feel nervous at your presence.
The obvious way to improve the teaching is by the observer providing thoughtful ideas for development. This places an onus on the observer to keep up to date with the latest best practice. You may not feel well qualified to make these judgements until you have observed several lessons of varying styles with a more experienced observer. In our previous article we mentioned the teacher mentor, a person who you might find useful in this instance. Remember, though, that your teacher colleagues on the senior team will often be carrying out observations outside their subject specialism and there is plenty of good advice available on what makes a lesson excellent, good, satisfactory or unsatisfactory (according to school policy and Ofsted criteria). The DFES publication Sustaining Improvement is a useful example.
An additional resource that might prove helpful to aid understanding of individual teachers’ experience and development in the classroom is Teachers’ Standards Framework. Teachers can use it to identify their learning and development needs, be it to improve their existing roles or to enhance their career prospects. It can be ordered in poster form via the Teachernet publications website. As well as personal development, the framework takes into account the growing need for leadership skills, team teaching, coaching and mentoring, new teaching developments, the possibilities of ICT and how to develop education beyond the classroom. It allows you to view the 10 dimensions of teaching and leadership and see how expectations in each dimension change between the different standards. It also shows the potential roles available in teaching that might also be of interest to you as a financial manager who has not arrived on the school management team through the teaching route.
So how can observation evidence be used to improve teaching? There are at least four possibilities:
- If excellent ideas, methods or lessons are observed, your school might use staff meeting time to share good practice through a teaching workshop.
- Your school might have someone who produces a staff newsletter with articles written by teachers about lessons that have worked really well.
- A subject leader or senior manager might read through a series of observations, and if the same problem is continually noted, or a common aspect absent from lessons identified, then your school might arrange in-service training on that subject. Staff could cascade training gleaned from an outside course provider.
- If you are trying to develop a number of specific strategies in your school, staff will need to understand that the lesson observation will have these foci. This allows you to determine how effectively an initiative is being implemented and identify good practice, which can then be shared.
Many staff at all levels agree that observations can be used in very different ways to improve teaching and learning if we move away from those conducted by senior management. Peer observation and coaching observation are two such opportunities.
This is where the senior team create opportunities for colleagues to observe each other. In this situation the observer should also be learning by seeing new methods and techniques in action. This can invigorate the staffroom in a much more cost-effective way than sending teachers on often expensive courses. School managers need to be prepared to provide cover to allow this process to occur.
This is also a successful strategy that has probably been introduced at your school. One method of using coaching in teaching is to identify strengths among your teachers, ie using interactive whiteboards or classroom management. A teacher who wants to improve their interactive whiteboard use will then work with the coach whose specialism is in this area to plan a lesson. The coach then observes the lesson and provides feedback. In this situation the teacher being observed will improve their practice. School managers need to cover the lesson of the coach so they can work with the teacher in advance, and then observe the lesson. These methods are very cost-effective and are rooted in sharing good practice. They could also have the knock-on effect of bringing the staff together and improving staff morale at the same time.
As has already been identified you may be concerned that by not being a teacher you should not be part of the school’s lesson observation process. However, this background could actually give your feedback real benefit to the school. For example, within an Ofsted inspection team there has previously been a lay inspector who is not a qualified teacher. Your observations may identify different issues from a qualified teacher but that makes them no less pertinent. Furthermore, in many schools the governors will have a rolling programme of department observation with the aim of building the knowledge of the governor linked to certain curriculum areas. Governors are always informed that they should not be making conclusions on the quality of teaching and learning and this should not be discussed in any reports produced. However, it is only human nature that such value judgements are made. You may spot similar issues to a governor and your discussion after the lesson may be useful in a teacher then being able to verbalise the rationale and benefits of the lesson. Your classroom observations can, therefore, perform a number of useful functions for the school:
- The senior leadership team’s ability to self-evaluate teaching is increased.
- Your perspective as a non-teacher can provide feedback with a different perspective and this can support teachers when they are observed by those with different backgrounds.
- You will develop valuable knowledge which will enable you to conduct your role of school business manager more effectively.
The findings from observation and self-evaluation can be very valuable for the school business manager in working with the CPD coordinator in setting CPD budgets and getting best value from these monies. The best organisations take great care over their use of training budgets. However, sometimes in schools if the budget is tight there can be a tendency to cut the training budget first. By being part of the evaluation system the school business manager will have a greater understanding of the importance of certain training issues for the school’s improvement and hence their priority when helping the headteacher in setting the school budget. It can also be very valuable for the school business manager to see how resources are used in the classroom to aid teaching and learning. This can give vital knowledge to be used when setting budgets. For instance, in one school neither the headteacher or school business manager perceived that installing interactive whiteboards in a secondary school environment was necessary and hence concluded that these were an expensive luxury. However, if the school business manager had seen the quality an interactive whiteboard could bring to lessons they then may have begun to consider where their purchase could have been funded from.
On a different scale is the consideration of department capitation. Departments receive varying levels of funding. In some cases the logic behind this is transparent but in other cases it is less obvious. During a lesson observation the school business manager will see these resources being used in practice and this will give them further understanding as why each department’s capitation is different. In addition, the business manager may be able to give feedback on how the resources could be used most cost effectively. An obvious example could be in the debate between photocopying and purchasing a textbook. The business manager may conclude it is more cost effective to increase the level of funding for a department for a single year to purchase textbooks, with the agreement with the department that funding would be reduced in the future as the quantity of photocopying would be correspondingly reduced. In addition, the business manager may observe there are items that a department has purchased which are sat idle in the classroom. The business manager could discuss with the department why this is the case. It could have been a lack of planning as to how the resource could be best used. In future, when the department’s leaders bid for additional items, the business manager would be more able to assess whether the department leader had thought through how the resource could be best utilised. In some circumstance the business manager may suggest this is done in more detail before the product is purchased. At this point the department leader may realise it is not an efficient purchase and decide they do not actually need it. Or they may integrate the resource more carefully in schemes of work so it will be well used once the order is made.
As well as observing teachers, another part of the process is to consider the outputs of the students. Traditionally this may have been called a book check in your school but more up-to-date thinking acknowledges that the progress demonstrated by students is not only in exercise books. A better term would be ‘student work scrutiny’. This could take into account work in folders, pictures, three-dimensional models, computer files and even audio or film records. Taking account of these less concrete representations does, however, make scrutiny ever more complex. Initially subjects such as PE or drama may not be included in this work scrutiny but instead looked at through lesson observation and student focus groups. In these subjects, senior leaders are often aware of the product through results on the sports pitches or performances on the stage. In reality, work scrutiny is more importantly about the quality of the students’ and teachers’ output and not the quantity. The senior leadership team needs to decide upon the work scrutiny sample. In bigger schools a single department may be considered on a rolling programme. In smaller departments consisting of one or two colleagues, a valuable and, in our experience, fascinating work scrutiny is to look at a particular year group. A good sample could be six students, two high ability, two middle ability and two low ability students. If the school is mixed, aim for three boys and three girls. If this is too onerous for the size of the senior team then consider three students. As a finance manager, assisting in work scrutiny will instantly give you a sense of what students are doing inside the classroom and the differing levels of ability among students in your particular school. In terms of assessment the senior team should be looking for consistency in using the school’s assessment policy and the use of assessment for learning techniques. It may be useful to have a grid or a list of questions, which are considered for each subject. This could include:
- Is the student making progress over the year?
- What is the quality of presentation?
- Are there opportunities for extended writing?
- Are there a variety of activities so students can use different learning styles?
- Is there evidence of differentiation for students of different abilities?
- Is homework being regularly set (in line with school policy)?
- Does homework aid the learning process?
If you are involved in drawing conclusions from what you see there are certain things you might be sure to look out for. There may be a concern that students are receiving too didactic a delivery in one subject area. In a single lesson observation the teacher may do something different, but by considering the results of a student focus group and the work in books it may become clear that an original concern was well founded. There could also be a concern that students are not challenged enough by a teacher, even they may receive favourable comments in a student focus group. However, if the lesson observation and the work scrutiny indicate otherwise this could highlight a training issue for this colleague. With any type of self-evaluation, the senior leadership team shouldn’t use the gathered evidence as a stick but should consider how the school needs to develop, either through whole school training and development planning, or changing individual colleagues’ practice so it becomes more effective. The challenge for any senior leadership team is to ensure that everybody in their school reaches their full potential – students and teachers alike. The school business manager can have a key role in assisting with the work scrutiny and that is in providing the view of the non-teacher. Assessment often has two audiences, that of the student and the parent. Often, in senior leadership team meetings, discussions are held as to what information a parent may need. Teachers can be so steeped in jargon they can find this difficult to judge. In such instances the business manager’s view can be useful in improving the quality of assessment.
The school financial manager role is a special one in that it clearly combines sound financial and administrative management with a responsibility to make appropriate decisions that will impact on individual student success and achievement. Ensuring the most effective use of all school resources and being able to judge first-hand when this is happening inside the classroom is essential to supporting teaching and learning. For this reason we feel it is essential that monitoring at the classroom level is an essential function of any finance manager in today’s schools.
Josephine Smith is the director of Key Stage 4 and a member of the extended senior team at Casterton Business and Enterprise College
Paul Ainsworth is the deputy head at Belvoir High School