A couple of weeks ago I tweeted a short thread about CPD and school improvement at Lodge Park Academy. I followed it up with a tweet about the poster above and how pleased I was teachers seemed to be using it.
The thread and tweet got more attention than I had thought they would and I had requests for for a blog post on how it all hangs together.
This is it – but before going on it’s worth emphasising the principles behind this strategy are more important than the strategy itself.
I’ve put the principles sitting behind what we do in bold type.
Principle 1: The best people to solve problems are usually those closest to them.
At Lodge Park we only set one school wide step at a time and we encourage departments to make it subject specific. They also set completely specific action steps based on their own priorities. We are open to being convinced a schoolwide action step has no utility for a specific department. When this is the case we allow the department to opt out of the particular cycle.
We are very aware of the danger of generic strategy and we try to mitigate against them.
This post is only about our school wide action steps – if you’re reading this and want to know more about departmental steps please get in touch and I’ll point you towards the right people.
Principle 2: People work best when they are focused on limited number of things at one time.
We begin with conversations about what one specific thing would have the highest impact on the learning of our students if we were all doing it.
We know this will be a compromise but think the benefits of us all working effortfully on one thing outweigh the negatives of everyone doing their own thing with no centralisation at all.
These conversations are journalistic to begin with – based on what leaders think are priorities.
Usually these are about what persistent problems we are facing and which of these would have highest impact if we solved it.
Once we have a range of problems we discuss them at SLT meetings and try to formulate action steps that might resolve then – sharing our evidence base for the opinions we have and challenging each other. We have loads of informal conversations about we’re thinking too– with SLT, leaders, teachers and our pastoral team – checking whether any emerging conclusions are out of whack with our reservoir of professional and contextual expertise.
Principle 3: Certainty is impossible but we can make better bets by looking at lots of evidence before making decisions.
The aim of all this isn’t to arrive at certainty – in low validity research fields this is quixotic.
We’re just aiming to make the best bet we can – what single thing would make the biggest difference if we all did it well?
More than a year and a half ago we decided the single biggest school wide improvement we could make was around Means of Participation – we wanted every student to know exactly what they should be doing for every minute of every lesson.
Principle 4: Solutions to persistent problems will not just be found in our school.
Once we’ve decided on what to work at we go out to find the best possible work we can on this specific problem.
We know we don’t have all the expertise we need to solve our problems.
Principle 5: We show what we care about through making time for it and using that time well
We use the work of others and our own knowledge to plan training on the action step.
This usually means a presentation, some opportunities for practice and the sharing of our research base for those who want to go further than the headline messages. All materials are sent through our weekly bulletin so they can be accessed for people who weren’t present during the training or want reminders.
Time is then given to departments to personalise the training and make it subject specific.
After this SLT meet with the departments they link with to help the subject leader make the school set action step department and subject specific through exemplification and training, and to decide on how progress against it will be quality assured.
Principle 6: To really understand what is going on in a school you need honesty and people aren’t honest when they’re scared.
Next the Head of Department and SLT link plan appropriate quality assurance for all agreed departmental action steps. This will and should vary according to what the action step is – this quality assurance schedule is then shared with the department. This is important because we want a culture of transparency and trust – firstly because it is just nicer and secondly if things like learning walks and book looks are made high stakes it becomes more likely those subject to them will attempt to hide the truth to stay out of trouble.
This is absolutely not a criticism of teachers – this is a perfectly rational and human response when management is seen as threatening and I think in some schools it’s accepted as just the way things are.
We don’t want a culture in which quality assurance is seen as test in which you show the best aspects of your practice while hiding problems you experience.
We make it as clear as we can that making slow progress or even no progress towards an action step won’t lead to punishment. When things don’t go as well as we all want we try and frame the issue as an interesting puzzle rather than a professional failing.
This is both more humane and more accurate – in complex systems like schools if something isn’t working it’s very rare the reason is one isolated thing going wrong.
It’s far more common there are a number of interacting issues and if we want to work these out and understand them it makes no sense to have a fault-finding approach to performance management.
Sometimes it might be the entire action step was wrong and if it is we need people to feel able to tell us this.
Principle 7: People working on similar problems will find helpful solutions from others working on similar problems.
During each phase we align our experience sharing culture to the schoolwide action step.
During lockdown we did a lot of big Teams meetings in which she discussed what worked online and we pivoted this to more regular operation thorough staff breakfast clubs and the Precision Partnership model established and embedded by our AP for Professional Development, Selina Martin (@dancemarts)
Everything – action steps, training and quality assurance are all recorded on one document, which is then used in review meetings to decide whether the action step has been totally achieved, needs embedding or is failing to bite.
After each phase senior leadership uses what they’ve learned from their link meetings to decide whether the school has made enough progress towards the central action step has been made to make it an LPA Standard and move on, or whether more work is required. No decisions are made ahead of each cycle – adapting to reality means creating the capacity to be surprised and respond when we are.
Over eighteen months we feel we’ve done enough to make Means of Participation, 100% Engagement, Checking for Understanding and Responsive Teaching LPA Standards.
Principle 8: Nobody is perfect all the time and we all need help.
This does not at all mean we think we are perfect at these things.
We know none of us do everything well all the time.
There is no draconian penalty for those of us who slip up and miss things.
There can’t be if we want people to be open and to talk about what they are finding hard so they can get better at it. It means what we’ve worked hard on has now become the standard students should expect. If anyone enters any room and sees one of these things not being done then they should immediately step in to help and that help should be gratefully accepted.
We make this clear this works at all levels. If an ECT pops into my lesson and sees I haven’t noticed a student has their head on their desk while I’m modelling something under the visualiser – which can happens – , I expect them to say something like “Mr Newmark, excuse me but James isn’t looking at the board and I think he should be.”
This allows me to take the right course of action to achieve the LPA Standard.
We don’t want to become complacent about our standards so we make space in our CPD curriculum to review and relaunch them when we need to. This – again – isn’t necessarily a problem. We are busy. We forget. We get tired. A return to our basics is very often the best bet we can make.
Principle 9: People come to work to do their best and will use things if they help them do a better job.
A way we gauge whether or not our teachers are finding what we do useful is by making signage and other resources easily available but not insisting anyone takes them – our hunch is people come to work to do their best and want to get better – so if something is useful and helps them do their job better they’ll engage with it and if they aren’t there’s a very good chance they haven’t found it helpful. This means we need to rethink.
Although there is a lot more to teaching we reckon any school achieving clear Means of Participation and 100% engagement, where teachers check for understanding and respond to what they learn is a long way down the right road.