Rethinking Accountability Part 3 – School Improvement Processes

This is the third in a series of five posts about the issue of accountability in schools with some thoughts on how we can create healthier accountability for schools and teachers. Much of the content I am sharing in these posts is taken from my book, Wholesome Leadership. Other resources have either been created kindly by Oliver Caviglioli or are those which have been developed by the leadership team at Simon de Senlis Primary School or within Northampton Primary Academy Trust.

Rethinking Accountability

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – A culture of healthy accountability

Part 3 – School improvement and monitoring processes (you’re reading this now!)

Part 4 – Assessing like a consultant doctor

Part 5 – Managing external accountability

In the first post, I laid out the following four key challenges for us as school leaders to focus on in schools in pursuit of a healthier accountability system which I believe is at the heart of making teaching a more effective and sustainable profession.

  1. Take the fear out of the challenge, creating the right conditions in our school for healthy accountability.
  2. Develop effective processes for school improvement, monitoring & evaluation that are used consistently as part of an ongoing cycle of improvement.
  3. Think really carefully about the purpose and processes of assessment and improve both its use and the quality of conversations that surround it.
  4. Manage external accountability with confidence, staying in control of inspections and audits and not allowing them to influence school improvement negatively.

This post focuses on the second challenge: the specific processes we use in schools as part of our quality assurance, accountability or school improvement cycles.

Informal first

A starting point for keeping our finger on the pulse of a school is (obviously?) to spend as much time as possible visiting classrooms. This means avoiding getting comfortable on a chair somewhere in an office or being drawn into time-heavy paperwork and meetings and getting out among the action. Visiting lessons, walking the corridors, lunch halls and playgrounds is the best way I know to remain in touch with what’s really going on in a school. Teaching (although not every Head has to be a current teacher), talking to parents on the gate, flicking through the books of the children you meet on your travels and playing with children in reception are all important parts of the job and help us gain an important wider perspective of school life. This informal approach has always been my favourite part of leadership and probably suits my naturally restlessness and impatient urges to walk around rather than sit still.

A school improvement schedule

Alongside an consistent informal presence, there has to be some kind of structured school improvement cycle  that takes place throughout the year. Without some kind of rigour or systematic approach to school improvement, things can go wrong in a school for the following reasons (and probably more):

  • Leaders become too preoccupied with operational and day to day issues and lose sight of the longer-term strategic work.
  • Regular checks or reviews get missed and so things stop happening that should be.
  • The right people don’t sit down regularly enough to evaluate findings from monitoring and agree next steps.
  • Steps for improvement are identified, but don’t become reality due to a lack of follow-up and follow-through activity.

In order to ensure a coordinated approach, most schools have some kind of schedule such as the one below which lays out different activities such as assessment, monitoring and evaluation. This is important in giving clarity to staff and leaders as to when different activities are happening and to ensure that the different processes flow from one to another. NB – I call these school improvement processes (because I think that’s what they are) but these are also commonly known as Quality Assurance, Monitoring and Accountability. Tomato, tomato.

A school improvement schedule. Be clear about what’s happening and when and avoid congestion and overload…

Now this is the dangerous bit because all that stuff I wrote in Part 2 about building a High Challenge; Low Threat culture in the school can quickly be undone if we go about monitoring in a clumsy or heavy-handed way. Trust takes time to build up but can be lost in seconds.

With this in mind, whatever school improvement or monitoring processes we carry out, it’s the way we do them that matters most.

Do no harm…

Here are ten things I try and think about when carrying out any school improvement/QA activity to try and help build a ‘High Challenge; Low Fear’ culture.

  • First, do no harm: Keep in mind the unintended consequences on workload, motivation and wellbeing that monitoring and evaluation processes can cause. Plan and execute them carefully to avoid any counterproductive effect.
  • Plan and communicate well: Logistics are always a challenge for monitoring processes, as there are often several people who need to be involved and cover implications. Let everyone know what is happening in good time so that they can plan around it. Last-minute arrangements can cause frustration and add unnecessary stress to the process. If staff need to share planning or children’s books, or present data, make sure the details of this are clarified in good time.
  • Execute well: Whether it’s a learning walk, book look or classroom observation, carry out the process carefully and diligently, ensuring that your ‘bedside manner’ keeps people at ease. Make arrangements for others to be free to pick up any other urgent issues in school so you don’t get distracted or pulled away; it is frustrating for teachers who will have put in a lot of preparation if those carrying out the monitoring get distracted by other issues.
  • Do ‘with’, not ‘to’: Avoid falling into the trap of acting like an inspector and involve teachers and children in whatever process you are carrying out, where possible. A book look is far more effective when talking to children and teachers about what you see on the pages and a planning scrutiny is almost pointless unless it is part of a conversation with the teachers who have written it. Try to capture the staff and student voice within any monitoring processes.
  • Avoid judging: In my experience, a lot of the discussion that takes place on these processes still relates to Ofsted grades, with people keen to hang their hat on a particular peg such as ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Outstanding’. This type of discussion is pointless and avoids the more difficult thinking process of identifying the most useful types of development.
  • Give good feedback: Give kind, specific and useful oral feedback immediately after the activity and provide written notes within a week. This feedback should identify time-bound actions (5 minutes? 5 days? 5 weeks?) so it is clear which are urgent issues and which are more medium term. The feedback should also identify a time and date to meet again to review.
  • Follow-up and follow-through: This is an essential part of the process, but one which is often neglected due to time pressures and leaders being distracted by other challenges. If actions have been agreed, they must be executed, and it is the job of leaders to follow up the conversations and next steps. Never assume that anything has changed unless you have seen it with your own eyes. It’s not enough to think that something has been done; we have to know it has been done.
  • Keep workload lean: Avoid the temptation to create lengthy documentation from different monitoring activities to try to prove that leadership happened. It is a common trap to spend your days monitoring and then evenings and weekends typing up wordy documentation to capture it all. Keep follow-up documents short and focus on clarity rather than an exhaustive list of everything you found out; otherwise, the main messages get lost in the waffle. If you feel that you are writing documentation for Ofsted or governors, remember that the only real evidence that matters is whether improvement happens in the classroom. Schools don’t get better when leaders are writing documents.
  • Evaluate properly: This part of the process is another that is often missed, but is incredibly important. There is no point finding out information from across a school unless you then sit down and reflect strategically on what it means. Once the processes are over, put a bit of space between them and then sit down and ask some good evaluative questions. What were the main messages from this monitoring? What patterns can you notice? Do the things that need improving relate to people or processes? What is our next move?
  • Repeat: Once you have processes established, keep repeating the cycles to get improvement and avoid tinkering with them too much. Once embedded, they cause less stress for everyone.

And now onto some specific processes themselves…

School Improvement Processes

The following four School Improvement Processes are shared here in WalkThru format, created by Oliver Caviglioli and adapted from Wholesome Leadership.

  1. How to carry out a Review Morning
  2. How to carry out a Learning Walk
  3. How to carry out a Progress Meeting
  4. How to carry out an Appraisal Meeting

The purpose of these WalkThrus is to try and ‘demystify’ the things school leaders do by making visible some of the common school improvement routines and processes they carry out. I have found, through working with Oliver, that these visual aids are helpful in simplifying otherwise complex processes.

Feel free to use, adapt around your own school, subject and context.

How to carry out a Review Morning

Review Mornings: Click the image to download a pdf poster of this WalkThru

Over the last three years, we have developed termly review mornings as a way of taking a more in-depth look at the learning taking place across a year group. Rather than a series of individual observations or occasional book looks, we tend to spend most of a morning in a single year group observing, reflecting and exploring the issues. Being released from the shackles of grading lessons is empowering for both teachers and leaders, and this type of process can switch the focus from one of ‘judging’ to one of supporting improvement.

  • A couple of weeks before the review morning, send around a short survey asking staff for their opinions on what is working well in the year group at the moment, any areas that they feel might be weaker and any specific challenges or children that they would welcome support with.
  • Read the feedback and do your homework on the issues or children that have been flagged up. If concerns were raised about the behaviour of individuals, do some background checks on them. If a particular subject was flagged as a weakness, talk to the subject leader about any involvement they have had. Analyse what any available data says about this issue too.
  • Try to put people at ease. A morning can feel like a long time for staff to have leaders snooping in and around their classrooms, so it is important to try to make it feel more like a joint process of investigation rather than being judged.
  • Have access to pupil data during the morning. It is really useful to be able to check out assessment information around groups or individuals that you might notice while in the classroom.
  • Give some short general feedback to all staff involved (including support staff) at the end of the morning and then follow up with teachers individually that evening if possible. Do not give Ofsted-style grades as part of this feedback; it should focus only on helpful developmental advice and a ‘next steps’ discussion.

Click this link for an individual post of the Review Morning WalkThru

Learning Walks

Learning Walks: Click this image to download a pdf poster of this WalkThru

Learning walks are more focused than the kind of unplanned classroom visits described above, but should still have a relatively informal feel. They should have one or two areas of specific focus, such as classroom behaviour routines, quality of classroom discussion or effective direction of support staff. These could either be a follow-up from previous development work or be identified through other monitoring or data analysis.

  • Identify your area of focus and communicate a few days in advance, either by email or at a briefing, that you will carry out a learning walk to focus on one or two specific areas.
  • Don’t intrude too much on the learning – try to be an invisible observer. When the situation allows it, engage in conversation with teachers and children to find out more about what is going on.
  • Adopt a curious mindset and avoid jumping to hasty conclusions based on first impressions of what you see. Stay long enough in each area to get a good feel for things and don’t rush it, even though you are likely to have time pressure to finish quickly.
  • If you are working alongside someone else, make sure you spend time looking from different angles and in different places, and then comparing what you noticed – it is interesting how similar and different two opinions can be.
  • Recognise any of your biases that might have crept in. Are some of the things you notice ‘pet peeves’ or ‘the way you would have done it’, rather than things that evidence suggests are the most important to focus on?
  • Follow-up with whole-school feedback, sharing successful things you saw and any areas you need to follow up on.
  • Follow-up individually with any support or coaching conversations where help might be needed, but keep it light. If learning walks become perceived as being ‘on show’, you will stop seeing what is typical in a classroom and only get polished versions instead.

Click this link for an individual post of the Learning Walk process

 Progress Meetings

Progress Meetings: Click the image to download a pdf of this WalkThruClass Attainment & Progress (CAP) meetings are carried out with each class teacher and relevant leaders shortly after each summative assessment point. Their purpose is for everyone to reflect on the current challenges and priorities within a class or year group. A range of sources, including assessment data, is evaluated to inform adaptations to the provision, curriculum or targeted support for the next term. Leaders can often interpret data in different ways from class teachers, so it is really useful to have this joined-up discussion once a term. It helps as a check point to hold both teachers and leaders to account for their contribution towards improvement, and allows leaders to see where any additional support or intervention is needed.

  • Organise CAP meetings to take place at the end of each term after a summative assessment point.
  • Analysis should be carried out before the meeting and agreed documentation should be completed which identifies the strengths and areas of focus for the next period. Good teachers are constantly evaluating children’s progress and adapting provision throughout the term, and this just formalises their thinking.
  • The meeting should be a professional discussion that focuses on classes, groups and individual children and what can be done to address their needs, rather than crude percentages or which borderline children might get ‘over the line’.
  • The main discussion should centre on how teaching approaches and the curriculum can be adapted within the next term to address any areas of concern.
  • Try to avoid the temptation to steer the discussion onto solutions to do with teaching assistant intervention and parental engagement. These may be useful things, but the 27.5 hours of curriculum and teacher time afford the greatest opportunity to make an impact.
  • Use research to support your decision-making. If suggestions focus on specific interventions or organisation such streaming or reducing class sizes, look at what research says about these areas and read around the issues more closely.
  • Agree what the actions are going forward for the next period and make a shared record of these. Start each meeting with a review of the previous agreed actions. Did everyone do what they said they would? What impact did these actions have? What are the next steps?

Click this link for an individual post of the Progress Meeting WalkThru


Appraisal: Click this picture to download a pdf of this WalkThru

An annual appraisal should be a great opportunity to have a meaningful one-to-one with members of staff to thank them for their contribution to the school in the last year and to think about how they can develop in the future. Quality reflective time with staff is a rare commodity and the 40 minutes or hour that you spend with them in appraisals is precious. If this opportunity is not grasped, these useful discussions can be lost in meetings that race through the process, ticking the boxes but missing the point. In recent years, the quality of appraisals has been limited due to a demand that they become a process where a judgement is made on performance-related pay. Since evidence now shows that the impact of performance-related pay is negligible, we should make sure that appraisals are used more effectively as developmental and motivational tools for our staff.

  • Be prepared for the meeting – make sure that you have all the documentation you need from the previous year and that the appraisee is prepared to talk through their objectives with supporting evidence. If either side is not properly prepared, stop the meeting and arrange a time to do it again; otherwise, it undermines the process.
  • Talk through the objectives set for last year and allow time for reflection and discussion on these points. Avoid simply focusing on the success criteria and whether a target has been ‘met’.
  • Celebrate successes and take time to appreciate and thank people.
  • Include a discussion on wellbeing as part of the appraisal discussion and, if the appraisee would like to, write down some commitments that you will both make to support their wellbeing for the year ahead.
  • Avoid making the meeting a drawn-out game of cat and mouse which focuses on whether to give someone a pay rise. In my view, unless someone has not met the Teachers’ Standards consistently throughout the year (in which case some kind of managed support process is warranted), they should automatically make progress on the pay scale (upper pay scale is a separate discussion).
  • Set challenges and targets that stretch and excite you both within a ‘high challenge/low threat’ discussion. Remind your appraisee that no one gets sacked for being ambitious and doing a good job.

Click this link for an individual post of the Appraisal WalkThru

Thanks to Oliver for creating these WalkThrus. You can visit his awesome website where the whole collection are available to download.

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