In the fifteen years I have been teaching, I have had the honour and privilege to work in two schools during challenging times and then, under new leadership, see these schools flourish to be deemed officially ‘GOOD’ by Ofsted. Change – moving a school from inadequate / requiring improvement to good – takes time, 2-3 years to be exact. It takes strategy. It takes patience. But most of all it takes love. Because, often, it is the love that is missing in the first place.
Here is my short guide to becoming a HOF in a school going through those challenging times and how I have worked under those conditions to address departmental weaknesses and move a departmental team from inadequate / requiring improvement outcomes to good.
- Assess the situation
So you have got the position of HOF and armed with your amazing ideas, experience and enthusiasm for excellence, you are ready to start. You have looked at the curriculum planning and you are keen to make changes. You have looked at the way in which students are assessed and you already have a better system in mind. You have looked at the departmental area and already you know how you want to liven it up.
Your ego is getting the better of you. We have all been part of a department when a new HOF has taken over and steam-rollered their ideas through because they naively think, that because they have been appointed to the role, they know better and clearly have all the answers. This is not true. You have been appointed to provide direction and you cannot do this, if you haven’t assessed the situation. Every school, every staff body, every student body is different and in order to understand the school, the staff body and the student body for whom you have been appointed to lead, you should assess the situation. And this should happen before any decisions are made and any changes implemented.
Assessing the situation should happen over a period of 2-3 weeks, a month even. That seems luxurious in terms of time but it is essential. During this time, simply observe: observe lessons, look at planning, look at books, analyse data, speak with the staff, ask them to complete a SWOT analysis (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats), speak with the students. Do not act. Let things tick over as they usually would and observe.
Ensure you tell your team what you are doing and why – You might feel anxious about taking this time and that your team will wonder what you are doing but if you are clear, from the outset, with them, they will not only understand but appreciate and respect the process. A conversation with them may look like this:
“Thank you for letting me join your department. I am really excited to be leading you and working with you in the next phase of our work. It is really important, however, that in order to do this, I need to understand where we are at. Therefore, over the next few weeks I am going to be looking at the department – popping into lessons, looking at the planning and the work students are doing. Please do not worry about this. I am simply trying to understand where we are as a department. Once I have spoken to you all, I will feed back to the department as a whole about what I have seen, our strengths and our key areas for improvement.’
This is a really essential part of the process because you are setting the tone of transparency right from the start and no quality in a leader is better than transparency.
(Notice the use of pronouns here: ‘I’ is not a pronoun that should feature heavily as a leader – ‘we’ and ‘our’ are the most important)
Once you have assessed the situation, summarise your findings. You might want to do this, in line with the school’s development plan so, for example, our key headings are: Leadership and Management, Teaching and Learning, Achievement and Behaviour. Identify the key strengths and the key immediate areas for development. Remember, long to do lists are counter-productive and will definitely hurt the department, so being able to identify your top three priorities is really important.
Then present your findings to the department. At this stage, you must be honest and not shy away from difficult conversations. Either they will already know what you are going to say or they will appreciate hearing the truth. You may experience some defensiveness – this is OK. Do not take it personally – defensiveness comes from anger or insecurity – anger that they are being challenged or insecurity because they realise they are not doing a good enough job. Both are natural and both are there to be worked with. An emotion, positive or negative, is deep down a sign that we care. No one wants to do a bad job, after all.
- Create a team
During the assessing the situation time, it is important you start to build relationships with the team. You cannot improve standards, if the team you are leading are a) not behind you and b) not functioning well together. The most important aspect of your relationship with your team when you first start your role is trust. They need to be able to trust you. And the way that that trust is gained is by giving them a voice and being honest with them as much as humanly possible. When you hand the team the SWOT analysis, you are giving them a voice – an opportunity to feedback and be honest about it. You may want to do this anonymously so that they feel they can be completely honest but it is also important you meet with them individually as well. Meeting with them will show that you have the time for them, their voice is important and you want to listen very carefully to what they say. Never make any promises but do listen, tell them you understand and that you will be making decisions that will improve the situation for both them and the students.
Another incredibly important point here is that your staff see that you are human. Humility is by far one of the most important characteristics needed in a leader – you need to be humble, you need to show you do not have all the answers and that you need others to support you, you need to admit when you make mistakes. Creating a culture of humility will foster a much quicker improvement process as all will feel comfortable and secure to talk about their own mistakes and personal areas for development.
Fostering a team, a unit is incredibly important. When you become a leader, you become a servant to your staff for the benefit of your students. This starts with the basics – saying ‘good morning’ and ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’. A ‘thank you’ card in someone’s tray for a job well done during the week. This week, all of my team will receive a small bottle of wine for all their hard work in completing the coursework and controlled assessment. It is a small token but important to show them I appreciate their hard work when life is just that little bit harder. Doughnuts at a meeting or Prosecco when something particularly significant has been achieved during the week really lightens the mood.
Meeting regularly is important. We have a department meeting at least fortnightly but also a weekly briefly which captures all the admin points from the week. The Key Stage Co-ordinators lead ours. We have found it harder to meet this year and the only day we could hold a department briefing was my duty day. This has been a blessing because it means the Key Stage Co-ordinators lead, without my interruption, giving them some autonomy over this space.
In addition, I work on a model of distributed leadership. Although I regularly go and see members of our team teach, I do not directly line manage them. Instead I directly line manage my two Key Stage Co-ordinators and our Teach First (always line lead new entrants to the profession), my Key Stage Co-ordinators then line manage other members of the team. This not only empowers them but distributes the workload when it comes to formal observations and Performance Related Pay.
Organising termly meals out is so important. This gives you the opportunity to see each other outside of work and as Mary Myatt says, humans first, professionals second. In addition, at our school we have ‘Pub Friday’ to which several of the team go which means you always end the week on a high…or quite drunk!
Nothing brings a team together more than a shared vision. One of the first meetings I had with my new team was on creating our vision. It took the whole meeting! I divided the team into smaller teams and asked them to consider the qualities we wanted to develop in our students and then we all fed back and re-drafted and re-drafted until we had a vision we were happy with. Doing this at the start, really re-focuses the team on the core purpose and ensures that all are buying into the journey (sorry for the cliché) that they are about to enter into. When they walk out of that room, after the meeting, they walk out clear on what is trying to be achieved within the department. This vision is then everywhere – the departmental handbook, at the bottom of all agendas, on your email and I even stuck ours on the wall! Once you have established your vision, you need to then of course work on the embodiment of it.
- Embedding a curriculum that is fit for purpose.
Reviewing the curriculum is a given. People will be anxious about change so if you can minimise change this will work in your favour! Here comes the controversial point: it has to be a skills based curriculum! If you are working in an inadequate / requiring improvement school, it will be because students are not making good progress and in order to make good progress, students need to be skilled up. So whilst I adore the idea of a knowledge curriculum and love what Michaela, for example, are doing, you have to be ready for it. And, in the first instance, your initial priority will be to ensure students are skilled. You may also be surprised to find that it is your staff who need skilling up too, so never take this for granted!
In addition, another controversial point, if you are working in an inadequate or requiring improvement school, is that teacher autonomy has to go on the back burner for a little while. To be able to improve the quality of planning and assessment and to ease the process of quality assurance, all teachers need to be teaching the same units with the same assessment (although differentiated, of course).
Firstly, this is to ensure a rigid curriculum is put in place. If all teachers are teaching the same thing, it means that planning can be shared and, ideally, buddy planning can take place. In pairing your stronger staff with your weaker staff to work on the planning of a unit, you can really help develop good practice and skill people up quickly. Of course, I would whole-heartedly recommend quality assuring planning. Or even better, I would whole-heartedly recommend that you model the process first. Over the years, I have planned a lot of units. I have led departmental and developmental sessions where I have modelled the planning of a unit with a team. The benefit of these collaborative sessions means that lots of people are feeding into the unit which can only make it stronger. Furthermore, in a culture where depth is more important than breadth, you can assure, as HOF that when planning, the main thing is the main thing which also assures that staff are skilled in the area they are teaching before they teach it. Good quality Medium Term Planning also supports this. If planning is not good enough, then you need to be honest with staff. In having these conversations, reinforce to staff that the process we are going through is to ensure that we are skilling up students to improve their progress and that nothing is more important, with regard to student progress, than great teaching and learning so it is important we get it right.
Also, it is important to model the process of adaptation. Sharing resources (especially differentiated resources to target different groups of students) to supplement the unit should be modelled by you and your leadership team. This can be done in meetings, in which you request the team to bring a resource they have found works particularly well or emailed out. The more the work is shared, the less of a burden planning becomes. In turn, this helps foster the collaborative nature of the team you want.
Thirdly, curriculum review is an on-going process. Good units only really come into fruition after having been taught for a few years so, accept imperfection but do evaluate. On our planning grids, we have an evaluation box which enables staff to review lessons as we go through ready to inform the curriculum review process once year 11 have gone.
If students are all completing the same assessment then the moderation of work becomes more effective. More effective in determining the success of the assessment, more effective in determining how well the unit has been taught by particular teachers and more effective in terms of how well the students have developed a key skill or understood a key concept which will help to inform future planning.
For all the reasons above, it is important that the curriculum long term plan is discussed as a team. This is actually a really good meeting to have with a new team, especially if you start at this time in the year as it tends to generate a lot of enthusiasm and excitement. Giving staff the opportunity to consider the units they would like to teach, fosters a level of trust and respect from them. Of course, you cannot keep everyone happy and you will have your own ideas in mind – for example, I don’t think we teach enough 19th century and this will be embedded regardless of others’ input – but allowing everyone to be part of this process means it is collaborative and staff are more likely to work with it, if they have had a say. In my curriculum creation meeting, I asked staff to write their suggested units (with assessment ideas) on a slip of A3 paper and then place against a relevant year group. We then, as a department, looked at each unit suggestion in turn, how well they blended with the rest of the suggestions and begun to frame our overview. Your part in this process, as curriculum leader, is to ensure coverage not dictate it. So when reviewing what the team have come up with, are you confident that all writing forms are covered? Are students exposed to a play? Poetry? 19th century fiction? Non-fiction etc. If you dictate the curriculum, it is not the department’s curriculum but yours and the buy in will be less.
If there are things you want to pre-empt then share this prior to the meeting. So, for example, I have two major concerns with our curriculum: 1) The level of challenge 2) Our library lesson, which I think is ineffective. To get my team thinking about these very things, I have bought them all a copy of ‘Reading Reconsidered’ and my hope (might be naïve) but my hope is that as they are reading, things will strike them so that they, too, come to reflect and draw conclusions about our curriculum and then come, to a future meeting, with some suggestions about how we can get better at what we do. There are some excellent blogs on curriculum design – I regularly refer back to David Didau’s blog post on curriculum design which you could also share with your department.
Of course, most of the above, in terms of curriculum design is with regard to KS3 as the curriculum content for KS4 is already decided. Your skill as a leader there is about how you organise the KS4 curriculum to maximise the opportunity for success for your students.
- Creating a robust assessment system
Once the curriculum is in place, a robust assessment system needs to be introduced to track the skills being assessed and how competently students can use those skills and apply them to their analysis of texts and their written work. I have blogged about the progression maps I have created here as part of our assessment process:
Fundamentally, working your way back from the GCSE AOs or A Level AOs is a great way to ensure a cohesive 5-7 year assessment programme for students.
However, my recommendation would be to ensure that depth rather than breadth is at the heart of your assessment system. At The Wellington, we have two assessment points per unit – a Checkpoint and a Key Assessment. In the Checkpoint, (which is only ever a paragraph or two long), we will only ever assess 1-2 Assessment Objectives, meaning that the teaching is really targeted. For the Key Assessment, we will increase this to 3-4 Assessment Objectives, keeping the same two from the Checkpoint so that we can refine any areas of weakness and then, hopefully, show progress as well as target teaching towards a couple of new skills as well. Of course, throughout the course of the year the students have several opportunities to develop their skillset against the AOs. This has increased teacher focus in the units and ensured students are focused on skill development and this is true for both KS3 and KS4.
Assessing students frequently, gives you the opportunity to work with very real data and in using the same AOs between Checkpoint and Key Assessment, the ability to track progress is great.
Once you have come up with a robust system, it is important that the work that is produced is quality assured. We have a buddy moderation system so that every time we assess, we swap two pieces of work to buddy moderate. If there is a discrepancy between marks then it is taken to the Key Stage leader to receive a third opinion. Using departmental time to buddy moderate or to moderate further pieces of work is an excellent way of ensuring not only the accuracy of the marking to enable you to gather robust data but it is a good way of quality assuring what is being taught and the skill set of staff within your department.
Remember though, that one of the most important roles as a curriculum leader is how you can effectively reduce workload for staff – especially during these tough times and because we know that the marking load for English teacher is cumbersome. Therefore, one way in which we try to speed this process up is with the use of marking grids. See our KS3 and KS4 examples below:
In addition, because I ask staff to mark assessments so thoroughly, I do not expect the same for exercise books. Instead I ask staff only to mark work which will have a direct impact on their assessments, providing students with formative comments.
- Quality assuring the data – know your students!
Nothing is more important than your analysis and understanding of data. Data should be collected regularly and staff should have responsibility for inputting their own data. Schools will have their own systems for KS3 but at KS4, data should be analysed against past grade boundaries for individual units as well as the entirety of a course for greater accuracy. (Difficult in the current climate I know). When reporting to SLT, always take overall course marks down by between 5 and 8 to allow for grade boundary shifts.
Keeping a spreadsheet with this data tracked, is fundamental. Here is where accountability lies and key questions need to be asked.
As a Curriculum leader:
- What does the data tell me?
- What is the overall % of grades? In our case, what % of students are learning, mastering, extending?
- How are classes performing? Are there any classes who are performing really well that we can learn from? Are there any classes who are under-performing and what can I find out to establish why this might be? (At this point, I would consider conducting a learning walk and looking at books, in addition to speaking to staff to identify reasons for under-performance and how best to support)
- What skill sets have students acquired? What skill sets have students yet to successfully acquire? (I do this by AO)
- How are my key groups performing? (Unfortunately you have to do this for the powers that be – my ideology is that every student matters!)
- What have I learnt from this data which will enable me to move the department forward which then, ultimately, leads to an action plan of sorts?
To your teaching staff:
- How is your class performing?
- What are the key success areas? How can you celebrate these key success areas?
- What are the areas for improvement? What intervention can be offered to support particular students?
To the students:
- How did you do in the last assessment?
- What is your current target for improvement?
- What do you need to do to improve?
Regular conversations about data and student progress should occur and my Key Stage Co-ordinators frequently meet with staff to discuss the data they are inputting. It shouldn’t be used as a stick, with which to beat staff but it should be used a method of identifying support for both the teacher and the student to improve outcomes. Most conversations should centre around, how can we improve what we are doing and further support the students to develop? We, for example, offer every student a re-draft task after every assessment to ensure that they are focused on their areas for improvement. We also offer 2x personalised learning lessons where students complete work to address their own, personal targets with our support of course. Data should definitely inform planning and planning should be adapted to ensure areas of weakness are addressed in class.
9) The power of positivity and high expectations
More often than not, staff and students know when things aren’t quite right. They know when a school is under-performing or when they, themselves are under-performing. Self-belief is often low, confidence is low, self-esteem is low. Your job, as leader, is to work on nurturing this throughout all the processes above and this will take time. In fact, three years down the line, I reckon it will only start to happen more concretely know we have the confirmed ‘Good’ from Ofsted. Remaining endlessly positive, however, is important to ensure that peoples’ (both staff and students) confidence grows over time and that all feel brave enough to confront the challenges facing them. Telling staff and students how wonderful they are, praising work that is done, smiling, offering those drinks all contribute to an atmosphere of self-belief that will grow over time and with self-belief and love will come the makings of a wonderful faculty.