For the past nine years, I have spent significant periods of time working within schools, seeking to identify, to myself as well as to the school, what really makes them “tick”, so that an informed discussion can support progress. It’s not my school, so conversation has to be tailored to need.
Inevitably, a large part of that journey is controlled by the school in the form of the narrative that it is able to share, about the journey to date, the current situation and the forward plans. A central feature is the quality of communication in all forms and the evident relationships across all aspects of the partnership that makes up the school. Who is the voice of the school, the head, teachers, children, parents, community? Is the school an active-listening organisation? Do you take external views fully into account?
When triangulated across a number of audiences, this story either holds together or it frays a little, hopefully not too much. Although the auditing that I have done has not been Ofsted, I have often had feedback that the security of the processes have underpinned the narrative to be shared in a more stressful situation. For that reason, I’d argue that all schools should take a very close look at themselves.
The holistic nature of an organisation ensures a closely-linking narrative.
An organisation is more than the sum of the parts; it is more about how they fit together and enable the dynamic elements (the teachers in the classroom) to be effective.
The quality of evidence seeking and evaluation is likely to be a key indicator of the system health.
So, how closely do you look at yourself, or invite developmental commentary and what is the outcome?
Do you have a “You said, we considered, we did…” approach?
There are only so many discrete elements which go together to make up a school, each of which can contribute to the successful running of the organisation as a whole. Of course, each can be subdivided to personal need.
A SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis is a sound starting point, for all aspects.
What do you say that you stand for? What are the guiding principles for the school and what you want to achieve for all the children who attend, or who might choose to do so.
The setting for the school. Begin by describing unemotionally, the background to the organisation, with special emphasis on the demographic, as it is known of the families. This can be both qualitative and quantitative. Entry profiles and feeder school/nursery descriptions aid the story. What’s been the story in the community? I have often found that schools who keep press cuttings begin to reflect on their image. Education is a very public act these days.
What’s your building like and the environment, both within the fence and the local area? How does each support, or hinder, aspects of teaching and learning? Where have you been with each and where are you going with plans? What’s the resource base and how effectively are the resources put to use to support learning. Are “cost-effectiveness” audits carried out, especially after expensive equipment is bought? What are the (hidden) messages given to outsiders and occasional visitors (prospective parents) through the displays and general organisation?
Describe outcomes for your children; how well are they doing? Identify the checks that are made on progress and analysis of outcomes across all groups of children. Describe the information collation, the internal written or oral dialogue and feedback mechanisms within the school that assists professional decision-making, as a result of deep knowledge of children. Describe also the steps taken to address training needs of individual staff who take on specific challenges.
Do you know what your children think of the school? How often do you ask their opinions and what happens as a result? Do they value their school? What is offered as extended opportunities beyond the classroom and beyond the school day? Simply to use WWW and EBI (what worked well and even better if) as starters can elicit very interesting points for discussion.
Teaching and Learning, the core of the school offering, is based upon a very well-articulated and understood model of practice that has common elements across all staff. Staff are encouraged to create appropriately challenging learning opportunities for children, including opportunities for them to demonstrate independent thinking and decision-making. The curriculum is logically ordered and organised, well-resourced and relevant to the needs of the learners. Individual needs are catered for appropriately. Teaching and learning are based on good relationships and learning dialogue, with children fully aware of what they need to do to improve. Reports allow parents access to progress reports and also areas where they can further support their children appropriately.
Describe the story of recruitment and retention of staff, perhaps along with evidence of recent CPD opportunities, at organisational and personal level and the impact of these on teaching and learning.
Parents and carers are significant partners. Ensuring positive relations with parents is a significant the dynamic. Positive parents send positive children to school. Ease of access and good communication is essential. As a shorthand, here’s what parents have told me that they want, distilled from many meetings.
What does the local community think of the school? How do you know? What and where is the evidence for your views? How does the community link with the school and vice versa? What use does the community make of the school as a community resource and the school of the local area and community as a resource for learning?
When the pieces are identified, to put them together in understandable formats, which enable the complexities to be easily visualised, allows further reflection and analysis, especially at points where changes are being considered, as change in one area may have consequences elsewhere. If the holistic structure is to be maintained, the knock-on effects need to be articulated and addressed.
There’s nothing worse than the law of unintended consequences; seen most often when change is made without thinking beyond the present.