Last week, a group of colleagues in the Cabot Learning Federation Teaching School led the interview process for the 26 secondary and primary School Direct trainees we want to recruit for our federation Academies next September. I joined them on Friday and was struck by the quality and motivation of the applicants to work in schools like ours. Some were young people coming to the end of their University studies and some were career changers from the financial sector, HR, and the NHS. One of the candidates was asked about a teacher who had made a difference to her learning and the answer she gave was brilliant. She described her A level teacher giving the group a University level written paper that mirrored the coursework essay she had been asked to write. She described how this was the first time she understood that her GCSE talents (A* I expect) were not going to get her to the same level at post 16. The modelling of her teacher showed her the distance to travel and what she needed to do to get there.
The reason I mention this is that for two days last week our newest Academy, Bath Community Academy (BCA) was inspected by OFSTED. This Academy closed in special measures last August and it was a real joy and thrill to be told that the school is making effective progress and is no longer requiring special measures. To be honest, I am not sure exactly what they said as Adam Williams the brilliant Principal there and I had probably stopped listening at the words “effective progress”! The point however was that when they saw teaching that was good or almost outstanding, the ability of the teacher to model what it was they wanted from the class ensured that almost every lesson achieved the kind of progress that students who are catching up on poor teaching in their past needed to make.
This takes me to the point! What is it that the best leaders do to improve the quality of teaching and help teachers to improve? From my experience as a head of a single school and now the leader of a federation of 10 schools, I think there are probably three things I have learned over the past number of years:
Thought 1-We need to bring clarity to what it is we want our teachers to do in the classroom. OFSTED makes explicit what they think good and outstanding lessons contain and I think great leadership de-mystifies this for staff. In the Cabot Learning Federation, (like many other schools) we have found two areas that we think support this notion of demonstrating progress through good and outstanding teaching.
a) Annotated seating plans will be found in all of our Academies where the visitor to the classroom sees the names of the children, their context and background data, their KS2 and target data and most importantly their current performance grades. The calculation is done for the observer to show which students are making the most and by definition least number of sub levels progress. This makes the case then for the teacher to re think the plan and have those struggling sitting closest to them, where differentiated work by task supports the catch up theory
b) This might be an old fashioned viewpoint but the exercise book or folder still tells me the journey of a child’s learning. We have worked hard to get the concept of learning dialogue into the books so that students engage with their teacher to respond to the marking and feedback which has to be excellent. We have bought thousands of green pens across the CLF, and the green pen moment happens when the teacher asks the students to use the green pen to write their own reflection on the feedback and to repeat the work that the feedback has requested. Now when I look at books, I see more of a learning journal than just a set of exercises. (OFSTED quite like this!!) The quality of presentation, literacy skills and work completion rates still worries me with our most vulnerable students, and we are working on a trial system of getting teachers to mark the work of these students first when they tackle a set of books so that the weakest get the freshest teacher mind to help them. We will see if this is working in the next few months.
Thought 2-Leaders need to ensure that every teacher continues to be on a teacher improvement plan. At Bristol Met Academy we call this an ITAP (Individual Teacher Action Plan) and every teacher has one irrespective of how good they are. For us it is vital as our schools are on a journey and we are not so awash with outstanding teachers yet that we can afford to let those we have slip backwards. The best teacher to help a good one become outstanding is an outstanding teacher. The best teacher to move a weak teacher from requiring improvement or inadequete to good and better is the teacher who has already made this journey. The responsibility of every teacher to improve is a part of their performance review, and in keeping with my view that outstanding schools have a moral obligation to help a weaker school, the same applies to those who are outstanding teachers. Let’s not glory in our own success and leave colleagues and students to flounder if we have something to contribute.
Thought 3–Great leaders lead great teaching and all school leaders need to be able to deliver good and outstanding lessons.
I am sure there are examples where this may not be true but I have not seen many schools where teaching is outstanding and leadership just OK. However I think there are things that great leaders do that goes beyond expectations. One idea I am working on for the federation, is that every colleague paid as a leader, or those who have been selected to be specialist leaders in education (SLE) must spend some of the time they have from their reduced teaching load, team teaching every week with another colleague. I have extended this to include SLT working with cover supervisors or cover teachers to raise the quality of learning in cover lessons so that the absence of the class teacher is not such a deficit experience. The dialogue around the planning and objective setting, coupled with an agreed aspect of teacher improvement that the pairing agrees to focus on is a dynamic learning experience for both. If the average secondary SLT have 5 members including the Principal. then 10 lessons a week and potentally over 300 a year can be used as live coaching and support. This shifts the culture from being observational to one of collaborative practice and when we have used this model it has never ever failed to have a great outcome. it also brings school leaders closer to the action so that their colleagues see those tasked with leading teaching and learning delivering quality lessons for students.
In summary, great schools have great teachers who inspire great learning. it is part cultural and part practical but the relentless pursuit of outstanding is a journey worth taking