Research School Network: School Improvement ​‘Fast and Slow’

School Improvement ​‘Fast and Slow’

by Research Schools Network
on the

Alex Quigley, National Content Manager, Education Endowment Foundation

Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” – Steven R. Covey

Working in schools is one of the most valuable jobs you can imagine. You get to make a meaningful difference – regardless of how small that difference proves – on the lives of countless children. As such, all of our work is urgent and it all proves important. 

Crucially, however, to make a sustainable change in schools, whether that is teacher habits in a single classroom, or changing policies and practices across entire groups of schools, prioritisation is needed. We cannot address everything that is urgent with the same level of importance. Nor should we shy away from the reality of how hard this is to do in practice.

The Education Endowment Foundation’s guidance report on implementing change well in schools – Putting Evidence to work: A School’s Guide to Implementation – nudges our focus towards more sustainable changes in school, recognising all the difficulties busy school leaders face. To support school leaders, the guidance report has been updated with tools to support such prioritisation, such as the Gathering and interpreting data to identify priorities’ resource. 

The evidence-informed guidance asks for leaders to prioritise time to explore and prepare to meet our urgent and important challenges. It also makes the claim that:

Schools should probably make fewer, but more strategic choices, and pursue these diligently” (p. 10).

As with Stephen Covey’s commonly used aphorism that opens this blog, there is the common-sense notion that making a change in a complex environment like the classroom is hard, and so schools need to make fewer changes to allow the necessary space to implement them well. 

Of course, the problem with this sage advice is that schools have lots of urgent issues to deal with! Not only that, we have accountability challenges to respond to that expect many changes to be undertaken rapidly and nigh-on guarantee success for every pupil. 

In short, we are faced with a significant challenge: How do we undertake meaningful school improvement that encompasses fast’ quick wins, whilst prioritising slow, sustained and high-quality improvements to practice? 

Sustainable improvement in our schools

Judith Kidd, Head of Dixons Teaching School – and part of the Bradford Research School – shared work undertaken in Bradford that was rooted in the EEF implementation guidance report. Their work has aimed to focused on the careful implementation planning needed for slower, but sustainable improvement.

For primary schools currently grappling with curriculum development, Judith describes how they sought to prioritise manageable implementation:

“Some primary schools are planning to pilot their new curriculum models in one or two subject areas of relative strength before rolling them out across the curriculum. They are taking time to gain knowledge and understanding of the principles of curriculum design and memory and strengthening teacher subject knowledge, rather than hastily undertaking strategies in isolation.”

The urge to change an entire school curriculum in a two-term spring has been resisted. Instead, the emphasis on properly exploring the issue faced by pupils before implementing a change, has led to a slower, more sustainable prioritisation in their schools.

Similarly The McAuley Catholic High School, in Doncaster (a large school with over 1600 pupils that is supported by Doncaster Research School) also used the EEF’s implementation guidance report to help steer a focus on sustained, meaningful school improvements.

At McAuley, they identified their priority as improving students behaviours for learning (a common, important and urgent challenge for every school leader). They drew upon the guidance to focus on a collaborative model for professional development, ensuring careful attention to sustaining this challenging habit change for every teacher (and student!)

Leaders from McAuley, Melissa Howse and Nicole Henderson, focused on the importance of the early phases of taking our time in the early stages of planning and securing readiness.” In so doing, they were also able to think about why doing fewer things well was so important:

“It became clear to us that there was a need to focus on teachers and the improvement of student behaviour for learning as part of the new Behaviour Policy development and that any other pedagogical development would be made on shaky foundations without this, since our teachers would become overloaded.”

What the determined efforts in Bradford and Doncaster show is that school leaders are always addressing urgent challenges. Crucially though, by engaging with the evidence on implementing change carefully, and necessarily slowly, they were able to help teachers prioritise and sustain their efforts. It is this careful implementation, supported by the best available evidence, that holds so much promise for meaningful and sustainable school improvement.

The updated version of Putting Evidence to Work: A School’s Guide Implementationincludes a new and expanded Explore section, with more guidance on how to identify school improvement priorities and make evidence-informed decisions on what to implement. This includes recommendations on how to gather, appraise and interpret school data, as well as five principles to bear in mind when engaging with research evidence. Links are also made throughout the report to a set of new tools and resources that have been developed to help people act on the guidance.

Thank you to Judith Kidd (Bradford Research School) and Helen Bellinger (Doncaster Research School) for sharing their school improvement case studies.

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