School improvement strategies
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Whether a school has effective improvement or development plans in place is a major contributing factor to the judgements made of leadership at all levels, from the director or principal through to subject coordinators and pastoral leaders. Along with accurate and realistic self-evaluation, the impact of school development strategies paints a clear picture of whether a leadership team have the capacity to improve provision.

In a forward-thinking growth-orientated school, the board of governors will play a clear and productive role in school development. One of my partner schools identified the most appropriate aspects of provision for each of their seven governors to learn more about, enabling them to contribute relevant skills from their own area of business or expertise. Governors became more knowledgeable in each of the six inspection standards and had a more direct impact in supporting the improvement agenda, for example, an HR executive led a review of staff recruitment and retention policy leading to more streamlined procedures and detailed exit interviews. A common inspection recommendation among KHDA or ADEK regulated private schools relates to the impact which governors have on the strategic development and overall quality of provision in their school; however in the words of a leading Abu Dhabi school principal achieving a healthy and delicate balance with the governance of “eyes on, hands-on” is best. In a minority of private schools at present, governors or investors can be overly involved in daily operations leading to issues with the autonomy and authority of school leaders becoming compromised.

Consistency of expectations among middle leaders is also important, especially in schools with diverse staff teams from a variety of educational systems and backgrounds. With this in mind, at Learning Key we encourage middle leaders to work cross phase and share in quality assurance tasks, such as work scrutiny and focussed learning walks. Discussion, debate and reflection on any relevant external inspection or accreditation frameworks leads to a shared understanding and reduction of variance. Without a clear and consistent approach and agreed standards, quality assurance often has less impact or only raises standards in isolated subjects or school phases. As an external school improvement consultant, I spend time meeting with senior and middle leaders and visiting lessons to explore each strand of the rubric for highly effective lessons, so we can look with a “whole school” lens at themes including problem solving, critical thinking and innovation. While these are often mentioned in inspection or accreditation feedback, you may have a wide range of opinion of how this can be seen in classes.

Equally the principal and senior team must ensure that middle leaders of core subjects are effective. In cases where these colleagues perhaps act more as an anchor than an accelerator, clear and sharp target setting is vital to avoid any “black holes” in school improvement. Often a difficult and essential conversation, however if middle leaders are not well motivated and able to lead their teams in terms of improvement, then they are not the best individual for that pivotal role.

High performing or improving schools link quality assurance to their school improvement targets and make best use of regular monitoring via both planned and informal lesson visits (or short drop-ins). Senior leaders are encouraged to adopt a whole school mechanism for this analysis and tracking, so that trends are recorded for individual teachers and departments. In some cases, this can be a simple spreadsheet based system, whereas other schools use online platforms. The ability to include photographs of best practice or short video clips for in-school use is helpful.

Some of my CBSE and British curriculum partner schools have been able to evidence and discuss rapid improvement in the quality of learning using examples of best practice. Inspectors want to see hard evidence, so principals and heads can prepare a table of graph showing improvements in particular areas (for example, effective routines to start lessons and agree learning outcomes or the use of technology as a tool for learning). One Al Ain school who I worked with made rapid gains and produced clear statistics to show the impact of targeted professional development initiatives. Initially the school staff met in mixed teams, analysed their most recent inspection feedback and agreed upon a calendar of six week topics. Each block of six weeks began with discussions and tools such as SWOT analysis in meetings, followed by differentiated professional development for distinct groups of teachers and leaders. As everything was focussed and channelled onto, say “effective questioning to provide challenge” for a period of six weeks their progress was significant and consistent. After two trimesters the school managed to colour their school development Plan (SDP) goals green in most areas recommended during the previous inspection – their overall ranking improved as a result of better ratings in teaching, learning and leadership performance standards.

Teacher training or professional development can be a tremendous tool for school improvement, however needs driven targeted workshops have largely replaced a “one size fits all” whole school approach. Learning Key also use action research learning hubs to share ideas and best practice among and across phases/key stages in partner schools. Along with teachers conducting their own research, the focus shifts to the observable impact of new strategies and approaches in classrooms. Once school teachers begin to share practice more openly and shift focus onto the learning which takes place in a lesson, and the outputs in terms of student progress (rather than the teacher inputs) we tend to see rapid gains in the overall quality of provision. One challenge to overcome is the obstacle of teachers who are not accustomed to drop-in visits, an open-door policy.   Any shared visits must be collegial, constructive and professional to generate and sustain buy-in from the staff team.

So in summary, the keys to effective school improvement include a consistent approach to regular monitoring and feedback, clear and specific targets and the sharing of best practice.

By: Jeff Evans

Jeff Evans has over twenty years of school leadership experience in the international private educational sector across Europe, the Far East and the United Arab Emirates. Five years as program manager for school improvement with ADEK taught me that good practice transcends curriculum or fee level boundaries. As Director of Learning Key Education, I have enjoyed involvement with aspects of school licensing, policy and regulations, assessment and evaluation, recruitment and business development. Helping individual schools and groups to successfully navigate the federal UAE school inspection framework and enhance their provision.