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From Ladas to Rolls Royces: what does it take to improve a school?

My recent visit to Victory Academy was heartening and it consolidated my belief that there are three critical aspects to driving improvement: consistent behaviour strategies, excellent teaching and learning and a shared vision.

Consistent behaviour strategies come first. Before Costessey High turned into Victory Academy, teachers described the ‘wild west’ feel to the school. Many teachers were planning good lessons that they were unable to deliver due to inconsistent behaviour systems: outcomes for the students were declining fast.

This mirrors my own experiences training and teaching on the Teach First programme at Haberdashers Aske’s Knights Academy in Lewisham. The predecessor, Malory School, had allowed standards to slip and results plummeted to 9% 5A*-C inc. Eng and Maths. Students lacked boundaries and although some students described it as fun to start, by the time the school hit rock bottom it was a lawless, frightening place.

Enter the need for the first strategy: a consistent behaviour system. I remember one of the old timers drawing an analogy between his experiences of learning to drive in a Lada and my time at the school: ‘What I’m saying is that if I could learn to drive in that and you can learn to teach here, you’ll be able to teach anywhere!’ Although I appreciated his sentiments at the time, on reflection I would supplement his word ‘teach’ with ‘crowd control’. I became an expert in managing behaviour but honestly, there was very little deep learning going on.

Key to the Academy improving was a clear system of rewards and sanctions. It led to an attitudinal shift in the young people: it was no longer cool to underachieve. Instead of the Lada equivalent of managing students, I was finally able to upgrade to an educational model that offered students positive opportunities. Consistent behaviour expectations at Victory Academy have also offered students a similar framework in which to succeed. They are courteous and respectful but also bubbly, keen to interact.

The next strategy for school improvement is to enhance teaching and learning through thoughtful and sustained CPD. Ben Rogers, Director of Teaching and Learning at Victory Academy, explained that once behaviour improved, teachers got through material much quicker.  In response to this, staff worked collaboratively to create a new ‘house style’ of lesson. To me, this is essential: staff have to take ownership of improvements and be equipped with the tools to succeed if they are then to be held accountable. Or to extend the metaphor, if you’re taking your staff on a journey of improvement, you’ve got to make sure your vehicle is in excellent, roadworthy condition before setting out.

Now that the foundations of lesson planning have been embedded at Victory Academy, the next step for CPD is to differentiate various strands, much in the same way we differentiate for students in the classroom. This method of whole staff improvement, incorporating coaching and action research programmes, is much more sustainable than the ‘superhead’ whose impact can often be superficial and short term. The reason there has been so much improvement at Victory Academy is because CPD incorporates differentiation, peer support and ownership, all elements outlined as essential in research into successful CPD programmes

The final area essential for school improvement is a shared vision amongst staff, one that accepts no less than the best for students. I can’t emphasise this enough. In my first week of teaching, I was horrified when a fellow teacher confided, ‘What the management don’t get is that you can’t polish a turd.’ Low expectations of what students can achieve only compound a cycle of failure and unless all staff are on board with a shared vision, I don’t see how schools can achieve their aims. Sally Coates, Principal of Burlington Danes Academy, explained at the Teach First conference in September that this can be achieved by adhering to certain tenets:

·         leaders need to build teams, recognising that schools are communities;

·         leaders should not forget that they are teachers;

·         teachers are role models, realising schools are microcosms leading by example.

Whilst this isn’t an exhaustive list, it does go some way to explain the shared sense of purpose that should be at the heart of a school community and improvements.

Michael Gove’s message of acting ‘further, faster, now’ to improve schools is an area where we agree. Visiting Victory Academy was heartening and helped to consolidate my thoughts on the three key ingredients in school improvement. However, ultimately it was frustrating: I left asking, ‘Why isn’t this happening in more schools?’  I realise that school improvement isn’t an easy journey but neither is it unexplored territory: a shared vision, consistent behaviour systems and excellent teaching and learning would ensure that our education system is built to be the Rolls-Royce of the world instead of lagging behind as the Lada.

Thanks go to @Claire_Heald and @Rachel_deSouza for organising the visit to Ormiston Victory Academy on 18/10/12. Anna is LKMco’s new Senior Associate and has taught in London and Norwich. 

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