R.I.P. School Improvement Plans

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Janet Goodall

Janet Goodall works in Educational Leadership and Management at the University of Bath. For the past 10 years, she’s been involved in supporting parental engagement with their children’s learning. She has worked closely with schools and other organisations, as well as speaking and writing widely...
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Do we need to stop talking about school improvement?

Almost every school in the land has one: it might be called a School Development Plan or a (SIP) School Improvement Plan.

Head teachers and other senior members of the school work seemingly endless hours on these documents, for good reason – because these plans set out the future of the school, including not only targets to be met but also detailed plans about how to get there.

Once formulated, the plans are often brought to the board of governors or directors, for scrutiny and approval. The targets set out in these plans then cascade down through the institution, so that individual teachers will often have at least one of their own targets for the year that comes more or less directly from the whole school plan.  It’s fair to say that when this process is working well, it impacts on everyone in the school: staff, students and families alike.  Ofsted will expect to see these plans, and to be able to see how they are being put into effect; an Ofsted visit often results in a specific school development plan, based on the results of the visitation.

A Step On The Way

This whole process has been developed over a number of years, and, when it works well, is of real value to the school community.  As a school governor, part of my role for example is to hold the SLT to account for working through the nuances and dictates of this plan.

On the face of it, this all sounds like a very good system, which is of great value.  So why am I arguing against it?

I don’t have an issue with the system, or even with the plans themselves.  I think the general outline of a SIP is fine – I just think it stops a step (or three) too early.  It’s rather like building a very good transport system that crosses a continent but stops a mile sort of the final station.  SIPs are aiming at the wrong end point: school improvement is not a goal, it’s a step on the way to a goal, and that goal is the improvement of learning.

We need learning development plans, not school improvement plans.

This might be dismissed as a faddish, change-for-the-sake-of-change, but it think it’s much more important than that.  In fact, I think the name we’re giving these plans belies a far more fundamental problems for our schooling system.

Learning Development

We’ve put schools at the heart of our schooling system; we concentrate on them as institutions.  But schools do not exist for the sake of existing, nor yet for the sake of being school.  Rather, they exist for one main purpose: to support the learning of children and young people.  I’ve not mentioned teaching, again because that clouds the issue: schools don’t exist to foster teaching, they exist because our society has found that the institution of the school, which includes teaching, is the best way to support the learning of the largest number of children (Sidorkin, 2011).

Moving from school development or improvement plans to learning development plans signals a change in our understanding of what it is we’re about.  It also signals that the walls we’ve drawn up around schools, schooling and “education” (taken in a very narrow sense) should be much more permeable than they currently seem to be.

The new plans might end up looking substantially the same as they do now, with one exception: each section would need to show how it would impact on, and improve, learning.  (It’s worth noting that, although I’ve said that schools exist to support children’s learning, that does not preclude learning by others, such as staff and family members).

For some items on the Learning Development Plan (LDP), this change will be relatively straightforward, such as an increase in learning resources or more differentiated learning tasks in classroom. For other items, however, the link to learning may be more difficult to express (capital expenditure for example). And it is precisely in these more difficult cases, where links to learning are more obscured, that concentrating on the process of learning rather than on the school itself will be of the most value. This change provides a clear standard school staff and governors can use to not only gauge what should be done but to evaluate what has been done.

The question to be answered will become not, “Have we met our targets?” but “Have we improved learning – and how can we tell?”

I would suggest this change, which may seem cosmetic, actually goes directly to the heart of what schooling Is supposed to be, and should be, about.  It’s not about the school, it’s about learning.

Let’s move on from the system that stops short of where we want to be and move to a system which has its heart in the right place.

Reference: Sidorkin, A.M., 2011. On the essence of education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 30(5), pp. 521-527.

2 thoughts on “R.I.P. School Improvement Plans

  1. A good piece and interesting suggestion. The language we use has a significant influence on the culture we create. The focus on learning is absolutely spot on. The shift over the last 10-20 years from schemes of work to learning structures means that the focus is on what pupils learn rather than on delivery of a series of tasks. Unfortunately, language can be confused and/or confounding (sometimes deliberately so) and the unnecessary and unhelpful polarisation between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ approaches to teaching means that an emphasis on learning is seen either as the devils work or the golden fleece of education. Actually, the focus on purpose and ownership of education shows that there is a dynamic between the two. Your suggestion, clearly explicated, would be a helpful one!

    1. Thank you! I’ve been thinking about this quite some time… language sets the lens through which we observe and contact the world, so you’re right, it’s important…

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