Solutions Looking For Problems

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What exactly seems to be the problem?

We have some solutions so let’s find some problems. In terms of school and departmental improvement plans and target setting, how do school leaders identify and select priorities for their schools?

Too often the approach to this “appears to resemble a group of doctors trying to treat a patient’s condition without an accurate thermometer or access to the latest medical research” according to experts.

This is hardly surprising, particularly for schools and leadership teams in challenging circumstances. Here the pressure to deliver quick remedies and sticking plaster treatments are prescient.

Now look here

So how do leaders approach diagnosis in these circumstances? Quite often due to the national or regional landscape the agreed narrative is the starting point. The targets need to be around engaging  boys, stretching high attaining students or narrowing the pupil premium gap. This pressurised leadership team in an Ofsted category looking to move quickly naturally grab hold of ideological solutions.

They look to the school down the road that marks the books of pupil premium students first. The school the Deputy came from take their ‘disengaged’ boys bowling. The academy chain’s flagship school in a leafy suburb has introduced Saturday mastery classes for high attainers. Let’s do the same.

This lack of diagnosis leads to guesswork, solutions looking for problems and leaves the school with an initiative and intervention overload. This approach can drain our teachers, confuse our parents and distract our students.

Dubious data

Leadership teams using data from examinations and assessments is clearly better; measuring the symptoms of the condition allows for more accurate diagnosis, right? The primary school due an inspection with low phonics scores at the end of Year 1 for its pupil premium students launches into a 1:1 reading programme, its data shows a 33% improvement so scales up for the following year.

But wait. The 33% was 1 pupil and this pupil had missed 3/5 interventions due to dentist treatments. Data is important but leaders must be careful not to attribute correlation with causation. Quite often by the time the symptoms appear, it may be too late to treat. The data must be part of a root and branch audit of the schools current practice. An example would be the TDT’s audit which looks at culture, focus, needs analysis and crucially research, innovation and evidence; carefully building CPD programmes to support this need.

This diagnosis will identify themes for your school in your context. Many schools in opportunity areas have identified that literacy levels in students are the main conditions causing the symptoms of low attainment, poor engagement and a widening of the pupil premium gap. The data may show that reading scores are low. However, a full audit including all stakeholders may reveal that decoding is good but comprehension is poor thereby allowing schools to define a very tight area of focus.

Bye-bye interventions

A positive byproduct of this approach is the stripping away of many interventions that do not directly contribute to this area of focus.

Is there any benefit to a trip to a water park at the weekend for the pupil premium students who struggle to read? This can save money, time and allow teachers and students to focus on evidence based ‘best bets’ for these tight areas of focus. These best bets must be in my opinion taken from the comprehensive sets of guidance report and toolkit suggestions from the EEF.

Throw the kitchen sink at it

Having specified a tight area of focus, it is important to make changes. These need to be considered, incremental and implemented fully. The patient recovering from a heart attack needs more exercise, a healthier diet and regular check-ups. She also needs to know that treatments prescribed are most likely to work for her in her situation. The need for exercise is clear but attempting to run the London marathon the same year would be a bridge too far.

Yet how many times do we see schools identify an issue and throw the proverbial kitchen sink interventions at it in August and measure the outcomes in the summer? We need to take time to potentially change the curriculum, build CPD programmes and factor in full implementation with intelligent adaptation thrown in. The placebo pill of interventions might make things feel better but ultimately the issue will return.

So, if your school or department is in the process of writing your school improvement plan, consider if you will these 4 suggestions.

1. Carry out a full audit

Use data, both quantitative from assessments and exams and qualitative from staff/stakeholder voice. Is the problem really the problem? Do you have solutions ready for problems? Are you paying too much attention to the agreed narrative? How is your confirmation bias?

2. Peel off the sticking plasters

Help reduce unnecessary workload for staff and stop distracting students with interventions that do not address the underlying issues.

3. Look for best bets

Access evidence and research based solutions to your schools’ issues that are most likely to work in your context. Take time in this explore phase

4. Prepare for implementation from the outset

Assess how ready the school is for the new initiative, factor in what training may be needed and what infrastructure would need to be put into place. Take your time in this phase, maybe even conduct a ‘pre-mortem’ on what may go wrong.

More on this in my next blog!

Phil Naylor

Phil is in his second Assistant Headship in Blackpool. He has taught Science for 17 years, is a Science SLE, an ITT and NQT professional mentor, as well as a Primary School Governor. Phil is also Assistant Director of the Blackpool Research School, heads up the TDT CPD Excellence hub and is currently studying for an MSc Science.

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