I have been a Headteacher for over nine years now and, at the age of 48, this much I know about the tricky issue of planning the development of an outstanding school.
Sustained, deep improvement of schools takes time. Twelve years ago I sat next to the late Derek Wise at dinner and asked him how long it had taken him to develop Cramlington to be the centre of excellence it had become under his leadership; he replied, Seven years to turn the oil tanker round facing in the right direction and then another seven years to get to this point. I have been at Huntington six years as Headteacher, and we are about to embark upon the third three-year phase of development.
This summer our students’ examination results broke many records for our school; we are coming to the end of a three year development plan, over which time we have seen our headline GCSE figure rise by 10% from 55% to 65% 5 A*-C GCSE grades EM and our English and Mathematics departments have attained their best A*-C GCSE pass rates ever. However, despite our well-planned success, it might just be the time for us to make significant changes if we are going to continue to improve and become an outstanding school.
I am a fan of Sigmoid Curve analysis. Whenever an organisation implements change there is a general pattern of development explained by Sigmoid Curve analysis, shown in this first diagram:

SC 1

The key issue is when to introduce the next phase of change, explored in the second diagram:

SC 2

You want to reach point Y on an upward, not downward, trajectory; but when can you tell that it’s time to jump off the first curve? Riding the first curve while cultivating the second is always the best option; clinging to the first and trying to prolong it is a pointless waste of energy. When all is well and you are at the top of your game, then it’s probably the time to plan your next curve. This is a graph of our last seven years’ 5 A*-C GCSE grades EM headline figures:
I began as Headteacher in 2007 and 2008 was my first set of results: a perfect Sigmoid Curve? I have asked colleagues where they think we are on the first Sigmoid Curve in the second diagram and what they think we need to do over the next three years to get to Blue staron the 5 A*-C EM graph in 2016? The responses have been invaluable in shaping what we do next.
Charles Handy explained the Sigmoid Curve phenomenon thus: The paradox of success, that what got you where you are, won’t keep you where you are, is a hard lesson to learn. I am left with the challenge, I think, of motivating colleagues to embrace change just when things look pretty damn good.
I once heard the impressive Ani Magill talk about what outstanding schools look/feel/sound like and from her talk I devised a simple self-evaluation tool which I use periodically with SLT to judge our progress towards being outstanding. She described what she finds in outstanding schools and what she finds in failing schools when she visits other institutions. I devised Self-Evaluation spectrum sheets based on what she said; the example below is about the type of Conversations one might hear in schools:
O or F – Conversations
In the New Year I am going to ask all colleagues to complete the five spectra on: Accountability; Conversations; Culture; Leadership; and Systems, and the responses will help us think further about where we are on the road to being outstanding.
The only way to become outstanding as a school is through improving the quality of teaching. We need to break the glass ceiling which surrounds outstanding practice so colleagues aspire to it and see it as achievable, rather than a stick to beat people with or a burden to demoralise colleagues. David Hopkins articulates this as The Elephant in the Classroom and bases much of his thinking around this on the ideas of Richard Elmore of Harvard University, who says, Confusing people and practice is deeply rooted in the culture of schools, and it is especially resilient because it resides in the beliefs and the language of school people. We speak of ‘gifted’ or ‘natural’ teachers, for example, without ever thinking about the implications of that language for how people improve their practice. If practice is a gift that falls out of the sky onto people, then the likelihood that we will improve our practice at any scale is minimal. There are only so many sunbeams to go around, and there aren’t enough for everyone.
Whilst we have job descriptions for classroom teachers at our school, what I am looking to appoint is ‘sunshine’; people who like children and have the deep-rooted commitment to doing all they can to provide them with the best education possible. You know, radiators rather than drains.
Whilst we want to appoint ‘sunshine’, we have to be able to generate ‘sunshine’ too. What we must do is be open to the observation of our practice in order to develop it, and ensure we challenge the practice and not the individual teacher. We must recognise the difference between practice and personality. The challenge is to expand our repertoires and take on new skills. In other words, support colleagues as they take risks developing their own pedagogic practice.
John Hattie’s comments at the London Festival of Education made me think. He said that, We are the first to deny our expertise as teachers and it is killing us as a profession; where is the Royal College of teachers? I thought of the outstanding teachers we have at our school and wondered why they aren’t at the centre of developing their peers to be outstanding teachers too; in a year’s time they will be.
Vic Goddard at Passmores recently matched my Twitter boast of having only four development priorities in our SDP. Well, our next three year plan will have just one Hattie-inspired priority:  to change the school structures to maximise the impact of teaching upon student outcomes. It will be as simple and as complex as that. Informed by the views of all our colleagues, in January we will take our collective SLT wisdom away for the weekend and work out what we need to do…

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This post has 10 Comments

  1. I do agree with the Sigmoid curve thesis. But doesn’t the ‘one priority’ need to be reversed? First what student outcomes, then what teaching impact, then changing structures if you must.

  2. The key thing we are seeing happening in schools gaining the Naace 3rd Millennium Learning Award (which is a peer-reviewed award by the way) is teachers leading children to a culture of learning and attitudes towards learning that significantly raises their energy in learning.
    Their commentaries are also saying things that chime well with your analysis of how to drive improvement.

  3. I really enjoy reading your blog, John. Thank you for sharing. What 3 personal attributes do you think a headteacher needs to call on if s/he is faced with moving a small school with uneven teaching to one where the quality of teaching is at least good: Ofsted revisiting in 6 weeks’ time?

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