This post was written by Jon Tait @TeamTait.
Standards in schools have been increasing dramatically over the past 20 years. If you liken school improvement to a jigsaw puzzle that leadership teams are trying to solve, then there were quite a few schools that didn’t have many pieces in the box 20 years ago. Standards have risen sharply over that time and in part have been down to a refusal to accept underperformance from both the DFE and Ofsted. Satisfactory once used to mean just that, but now the bar has been raised and that word eradicated from the educational dictionary; floor standards have been imposed and failing schools taken over by multi academy trusts; and schools are now judged on more progress measures and data than you can ever imagine.
Take a look at most schools today and you’ll find lots more pieces in their jigsaw box. Schools have got wise to quick fixes and obvious school improvement strategies have spread far and wide. Standards and school monitoring have increased and intensified so significantly that you’ll be hard pushed to find many schools that haven’t got the basics right. It’s now the job of the senior leadership team to find the last pieces of the jigsaw and the most important pieces that are going to make the biggest difference in joining the rest of the pieces together.
No Silver Bullets
School leadership teams should not be looking for the silver bullets anymore. These bullets were last fired through the guns of the GNVQ’s and BTECs that used to count for far more qualifications than they were truly worth and have been slowly fading out ever since. Instead, the real skill of today’s school leader is to begin looking at the real detail in the classroom, analysing and evaluating what is really missing from your students’ educational experiences.
The Final Pieces
By standing back and analysing & evaluating your provision, only then can you start to see where the missing pieces of your jigsaw are – and they may be in some of the areas that you’ve never looked before. Looking into research about how children learn, how they remember information and how they are motivated might just help you uncover some surprising truths that your current provision is not supportive of.
The Corner Pieces
When looking for the final pieces, it’s also worth thinking about finding the pieces that are going to have the biggest impact in fitting with your already broken jigsaw. Think about the corner piece of a jigsaw and how it links to other pieces either side and below it, providing strength and structure to the jigsaw. Where are these pieces in your school and which parts are in need of that support from another piece?
Fitting the Pieces Together
Once you’ve found the last pieces, it’s then another job to start to fit them all together. For example, is the research that you’ve found on how students remember information talking to your schemes of learning? There is no good saying that you know about it, if the way you structure your lessons and assessment aren’t in tune with this. A jigsaw isn’t finished just because you’ve found all the pieces, it only becomes finished once all of the pieces have been carefully linked together.
All of this comes back to a marginal gains approach to education and school improvement that has been seen to be so successful in sport over the last 10-15 years. In short, this is the theory that at the top of your profession you struggle to find anything that can bring about rapid progress or improvement over night. However, by doing lots of little things a little bit better, once added up, will start to make the big difference that you were originally looking for.
What is also interesting to note is that the final pieces in a jigsaw are sometimes the pieces, that once fitted, go unnoticed. Leadership is often seen as a macho, cheerleader type role where all decisions have to be big, brave and in people’s eyeline. However, once your organisation is looking for the final pieces, you’ll probably have gone through the process of making the big changes already. This is a stage of leadership that can be quite cute and quiet. These are the changes that can sometimes go unnoticed in the public eye, but when you take a step back and look at them, have had far more impact and significance than any of the more public decisions you have made.
So what are the final pieces in your jigsaw and have you got all of your other pieces linked up and talking to each other? This is ultimately what strategic school improvement is all about. Finding the final pieces might be a difficult task. By the very nature of the task, once you’ve got most of the pieces in your box, finding the last few might turn out to be elusive, for if it was easy, we’d have all done it years ago. The skill here is talking to colleagues in other schools and asking what their last few pieces were and not asking them to just give you the big things that they’ve done. We should now be sharpening our eyes to the finer details in our schools and the research that might open up a new door to an area previously unexplored by our schools.
Take a look at your jigsaw puzzle. Have you got all your pieces? And if not, which pieces are you missing? But remember, even when you’ve got them all, a jigsaw isn’t finished until all the pieces have been joined together to create a strong and supportive structure.