Case study: Supporting your support staff

Written by: Katherine Cocker-Goring | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In the school team, every person counts. School leader Katherine Cocker-Goring discusses her work to boost CPD and development for support staff and to more closely link student progress and staff development

At Barnes Wallis Academy, we achieved something incredible last year. The proportion of pupils achieving five A* to C GCSE grades including English and maths rose from 32 to 66 per cent and our Progress 8 score improved from -0.14 to -0.01. However, the best thing about this achievement was the fact that we did it with largely the same staffing body as we had had the previous year.

The experience taught us the insurmountable importance of investing in people – because people improve schools. We’d invested heavily in our teaching staff through provision of quality and relevant CPD in teaching and learning and strategic planning. However, this left us with very little time to invest in the foundations of the school: our support teams.

At the same time, the challenges facing our support teams were increasing – teaching assistants were becoming faculty-based (as opposed to the previous model of being linked to one child all day) and there was reduced staffing in administrative teams.

Therefore, this year, my principal and I discussed making a commitment to investing in our support teams by improving performance management and CPD systems, and I was given responsibility for bringing the initiative into fruition.

Personal best, no excuses

My overarching aim was to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of support staff by creating a revised, challenging and supportive performance management system. The desired outcome was that all support staff would achieve performance targets by the end of the year, while at the same time achieving competency in all professional standards.

My theory was that this would not only ensure that the school was achieving “value for money”, but would also maximise student progress, as support offered to students and teachers would be improved.

In addition, I expected to improve morale across the support teams, to continue to develop the “personal best, no excuses” school culture, and to improve support staff attitudes towards personal and professional development.

My first step was to ensure that we unified performance management across support staff and teachers. As much as possible, I tried to bring the two systems in line so that there was a real sense of every member of staff, regardless of role, being on the same team.

This included standardising documentation in terms of layout, language and design, and then introducing professional standards for teaching assistants and administrative teams, similar to the teaching standards.

However, the most ground-breaking thing we did was to give every member of the support staff a progress-related target, ensuring that in maximising the efficiency of our support teams, we also maximised student progress.

It takes a whole team

I introduced the new performance management system at the first CPD support staff session of the year. I told staff the urban legend of John F Kennedy and his visit to a space centre in the mid-1960s.

Rumour has it that Kennedy met a man sweeping the floor, and he asked him: “What do you do here?” The man replied, “I sweep the floors.” He met another man emptying rubbish and asked the same thing. The man replied: “I’m earning a living.”

Finally, Kennedy met another man wearing overalls and asked the same question, but this time the man smiled and said: “Mr President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

We discussed and explored this concept and agreed that just like that caretaker, we were united in what we wanted to achieve: the best possible outcomes for our students to give them the greatest possible life chances. This was the perfect opportunity to introduce the first new performance management target: to maximise student progress. Immediately, the concept clicked, and when I asked staff to brainstorm how their roles contribute to student progress, not a pen in the room was still.

At the next CPD session, the focus was to address the second two performance management targets, which would be based on the new professional standards. On seeing the focus of the meeting, one member of staff immediately questioned the initiative: “Why do we have performance management, if we cannot progress in pay?”

This question reinforced the importance of ensuring that by the end of this first session, support staff saw performance management as an essential component of their personal and professional development, with a fundamental belief that our children deserve the very best out of us, regardless of whether or not the member of staff has the incentive of increased pay.

Embedding professional standards

Rather than handing the new standards to staff immediately, we started with some vision and values work so that I could ensure buy-in and reduce resistance. We looked at the mission and values of the school, and considered how each support team fit into this bigger picture.

Teams then wrote a specific mission and set of values for their own department. After this, I introduced the standards. The first thing I asked everyone to do was to check which value each of the standards linked to. This ensured immediate buy-in as the standards clearly linked to the fundamental purpose of their roles.

Next, each member of the support staff conducted a self-assessment of their proficiency in each standard. This was then the starting point for agreeing performance management targets, which ensured that every member of staff has ownership of them and immediately increased commitment.

Once performance management targets had been agreed, we met again to review the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of each department (a SWOT analysis) – I then met with each member of support staff individually to discuss the threats specific to his/her role.

As a result, I was then able to tailor future sessions to ensure that support staff teams were given time to develop contingency planning, standard operating procedures, and collaboration across departments.

Empowering staff, evidencing impact

So far, there have certainly been challenges – the major challenge being time. Finding opportunities for support teams to meet after school (when reception and Student Services still need to be staffed) and during school (when teaching assistants need to be in classrooms), is an on-going struggle.

Currently, we are trialling rotating attendance at training, but this is far from perfected and often, the same people seem to lose out. However, the very fact that this is now seen as “losing out” is certainly testament to the shift in attitudes towards CPD.

One comment made by a member of support staff particularly stood out to me: in an email, she explained that she felt that the CPD she had been offered so far this year was finally relevant to her role, and that she felt a renewed sense of her capacity to make a difference. Receiving this feedback at a point when I was struggling to find time to fit everything in, certainly gave me the boost I needed to keep going.

While the initiative is still underway, the impact so far is very encouraging:

  • Improved performance management system for support staff, which is fit-for-purpose.
  • Improved efficiency of support teams with almost every member of the support team on track to achieve performance management targets.
  • Successful transition of teaching assistants into departments.
  • Increased empowerment of staff and development of culture and ethos.

The next steps are to gather evidence of impact and review the new systems for next year. This will include a second audit of professional standards, staff voice on CPD, staff empowerment and staff morale, and final performance management reviews.

So far, our commitment to investing in people has paid dividends. As we continue to invest in our staff, our culture and ethos continues to permeate into staff, students and the local community. Every member of staff is valued just as highly as each other, regardless of their role, and every member of staff is instrumental in improving the life chances of our young people.

  • Katherine Cocker-Goring is assistant principal at The Barnes Wallis Academy in Lincolnshire. She is a member of Ambition School Leadership’s Future Leaders 2016 cohort.

Ambition School Leadership

Ambition School Leadership is a charity that runs leadership development programmes in England to help school leaders and middle leaders create more impact in schools that serve disadvantaged children and their communities. For more information, visit www.ambitionschoolleadership.org.uk


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