Coaching strategies for school improvement

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When he was asked to lead improvements within his school’s humanities faculty, senior leader Michael Burns used a strategy of coaching to help staff develop their teaching practice and raise student achievement.

I joined Dyke House in 2008 and knew it was the right place for me. At my interview the headteacher explained the problems that the school faced, how he was turning it around, and the part that I could play in that.

I joined as head of resistant materials and was able to play a part in the work that resulted in Dyke House being one of the most improved English state schools in 2013.

In September 2012, I became part of the senior leadership team and was asked to improve the humanities faculty. It was the only department in the school that was below national standards. This was particularly notable in history, where the percentage of students getting A* to C had dropped from 60 per cent in 2010 to 42 per cent in 2012. Teachers were committed and hardworking, but it just wasn’t having the impact on students. The head had noted the improvements made in the technology department and asked me to apply some of the improvement strategies across to the humanities faculty.

So I had to go and take a really close look at what was happening in our history and geography lessons. My first impression was that there were a lot of traditional teaching techniques and that it was not enabling all students to make progress. It was clear that students wanted to learn and teachers wanted to teach – but not enough lessons were meeting the needs for all groups of students.

I was a bit daunted at first. The improvements I had led in the technology department were very much based on my subject knowledge and my ability to discuss and refine this with colleagues. 

Now I was in a faculty that I thought of as far more academic, and I was aware that some staff might be not appreciate my lack of experience in their field.

So I built everything around coaching. I had recently received some excellent training as part of Future Leaders, a leadership development programme I had joined that summer, and asked the head to provide some more. My aim was not to arrive and tell staff how to improve, but to work together, helping them to find their own solutions.

The coaching began in the autumn term. The first step was to arrange meetings with the head of faculty and head of the history and ask them questions about what the department was like, what they would like to change, and what they felt was being done well.

I didn’t say: “You are going to do this...” – but I kept a list of the things they believed needed to change or improve. As part of this, I also asked for other people’s observations, including the head and the previous senior leadership team member who had line-managed humanities. Having regular meetings allowed me to keep people focused and thinking on improvement, rather than it being lost in the everyday business of school.

We quickly came up with some clear actions, milestones and outcomes. Humanities teachers wanted to see what outstanding teaching looked like in other schools, how to make best use of their NQTs, and wanted some very clear intervention strategies that could be used to improve students’ attainment and behaviour where necessary. It was great to see that the faculty was open to change and had clear ideas about their own development.

My role was then to help fulfil these needs. A former colleague of mine was head of an outstanding humanities department at a nearby school, so I set up a link, and the whole faculty went on a visit. They got the chance to see some excellent teaching practices, watch how students could be engaged in different ways, and speak to peers about how they worked.

These visits, combined with continued coaching meetings, helped staff to identify possible improvements in their own lessons. 

Many realised they were moving students on too quickly, before learning was clear, and others observed that both subjects were being delivered in a style that required high levels of competency in English language.

So teaching practices began to change. They began using strategies such as gap analysis, pupil response, self-assessment, examination-style questions, and redrafting policy to name but a few.

Furthermore, as well as overhauling the schemes of learning and resources, the head of faculty researched and introduced a departmental literacy strategy to tackle his subject’s need for academic language.

This also led to improvements across the school and really raised the reputation and confidence of the faculty. Data also began to show improvements, and the department worked hard on standardising marking to ensure that this was reflective of actual student progress, not just optimism.

In history, early entry exam grades and coursework marks showed that these improvements were genuine. The faculty was really buzzing as teachers saw how much they could do given the opportunity to reflect and develop.

By the January (2013), we had moved to meeting for coaching only every two weeks and by the spring I was just checking in every so often for an informal update. I am now at a different school and am entirely confident that those teachers have equipped themselves with the skills they need to continue their excellent work.

The summer results were staggeringly good. Results in geography rose 25 percentage points with 75 per cent of students getting A* to C, while history results rose by 50 percentage points. An amazing 95 per cent of our students got A* to C.

When I began this work, the teachers didn’t feel confident they could teach in different ways. Helping them to change this belief was really important, but it didn’t take long for them to realise they could behave differently in lessons – and get different outcomes as a result. Seeing is believing.

I also had to get past some of my own boundaries related to my lack of subject knowledge; it was about showing them I was on their side, and I was. They are good, hard-working teachers with great skills that just needed to be honed. 

Coaching let me use their knowledge of subject and department to let them improve themselves. That’s how I see real leadership: giving individuals the opportunity to work towards a group objective by allowing them to develop themselves.

The thing that I am most proud of is that it was my colleagues who did all the work. I asked the right questions and put them in touch with the right people, but they were the ones who had to reflect on their teaching, worked hard to develop and do the nitty-gritty of the teaching that made such an impressive improvement. 

I also learned that it is not enough to just have meetings with key people. You have to scratch beneath the surface and unearth the fundamentals by exploring different perspectives and experiences. 

You can’t possibly solve problems based on one viewpoint when it affects a whole department or departments. Basically, improvement cannot be achieved without building honest relationships.

  • Michael Burns is now associate deputy headteacher at South Shields Community School.

Future Leaders
The Future Leaders programme is a leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools. It offers a residency year in a challenging school, leadership development, personalised coaching and peer-support. To apply or nominate a colleague, visit www.future-leaders.org.uk


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