For my entire teaching career I have relished the challenge of working in schools that draw on socio-economically deprived communities. I have worked at Helenswood School in East Sussex since 2007 and have seen it improve in a number of ways.
Before our current headteacher took up post in 2009, there was almost no quality-assurance of teaching standards and very little support for developing teaching practice. This was confirmed by Ofsted after a visit in 2009.
The key problem was that Ofsted’s criteria for teaching and learning had rarely been used to help develop teaching practice and, crucially, had not been shared with teaching staff as part of a strategy. As a result, some direct interventions were required to drive up standards.
The first step was to train key teachers in Assessment for Learning (AfL) and have these skills shared across the school. In September 2010, we created a Teaching and Learning Team made up of advanced skills teachers and lead practitioners (of which I was then a member).
The team members do not receive any extra remuneration but are given 12.5 hours of non-teaching time each fortnight to strategically and operationally develop teaching and learning throughout the school, initially working with teachers whose drop-in data suggests they could benefit from individual support. It has proven to be an incredibly effective investment of personnel.
Ofsted’s next inspection in October 2011 found improvements had already been made, with half of lessons judged to be good or outstanding. However, more was needed to quality-assure high standards across the school and the inspectors identified that “teachers were working harder than students”, contradicting our aim of developing a culture of independent learning where students were most active, allowing teachers to assess progress and respond to individual needs.
Both observations gave us clear targets to work towards. It was at this time that I was accepted onto the Future Leaders programme.
Giving it a go
We determined that these changes would require holding teachers accountable for the quality of their teaching practice, but that an important factor had to be considered first.
Accountability is vital, but it could not come before building our teachers’ confidence and broadening their experience of Ofsted’s standards. My first task was to develop an initiative to both improve the standard of teaching and to develop teachers’ confidence in the classroom.
I spoke with teachers about what made them feel uncomfortable in the classroom and what they thought their key areas for development were. Not surprisingly, the teachers’ needs largely matched the key areas of Ofsted’s new definition of good and outstanding teaching.
So in January 2012, we laid the foundations for improving teaching practice with an initiative to build teachers’ confidence and encourage them to take risks. We called this “Give it a Go” and chose four days where all staff were expected to experiment with daring new methods of teaching their regular material. We also primed the students with special assemblies highlighting the career benefits if they developed their independent learning skills and raised their aspirations.
During “Give it a Go” days, teachers were encouraged to use new techniques to promote independent learning, use AfL, and demonstrate student progress. Crucially, they had to have another teacher’s feedback whenever possible. In case any experiments went badly wrong, the school’s behaviour team was on standby and we made it clear that whatever happened we would celebrate teachers “giving it a go” and encourage them to try again taking the feedback into account.
As it turned out, no intervention was required and it was a resounding success. One science teacher who had consistently achieved Grade 3 and sometimes a Grade 4 for her teaching was initially very sceptical.
But following a coaching session, she agreed to plan a lesson where she took her class outside with toilet rolls, rubber gloves and pieces of A4 paper to learn about the cosmos. The lesson was a real success and she was converted. Overcoming her internal obstacles has been a seminal moment in her career and she is now a lead practitioner who regularly achieves a Grade 2 or 1 in observations.
Afterwards we sent questionnaires to teachers and used their responses to guide teaching and learning strategy throughout the rest of the year. Feedback was almost universally positive – teachers felt more confident because the fear of failure was removed, and this made students feel more comfortable and able to make much more progress than normal.
We also sent questionnaires to students and they were largely positive. One year 9 student said: “We all stood in the corridor making human bar charts and I now find maths much easier to understand. Because the lesson was active, and we didn’t just listen to Miss **** talking about maths and telling us what to do and we did it all ourselves, we learnt a lot more.”
The two recurring negative responses concerned teachers who did not “give it a go” or when the new style of teaching challenged students. We expected a number of teachers to not fully engage, but this feedback allowed us to provide support for those teachers to take more risks. For the students, pastoral work and lesson time encouraged them to embrace their “stretch zone” rather than defaulting to their comfort zone during challenging tasks.
In May 2012 the senior leadership team and an Ofsted inspector carried out an informal assessment; the number of lessons judged to be good or outstanding under the new Ofsted criteria increased to 67 per cent – up 17 per cent in less than a year.
Teaching and Learning Team
We have now extended the work of our Teaching and Learning Team and offered heads of faculty the chance to commission support from them. The team’s mission is very clear: “We will be relentless in building staff confidence, motivation and resilience, while maintaining the highest standards throughout 2012/13. This will result in 100 per cent of lessons being good or outstanding.”
The team now divides into two groups of three with a leader for each group in rotation. One group supports one faculty for one term, meaning six faculties benefit from their support each year. The team has so far secured good and outstanding teaching in all of the faculties it has worked with.
Teaching quality is now maintained via drop-ins and the development of high-quality feedback from the senior leadership team and teachers to colleagues at all levels. As a senior leader, I felt that it was crucial that NQTs and early career teachers could come into my lessons and feel comfortable about giving me feedback – and that I act on it too!
The latest data shows that 87 per cent of lessons at our school are judged as good or outstanding. The key factors in improving teaching and learning have been:
High expectations from the start.
Developing a team of lead practitioners.
Having materials and support always available.
Matching the developmental needs of teachers with high-quality, impact-driven CPD.
Encouraging teachers to take risks and reflect.
Most importantly, celebrating and sharing our success.
Future LeadersThe Future Leaders programme prepares talented teachers for headship in challenging schools. Visit www.future-leaders.org.uk or follow them on Twitter @FutureLeadersCT
Ian McCrae is a deputy headteacher at Helenswood School in East Sussex and is currently on the Future Leaders programme. “Give it a Go” was Ian’s Impact Initiative project, a requirement of Future Leaders. Email him on firstname.lastname@example.org