Running staff working groups in schools

Written by: John Rutter | Published:
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Staff working groups can be an effective approach to tackling a range of issues in school, not least planning/delivering CPD or developing practice in specific areas. John Rutter advises

Collegiality and cross-departmental co-operation are two cornerstones of self-improvement in any school. Research shows that teachers working together, sharing ideas and good practice leads to the success of initiatives that would not necessarily work in isolation.

Working groups can be the driving force behind these improvements but their success will depend on buy-in from staff and successful leadership. They present an excellent opportunity for unpromoted staff looking for the whole-school experience necessary for the next step in their career and they free teachers to run with their passions – letting them drive forward an idea or initiative they feel will have benefits for the young people in their care.

There should be a note of caution struck however. Many good ideas are left floundering because of poor implementation. The working group needs a definite goal so it doesn’t end up talking itself round in circles and it needs strong leadership to ensure proper delegation of tasks and buy-in from staff.

Without this, it is the sole province of one person with no hope of sustainability if and when they move on. As a senior leader who has had both success and failure in their working groups I offer my thoughts below on what works and what doesn’t.

Have a definite plan

One of the most successful working groups I ran was to develop outdoor learning in a large secondary school. This was my passion and I was determined to see it succeed. Others I have been involved in have been less successful – whether they exist merely as talking shops on staff morale or, when imposed from above, they fail because they have been run solely as tick box exercises to satisfy inspections.

Most of the time, the working group should be concerned with one of the initiatives from the school improvement plan. As the plan should have been agreed with staff in the first place, this lends legitimacy to the group.

This should guarantee the support of senior management and is a fall-back when people ask why they are being asked to get involved. And if it’s in the plan then it should also be closely connected with positive outcomes for the young people in your school.

Sell it with passion

Having the working group in the improvement plan is a good start but there has to be buy-in on an emotional level from staff and that is where your passion comes in. If you are stepping up to a leadership role and looking for future promotion this is vital experience for the challenges to come. You will need to show you have the will to drive something forward in order to make real change. If you’ve been appointed leader of a working group on literacy but you have no real desire to take it on then it will more than likely fail.

A cross-section of staff

The working group will only have a limited number of members but it is very important to get the message out across the whole school. In my school we used to ask for volunteers but ended up with, for instance, a numeracy working group heavily skewed towards maths teachers with nobody from the department left to take part in parental engagement.

It is more important to get a cross-section from all departments or faculties across the school so they can feedback to their colleagues. Organising this will probably involve a senior management diktat to ensure it works but you may need to apply some pressure explaining why it is a good idea if it is not something they have thought about.

There are other ways to involve the entire school with the work you are doing. For the successful outdoor learning working group that I have mentioned being involved with, we ensured whole staff buy-in with a big launch day.

From the outset the staff naysayers were targeted for their input, told how brilliant it would be for them to get involved and asked to contribute short outdoors teaching sessions. With their input the day was hugely enjoyable and culminated with a staff barbecue to ensure its success.
PDSA and measuring the impact

Don’t worry if you’re thinking of sick animals. Everyone does it. But there is another PDSA more closely associated with improvement methodology which can give a success framework for your working group. Originally derived in the health service, Plan Do Study Act is a method for making and measuring the changes that your group is implementing:

  • Plan the change that needs to be tested.
  • Do – carry out the change.
  • Study the data you have gathered before and after the change and reflect on what has been learned.
  • Act – plan the next change, whether it is more of the same or carrying out something entirely different (perhaps at a bigger scale).

While all aspects of the cycle are important I would say that “plan” and “study” are perhaps more important than the rest. Planning any change in a school is potentially fraught with difficulty and you need to be confident that you have robust reasons for doing anything that may be a drain on anyone’s precious time.

Again, your enthusiasm and passion will be a driver here. People also need to know that what you are doing will make a difference so collect baseline data (although if you can avoid yet another audit of the current state of whole school activity your colleagues will be very pleased) and set some targets to measure it against further down the line. It should go without saying that any impact you measure has to be geared around improvements to learning or attainment by the pupils.

Spread the good news

One of my biggest mistakes with running working groups in the past has been not giving enough thought to feeding back on the successes or the work that has been going on. Even when it has been written into the school improvement calendar for discussion at staff meetings other priorities have sometimes taken precedence – this is a disservice to both your work and to that of your group and gives the impression that the time spent has not been worthwhile.

Having representation from all departments on your groups will help to make sure that information is fed back at departmental meetings. But, even better, ensure you set a date towards the end of the year when all the school working groups will have 10 minutes to feed back to the whole staff body about the work they have been doing.

Get all the members of the group involved to display ownership and so it does not appear just to be your baby. If everyone knows what has been going on and what the benefits have been for both pupils and staff it will be easier to enthuse new members to come on board or others to take your initiative forward in unknown and exciting ways.

Conclusion

For those seeking future promotion opportunities, the whole-school experience that being in charge of a working group can bring – running an improvement project, dealing with staff from across the school and raising attainment through learning and teaching – is invaluable.

But the opportunities go further than that, giving you the chance to indulge your passion and enthusiasm for some aspect of education – a chance that would not be available merely through time spent in your own classroom.

  • John Rutter is headteacher of Inverness High School. Read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2oPn8oi


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