No Silver Bullets: Day-in, day-out school improvement

Written by: Paul K Ainsworth | Published:
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This is like saying lets get joy out of tinkering on improving a Morris Minor, when we could be ...

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School improvement is not about silver bullets. Rather it is about making small incremental gains day-in, day-out. A new book is offering 89 such gains to help focus the mind. Author Paul K Ainsworth dissects four of them here...

There are no secrets to school improvement, there are no silver bullets and no magic answers. Unfortunately, it is far less glamorous. It is a matter of looking at all the systems in your school, asking how we can make them better and then applying continual effort to improve them.

What are silver bullets?

We have all worked in schools where the leaders have felt under pressure to find the next big idea which will transform the school.

Some colleagues smile wryly at the thought of one of their senior leaders attending a course, presentation or reading a book and returning to school confident that they have found the education elixir which has all the answers.

Depending on how long you have been in education you may be able to think of such ideas. It could be vertical tutor groups which will transform behaviour. You may remember the applied ICT qualifications of the past, such as AIDA, CIDA and DIDA courses which would help “outcomes” to rocket; it might be a certain length of lesson which will transform teaching and learning.

These are what I call “silver bullets”. I can certainly remember being sucked into this style of thinking and looking at those schools graded as Ofsted outstanding, or the schools with incredible outcomes, or the multi-academy trusts (MATs) that are feted nationally, and believing they would have all the answers.

There is no doubt that such strategies have had a positive impact on some schools, but they are not the magic answer for all schools. It could be argued that the same group of staff could see the same positive impact with a different strategy if they threw themselves into it with an identical passion.

Day-in, day out

Over the last six years, I have worked across four MATs and have been charged with supporting heads to improve their schools. This has helped develop my thinking about the “no silver bullets” approach and how effective school improvement is something that is actually done day-in, day-out.

This approach has been seen across a range of professions and industries. Educator Mike Hughes wrote about “tweak to transform” (2002). Clive Woodward, the England Rugby World Cup-winning coach, memorably talked about finding 100 things and doing them one per cent better. David Brailsford, the British cycling supremo, described it as the aggregation of marginal gains.

When I work in the secondary sector, now for The Blessed Peter Snow CAT, I have a range of tweaks and actions which I suggest to school leaders which over time will develop teaching and learning, raise external outcomes, improve behaviour, and ensure high attendance.

They are not silver bullets, instead they will create marginal gains which, when enacted day-in, day-out, can transform schools.

This way of working can reduce stress upon teaching staff and leaders. The “tweaks” are considered carefully to ensure no-one suffers from overload. Those experienced in school improvement will think carefully about the order in which such improvements are made so that colleagues develop their skills at the appropriate pace and no-one is left behind.

So I would like to share some brief summaries of four of the 89 actions from my book. Each on their own is certainly not ground-breaking, but if leaders choose from the list carefully, apply themselves to a small number, and make them work before moving on, they will have the power to transform in a sustainable way.

The actions

Section 1: Developing quality first teaching
Action 7: Book is King!

Pupil books present the story of school effectiveness. One of the most effective ways I have seen for raising the profile of high-quality learning is the idea that “book is king”. The best outcomes of a student’s learning are what is in their books. If you wish to see progress you should be able to turn the pages and see how the student’s work improves.

This is not about marking, with teachers spending hours on books. In fact, with effective verbal feedback, individual or conferencing, progress will be seen.

There needs to be an attitude in the school that there are no excuses and everybody has to show care in the books. When it is not shown, this needs to be addressed.

Coupled with this will be simple expectations of how books will be presented which are agreed and used across the schools. Some schools implement their own system of “cold” and “hot” tasks which capture the steps that students are making in their learning.

Section 2: Raising External Outcomes
Action 35: Check GCSE equivalents are still compliant

Ofqual normally ensures that courses are given two years’ notice as to whether they are compliant for performance tables. This means that you know if a student begins to study a course in year 10 and it is compliant, then it will also be when they sit their examinations.

Sadly, every year I see schools where the students have worked through a course and it is not compliant and this then has a significant impact on the outcomes of the school. It tends to be in vocational subjects where there is the most movement.

If you operate a three-year key stage 4, ensure all courses are compliant at the end of year 9. If a course isn’t, there are lists of compliant qualifications so it should be possible to find something similar that covers the material the students have studied for a year.

If you use a two-year key stage 4, ensure that all courses are checked before students commence study. Do not assume this has been done. You must “check the qualification still counts and then check it again”.

Section 3: Improving Behaviour
Action 53: Visible presence at the start of the school day from senior leaders

The easiest and most cost-effective method of improving the behaviour of students is to ensure that every day they are met as they walk into school by senior leaders.

There is much debate about whether headteachers should teach or not and I have no firm view on this, but I do believe that at least one day in the week, the headteacher should greet the students. Then there should be a rota so that it is part and parcel of every senior leader’s work in the school.

Leaders need to agree on what approach they are taking to behaviour and uniform. Some schools find an encouraging tone is best and others believe a punitive assertive tone is suitable. Whichever approach you take, stick to it and make it routine. That way you can build your relationships at the school gates.

Section 4: Ensuring High Attendance
Action 74: Gather attendance transition information

Until the world of Covid we would have taken it as read that we would collect attainment data from the key stage. Admittedly in the world of CTF transfers such information is moved straight into our MIS system. Yet attendance is often Cinderella in our collection of information and it is quite rare during transition for feeder primary schools to be asked which attendance strategies were most effective with different children.

In September’s hopefully post-Covid world it is even more important that we gather information from feeder schools as to what attendance was really like for children and not just figures that can have been heavily affected by Covid factors.

Indeed, perhaps the best attendance figure to look at would be the attendance of next year’s year 7 pupils when they were in year 4. Then when pupils arrive in school we do not have to wait until October to see what trends look like. Instead for those pupils who have had historic attendance issues we can begin work immediately. If we have also had feedback on what strategies were most effective in the previous school, we can use this intelligence too.

  • Paul K Ainsworth has held director of school improvement roles in four multi-academy trusts and currently works with Infinity Academies Trust in Lincolnshire and The Blessed Peter Snow CAT in West Yorkshire. He has supported leaders of small rural secondary schools to large 11 to 18 urban ones, working intensively with those in Ofsted categories. No Silver Bullets: Day-in, day-out school improvement is Paul’s ninth book following Get that Teaching Job, Middle Leadership, and The Senior Leader’s Yearbook. He is also a TEDx speaker.

Further information & resources

No Silver Bullets: Day-in, day-out school improvement was published in January 2021. Visit

This is like saying lets get joy out of tinkering on improving a Morris Minor, when we could be driving a Lexus electric.
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