I work as a school improvement partner with a team of subject specialists and specialist leaders of education (SLEs). After doing a number of similar visits to schools at the beginning of last year, I started to consider what value I really offered.

What was the point of me?

Most of what I discussed with the school I was visiting and ultimately agreed to implement came from the department and not from me. I could see the visit as a catalyst in some cases where those departments had asked for help. I’ve been talking with a number of SLEs from different groups about their approaches and looked at where the themes lie
in our experiences.

“They are worried that they have tunnel vision. That they won’t see the full picture and they hope that I might pick up something that they missed.”

In other departments, we are a grim reality. Pressing its cold face to the window and asking to look in the metaphorical boxes that have been put under the stairs. Never to be opened. But they all knew well in advance that we were coming. They all knew what I was going to be looking at and what I would be looking for.

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But really, how much of what we do required us to be there? With the same impetus and desire you can do just as much, if not more if you start from the inside rather than the outside in.

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When we are called into the maths department, generally SLT tend to know that there is a need for improvement, but they don’t have the time to do it, or have the specialist knowledge. In some cases SLT think there is something simple that is being missed.
A simple administrative adjustment that might make all the difference.

That is seldom the case.

Usually the teachers in the department know there is something wrong. They know that there is something that does not chime quite right in the department. There is an odd smell from under the stairs.

“We didn’t flag up anything that they were not already aware of, but we did perhaps come up with some different approaches on how to deal with it.”

The other thing you have to closely examine is just doing more of what you already do.

You might not need more and more adult focused, small group interventions. You can’t have more time or more people. At some point you run out of adults, and you can’t rev the engine too hard for that long. How do you change the mind-set of the learners?

Look at the EEF toolkit (2013), or Hattie’s effect sizes (2009 and 2011) (here or here) for some excellent examples as to where to start looking for solutions.

“We won’t fix it for them. And it is sometimes a shock that we will help them form a to-do list, but we won’t do it. We need to cut through the issues and the barriers and get to the bones of what needs doing.”

And what do we look for? There are loads of examples of the areas that SLEs look at likehttps://sites.google.com/a/aetinet.org/aet-mathematics/home. I tend to divide the provision into five areas and focus on one or two of them at each visit. I adapt it to the school though, and make sure I fit in with their improvement structure.

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The main staff know what the barriers are. Sometimes they get bogged down in supporting misery and getting into the spiral of looking at the issue that is impeding them. Rather than looking at options and solutions. It’s easy to lose your verve and love of teaching when the structures and systems don’t support you. You’ve got to have all the basics covered to feel that the effort you are putting into teaching is getting the traction it should have on the pupils’ progress. It’s a hard day, and you can’t do it all in a day. But you can do most of it and set a framework. You need to have some specialist knowledge for things like exam entries and knowing the right spec to use. But generally, if you can get yourself a good objective stance and have the backing of SLT to do it, you can do it yourself. Make sure you ask to be shown and not just accept that it’s there, or it has been done. Go and see it. Perhaps you can work with a HoD from another department in the same school if you are looking at teaching and learning. In the case of structures and leadership perhaps someone from a different local school. It’s two days over a term, and you should feel the effect of it for years, it might bring back the energy you used to have.

“Generally there is an issue with people not looking under the stones. They suspect, but never really give it the attention. It’s not about being critical about staff, it’s about what you need now and what’s best for now.”

So in the main, what you need is permission to start looking and some CPD time to do it.  You don’t need an outside agent. But if you have one, then that might be the authority you need to get started.