Sunday, 16 October 2016

Finding the truth about our performance – and facing it.


In one of my early posts, ‘How do I know how good my teachers are?’ I discuss the three main sources of information that inform my evaluation of the performance of my teaching staff: Data, Observation and ‘Knowledge’.  The first two are obvious enough; the last one refers to the collection of informal, ephemeral information that builds up over time from multiple sources.  The post highlights the necessity to triangulate between all three sources of information in order to make informed judgements that than then be used to support the improvement process.

At the level of individuals, departments or a whole school, the same combination of soft and hard data is available.  I’ve tried to suggest in this post that we need to give greater weight to ‘soft cycle’ data in order to judge a school, focusing more on processes than outcomes if we’re trying to measure what we value.  This is hard to do in practice when so much weight is placed on data outcomes in our accountability system. (See Progress 8 discussion here.)  Averaging out all the complexity to produce simple numerical measures is a major flaw in our system.

Taking all of the triangulated complexity by the horns, at Highbury Grove, in common with most schools I would imagine, we’ve been deeply immersed in a range of self-evaluation processes this half-term. There are various elements to this that form part of an on-going cycle.

  • Examination outcomes – slicing and dicing the data every which way at whole-school and departmental levels and comparing ourselves to similar schools and exploring trends over time.
  • Departmental Reviews – strengths and areas for development, as captured in the diagram below.
  • Writing our SEF – lining ourselves up against the OfSTED criteria.
  • Analysing parent and student survey responses – making sense of all those ‘strongly disagree, agree…’ responses, filtering out anything that is actionable.
  • Conducting our annual Professional Review process which involves every member of staff evaluating the extent to which they met the professional targets set last year. The review cycle also encompasses tackling any ‘significant concerns’ that emerge across the year, with individual action plans for anyone who needs one.
  • The Headteacher’s 360º review – a blend of people saying nice things and telling some home-truths.
  • Exploring last year’s Exit Interviews – weeding out the constructive feedback from the whinges and moans.
Screen shot 2013-09-01 at 21.52.02

Our Departmental Review has triangulation embedded.

With all of this information and analysis, we hope to get to some kind of truth about our performance – as a school, as subject departments and as individuals. It’s always multi-layered; complex.  There are high points and low points; a matrix of strengths, successes, frustrations, disappointments -and, yes, failures.

The challenge we all face is to absorb all of this and to do something about it.   At every level, we need to face the truth. It’s just as important to explore why we’ve succeeded where we have as to  establish the causes of our failures. But looking your failures in the face is the most important and the most difficult thing to do.

Of course not all reasons for failures are excuses – but, if you are going to attack the problems effectively, you do need to feel that improvement is possible whilst also confronting the realities.  I often ask the question: with the same students and same staff, could we have done better?  The same applies to a teaching group:  with all the issues, exam changes, student needs, mitigating circumstances, could they have gained higher grades?  Usually the answer is yes – so we can focus on ‘how’ we could have done better. In fact, I’m deeply worried if anyone says no; if they suggest that we did the best we could.

In my experience, there are numerous barriers to facing the truth that need to be overcome:

Insecurity: If people are persistently on the defensive, you don’t get a good outcome. They don’t admit mistakes or accept openly that their own performance could improve. The spirit of shared accountabilty is important here, balancing that with individual responsibility.   Very often, a key task in getting people to face the truth is to deal with their insecurities and perceived threats; to reassure, encourage and support whilst mapping out a course to do better.

Over-confidence:  This has been a big historical factor in my school. Arriving to HGS in 2014, the governors had been talking in hubristic terms about ‘moving beyond Outstanding to World Class’. There was institutional confusion about getting an Outstanding grade from OfSTED (years ago) instead of being outstanding today.  The previous exam regime offered rich pickings from Speaking and Listening in English and coursework in various subjects leading to inflated value-added scores that allowed everyone to think things were fine.  The sharp fall in results that I inherited in the summer of 2014 was a shock to everyone. Changes to exams eliminating the gaming possibilities and three Heads in three years exposed the truth about the depth of learning.

The desire to be World Class turned out to be a damaging delusion – fuelled by a false sense of standards generated within the school and some positive parental feedback: the very positive experience of a cohort of high achieving students with vocal, supportive parents was taken to apply across the school; it turns out that this was a mistake.

Personal investment:  It’s hard to accept your ideas didn’t work.  For example, at HGS we are still turning things around from some pretty disastrous legacy structures that, evidently, did not work in the long run:

  • Hard-streaming into two bands fuelled complacency about the top band (Don’t worry about them, they’ll be fine)  and low expectations of the bottom band (Oh god they’re a nightmare).
  • Friday afternoon enrichment meant that most of our most vulnerable learners had a four and a half day week for five years.  Most didn’t even do the enrichment.
  • An over-reaching Specialist Schools model led to 80 or so low-literacy students playing football all morning on Fridays in Year 7 and then going home at lunch.
  • A KS3 curriculum which gave less time for MFL to the lowest ability band and had a deeply ineffective Humanities carousel instead of proper discrete History and Geography lessons.

We’ve eliminated all of these things – but it took some people a while to accept just how damaging they had been.  They left their mark.  Even though various people had harboured serious concerns, personal investment in these ideas from the top had inhibited discussion. It required a pretty determined effort during my first year to tackle the sacred cows. Fortunately, some of the governors could see what needed to be done.

Feeling overworked:  If you feel you slogged your guts out at the expense of your personal life or your health and you still didn’t get the rewards you feel you deserve in examination outcomes, it’s disheartening.  How could we have done more?  The point here is to reconsider what was being done, not simply suggest doing more.  If you’re going the extra mile in the wrong direction, you need to turn around and re-think! Still, the ‘doing all we can’ psychology is hard to overcome.

Inexperience with high standards:  With staff that have either only worked in one place for a long time and/or are inexperienced in general, their sense of what is possible or of what excellence might look like can be diminished.  Some people I’ve encountered over the years have given the impression that serial mediocrity is more or less inevitable and normal; it’s ceased to be disappointing.  e.g. being ‘really pleased’ with A level results despite getting very low ALPS scores.  The challenge here is show them that, elsewhere, higher standards exist and are possible to achieve.

I can see parallels in all of this between how a teacher is supported in the face of disappointing results and how a Head is supported in the face of a disappointing Progress 8 score or OfSTED judgement.  The data or grading doesn’t define us; it’s part of the picture but the best thing to do is to stare it in the face; to brush the excuses aside, to embrace the challenge,  remind yourself of all your strengths and successes and the team you have around you and get down to the nitty-gritty of solving the problems.



from headguruteacher | Zest for Learning… into the rainforest of teaching and school leadership

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