What exactly is a self improving school system? And what are the implications for us all?

It was excellent to see in the recent HMCI report that Meilyr Rowlands wrote: ‘In the very best schools, there is a strong focus on professional learning for all staff. Teachers and leaders across the schools are involved in an extensive range of networks of professional practice within the school and at local, regional and national level.”

I think he was talking about ‘self improving schools’...

McKinseys' study of the best educational systems in the world concludes that they all have elements of a 'self improving system'. This is a term that has been bandied around in Wales for some time. Do we all know what it means? I sometimes think we mean completely different things ....

If we are to get somewhere with it – and by the way, all the evidence suggests its the ONLY way to sustain improvement across all schools - we all need to be clear about the plan.

To take a common metaphor - we all need to be in the boat, rowing in the same direction at the same pace...

So I’m going to stick my neck out and make some assertions...

  1. Schools are places where pupils go to learn. (How we measure this is the subject of a whole other Blog!)
  2. The most effective thing a school can do to improve the quality of learning by pupils is to have the best teachers and continue to develop them.
  3. Teachers learn best from other teachers by observing and talking about teaching together. Not from courses, or from books, or even from the internet.

Therefore, to me at least, a self improving school is one which is focused on how teachers learn from each other. The school will identify where and how this can happen according to the needs of the school and the teachers within it. And the school will set high expectations of improvement and review progress using clear and healthy effective measures which are recognised and available across the whole system.

Accountability - of the healthy, strategic, transparent kind - is key.

This is how within school variation - the issue that bedevils school improvement - will be tackled. By departments or teachers across a school working together to improve consistency and learn together.

A self improving school system is one where all schools are doing this, within their school, but also across schools. More than this - where all schools care about how schools are learning and the impact on children.

It is where schools identify what it is that they want to get better at, and identify ways that their teachers can work with teachers in other schools to learn, then how they can bring that learning back into the school.

We have a few models which schools can use in Central South to work with other schools and schools should decide which works most for them. Whether the school uses a SIG, cluster, PLC, pathfinder, hub, peer enquiry or anything else – it does really matter. The school needs to identify the right model that fits its needs.

And of course within this leaders can learn from other leaders, middle leaders from other middle leaders so that someone who does the same job in a different school gives their perspective, offers advice and support but in ways that are beneficial to both. Teachers can lead projects to work together with other teachers which means they have an opportunity to develop leadership skills - developing future leaders.

Experienced headteachers who might have run more than one school can support other schools, either formally in a federation or amalgamation, or informally in a 'consultant leadership' type role. This means they not only bring their experience to bear but also are learning and developing.

Again, useful words from Estyn: ‘The challenge for our most successful schools is to ensure that their succession planning processes are robust enough to develop their leadership capacity, so that senior leaders can contribute to school to-school support while not compromising their own provision and development.” In other words in the best schools, they plan well for this work, developing people without leaving the school exposed.

There are of course implications for consortia and authorities and others working with schools. I know in this region we are clear: self improving school systems cannot be led by authorities and consortia! We must step back to let this happen, we don’t tell good schools what to do - that's their job! We share information about performance and effective practice. We aim to plan and fund schools fairly and provide access to good quality services around schools. We do need to step in if schools are left out or appear vulnerable, but otherwise the accountability and leadership for self improving schools needs to rest with - guess what - the school.

To me, there's a reason why all the best school systems in the world use this model. It's a model which invests in teachers and which places learning, not just for the children, but for the teachers at the heart of everything we do.

I believe in Wales there is an opportunity to show how this can be done, in a way perhaps that hasn't been done effectively in the UK up until now. But we do need to all be on the boat rowing in the same direction...

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