Part 3. Schools: Develop Trust-Based Policies

Trusting teachers and valuing professional autonomy can be schieved without sacrificing rigour if principles-based policies aree adopted by visionary leaders.

  • Foster Teamwork - How to develop teamwork and establish a team ethos centred on accountability

  • Nurture Talent - How to create conditions for teacher development.

  • Change Slowly - How to replace ineffective teacher habits with effective approaches through small, non-threatening steps.

  • Observe without Intrusion - How to establish observation techniques to disseminate great teaching practice.

  • Review - How to evaluate, review and refine teaching plans.

In Part 1, I suggested ways in which the DfE might place greater trust in schools and colleges. I am quite clear in my own mind that the proposals would be rejected because many of them conflict with the dominant ideology of the government which, despite its claims to the contrary, shows through its actions that it does not place great value on state education. If organisations such as the Headteachers’ Roundtable are ignored, then Robert Powell is certainly not going to feature on the DfE’s radar.

Its banner slogan ‘levelling up’ means little when you examine the resources it allocates to schools and further education colleges. London, in the past ten years has improved its examination results quite markedly, but it remains significant, as Roy Blatchford points out here, that children in primary and secondary schools in Keith Starmer’s constituency of Holborn and St Pancras receive a third again as much funding as the same schools in Lisa Nandy’s constituency of Wigan, and in nursery schools the figure is nearly double. These gaps in funding have been acknowledged for many years and although attempts have been made to close the gap, much more remains to be done. Furthermore, it is significant that schools in white, working class, long-term disadvantaged communities are most in need in terms low educational achievement and this is as true in London as elsewhere in the country as Plaister and Thomson (2019) here from the FFT Education Datalab, show:

On the other hand, the London effect is negligible for long-term disadvantaged white British pupils when we look at all (or at least the best eight) subjects taken by a student. Although London might be doing something right, its schools have no more effect on this group than schools in other regions.

In Part 2, I examined the issue of school and college leaders trusting their teachers, and thankfully, I shall show in Part 3 that this can be done despite the DfE’s policies. Strong and brave leadership is the key, and there are many examples of schools and colleges that have benefited from such leadership styles to encourage others to follow.

A plan for implementation and CPD

If schools and colleges are to take on the challenge of placing greater trust in their teachers, they must plan for implementation. I suggest that there are six stages for development.

  1. Create teams and develop a team ethos

  2. Agree a set of evidence-informed whole-school and whole-college principles for teaching, learning and assessment

  3. Create the conditions for teacher development, including time for teams

  4. Focus on commitments to taking small, achievable steps, replacing ineffective teacher habits

  5. Observe techniques in action

  6. Review and refine plans

1 Create a teamwork ethos

Michael Fullan is known for his work on school reform, collaborating with governments, states, districts, and school leaders in all parts of the world. In his book The Six Secrets of Change (2011) he says the first secret is ‘to love your employees’ - create the conditions under which they can become successful. He explains that to effect real change in classroom practice you need teachers to have intrinsic motivation which he says:

‘Is about purpose, mastery, capacity, working with others, and having a degree of autonomy. (Fullan, 2017)

Fullan links accountability to motivation but argues that it should be ‘internal accountability’ where through what he calls ‘collaborative professionalism’ members strive to succeed because of their individual and collective sense of responsibility to the team. This type of accountability will be more successful than external accountability, where top-down goals are set, and individuals are accountable to those above them. (Fullan reference here.)

Daniel Pink in his work on motivation confirms the success of this approach. He argues that rewards are not really successful in motivating people, but that there are three things that do drive better performance:

  • autonomy – the feeling of self-direction; ‘I am doing it my way.’

  • mastery – higher rewards are less important than the satisfaction of getting better.

  • purpose – working towards something that has a real purpose and ‘will make the world a better place.’ (Pink, 2011 here)

For team accountability to be effective, however, members must be clear about their goals, and the starting point for that must be to agree the principles that underpin effective teaching, learning and assessment.

2 Agree the principles

I suggest that leadership teams review their teaching, learning and assessment policies to ensure (a) that they are evidence-informed and (b) based on principles not methods. The difference between principles and methods is crucial. For example, a policy that states ‘all lessons begin with starter and end with a plenary’ is focusing on methods, not principles. The principles would be ‘lessons begin with clear learning intentions’ and ‘learning progress is regularly reviewed.’ The principles make it clear what is expected in terms of teaching and learning but allow teachers to use an approach that suits their subject, the age of the students or the context in which they are working. A starter may be chosen as a preferred method of clarifying learning intentions or of reviewing prior learning, but there are other ways of doing this and on occasions a starter it is not always appropriate, and a retrieval practice activity might be chosen instead. Similarly, the purpose of a plenary is to review understanding and progress, and there will be occasions when this is best done not at the end of a lesson, but during the lesson e.g. in the arts when all students are working on individual projects. A review might also take place at a point in a subsequent lesson when the teacher reaches a specific point in the lesson plan e.g. the end of an act in reading a play. In both examples the teachers use their professional judgement to decide how to meet the principles.

In my work I have identified seven evidence-informed principles as a starting point for debate at a whole-school level. The flexibility of these principles is that they can apply to all teachers, regardless of the subject or the age of students that they teach. Schools and colleges need not use the principles I have developed. Some schools have used them as a starting point – they are all informed by evidence - but have listened to and reacted to the views of their teams before proceeding, adding or replacing principles to suit the context of the team, subject or institution. Once agreed, the principles define the goals for the teams – providing a clear focus for its members to decide, not on whether to meet the principles – all teams must do this, but how; principles offer clarity on the destination, not on the routes to get there.

3 Create the conditions for teacher development, including time for teams

School and college leaders must lead this initiative if it is to be successful. If the overall purpose is for all teachers to improve their practice it must be clear from the start that:

  • the focus is for personal improvement involving all team members. In some schools performance management focuses on this kind of personal development

  • there is no expectation for instant results – changing practice takes time

  • experiments with new techniques will be non-judgemental

  • time must be allocated for teams to meet

  • support must be available when needed

  • peer observation is encouraged but no performance management involved.

Allen and Sims’ in their wonderful book The Teacher Gap (2018), presented a detailed analysis of recruitment and retention issues in teaching. They showed how accountability agendas and associated stress are set by government, reinforced by Ofsted, communicated first to leadership, and then passed down to the workforce. There is no doubt that this process is driving professionals from the classroom, with 40% of new teachers leaving teaching before they have completed five years. Hobbins et al (2021) suggested that teachers are prone to resort to habitual behaviour during times of stress, so the advice above not to involve judgemental evaluation is critical if teachers are going to experiment with new techniques without fear. This initiative is about developing teachers, not measuring them.

4 Focus on commitments to take small, achievable steps, replacing ineffective habits

If teachers are to be successful in adopting more effective practices and developing new habits, leaders must accept that this will take time and not expect from teachers instant transformation. Working in a team environment with a commitment to meet the team goals, team members should be encouraged to select one or two small steps that they would like to take to improve their own practice. For some, it might be adapting an existing routine e.g., written marking, but incorporating verbal feedback and codes, and for others a completely new technique such as using feedforward in written marking. The menu of techniques in the seven chapters of the Great Teaching: from principles to practice handbook offer a starting point for these autonomous choices. The 157 techniques described are not meant to be an exhaustive or definitive set of techniques – teachers, leaders or even MATs will want to add a wide range of additional techniques that have already proved successful in one or more classrooms. This process of adding techniques will be the basis of early team discussions.

Wiliam and Leahy (2014), in their work on Teacher Learning Communities (TLCs), suggest that when team members have selected their ‘small step’ techniques, these should be recorded as commitments. They argue that such commitments replicate the philosophy of Weight Watchers. Those who attend this organisation’s meetings all know what they should be doing to lose weight, but the public commitment at the end of one meeting, knowing they will be accountable at the next, is the driving force for action. Wiliam and Leahy claim that those involved in their TLCs all agree that the act of writing down their commitments was important.

The process of selecting techniques for experimentation is an important team event. The Coordinator or Chair of such a meeting might encourage a wide spread of commitments across all seven principles or prefer a focus on only one or two at each meeting. The team must decide upon this.

5 Observe techniques in action

There will be some techniques that can be used that are straightforward – e.g., displaying key word learning intentions on a flipchart (technique 6 in the handbook). Other techniques, however, e.g., the Jigsaw group activity (technique 42), demand a high degree of effective classroom management. One of the strengths of the teamwork approach is that one of the team keen to try a Jigsaw can get advice and guidance on the essential planning a Jigsaw demands from a colleague who has already used and mastered it. Teachers inexperienced in organising group activity might ask to observe a colleague using one or more group organisational techniques (techniques 39-44). In these situations, it reverses the normal role of observation. The teacher being observed sets the agenda – ‘note how important the scaffolds are in the Jigsaw.’ Teams can, of course, use more formalised coaching as one of their support strategies. Ross McGilll (@teachertoolkit) has a wonderful article on embedding a coaching culture which I recommend for schools seeking advice on this. It can be found here.

6 Review and refine plans

Dylan Wiliam’s experience in running TLCs is worth noting for this stage. He suggests that teachers meet once a month for at least 75 minutes to report back, review commitments and plan the next phase. With time being a premium in all schools, it is important that leaders prioritise such meetings and this may mean that another innovation is postponed or abandoned; trying to innovate on too many fronts can be the downfall of an initiative such as this. Coordinators or Chairs of these meetings must publish the agenda in good time, particularly if a new principle is to be addressed. They must also manage the agenda carefully so that all participants can report back, seek guidance, and have time to renew commitments. Teachers who have not been successful with their first attempt at a new technique must be encouraged to try again, possibly with in-class support.

The principles’ approach, the issue of trust and the debate on teaching methods

The development plan above is based on leaders placing greater trust in teachers in how they meet the evidence-informed principles that underpin great teaching. Once the principles are agreed and understood, they become the focal point for teacher and team planning. The destinations are set out in the rigorous principles, but it will be individual teachers and teams that plot the routes that will be taken to meet them. The menu of 157 techniques in the Great Teaching handbook is only a starting point for development – teams will add many other examples that experienced colleagues and enthusiastic new recruits alike will bring to the table.

The techniques in the handbook Great Teaching: from principles to practice, are not aligned with a single perspective on teaching. Teachers who follow the direct instruction and cognitive science theories will find techniques in the handbook that integrate with such thinking - all principles and chapters refer to cognitive science theories and associated teaching styles. Those who prefer to use more flexible, project-based learning approaches will find techniques that work brilliantly to ensure that projects are focused and rigorous and not ‘laissez-faire.’ Most teachers adopt a mixture of methods with whole-class instructions sitting easily alongside more flexible approaches. Like me, they ignore the meaningless debates on ‘traditional’ v ‘progressive’ education. Teachers of any persuasion, phase or subject can use the handbook for ideas and inspiration.

School and college leaders must allow teachers to plan in ways that meet the defined principles and not insist upon rigid templates or specific methods; scrutiny and appraisal at this point will undermine the whole process of building trust. Teams can provide individual members with feedback via mentoring, peer partners, coaching and physical and emotional support. Trying out new ideas will mean there are successes and celebration, but there will also be failures – these are inevitable and part of the learning process and must not be seen as part of any appraisal; reverting to previous ineffective habits will result if this is allowed to happen.

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