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Know Where You Are, Before You Decide Where You Are Going

I remember seeing a comedy sketch on TV from years ago, where a couple of lost  travellers stop to ask directions from a local character leaning on a gate to a field. "Where you heading?" The helpful local asks. When he is told, he replies, "well ye can't get there from here!" The travellers were  suitably nonplussed.

I have a similar reaction when schools, and others, look at how they are going to get to the same destination, i.e. improved performance, raised attainment, higher achievement, better teaching and learning and so on, and think they can lift exactly what others have done and drop it into their own establishments and situations. I don't think you can do this, because every school's starting position is different. This is one of the big dangers of the 'sharing good practice' mantra that we are always being extolled to follow and improve. Yes, we do need to share practice and solutions that have worked, but these should come with important caveats and health warnings. These should be the recognition that though these strategies and practices have worked in a particular school or situation, that there is no guarantee that they will succeed in just the same way elsewhere.

What leaders in schools, and staff, should be looking for are general principles and approaches that might help them move from where they are, to where they would like to get to. Don't fall into the trap of thinking you can lift exactly what someone else has done, step by step, and expect the same results. I would argue that if you went back to those establishments and asked them to repeat their process of development a second time, they too would get different results. This because we are in a people business and people are complex and dynamic. We change from day to day for a myriad of reasons and so how  we react to stimuli and interactions can change just as easily. What works on one day or time, has no guarantee of  having the same level of impact on another day or time.

To really identify where we would like to get to, we need to be secure in our understanding of where we are. Seems obvious. You can't begin to plan any journey if you don't know from where the journey will start.

So how do you know exactly where you are in terms of that never-ending journey of development?

Robust self-evaluation systems are key to knowing where a school is. These should be giving you a completely honest and accurate picture of where you are. This picture should be a developing one , and one that you are constantly updating. This is not a snapshot on a particular day or time. True self-evaluation is a constant on-going process. Part of everything you do. Self-evaluation should not be a once a year activity, but a continuous and ongoing process.

I have long argued and believed that true self-evaluation should start from your vision, values and principles, personal and institutional. First question to ask is, do the experiences of pupils and everyone else from the school community reflect our school vision, values and principles? If they do not match, that will become your first point for action. You should be reflecting on this regularly, if not every day, as it becomes part of what you do.

The rest of your self-evaluation should be a mixture of formal activities and consultations, plus all the informal evaluations you, and others, are making on a daily basis as a result of contacts with pupils, staff, parents and other partners in the school community. In my own school we have a diary of formal evaluation activities spread over the school year. We encourage staff to reflect and evaluate in their roles, and their observations feed into the overall picture. The SMT have regular, termly meetings and consultations with staff and are in collaborative planning sessions across the schools. We visit classrooms for planned and focused observations of the learning process in operation. We also visit all classes on an informal basis on a daily basis to speak to teachers, support staff and pupils. Whilst not formal in any way, we are still gathering information about the schools and where we are at. We share our observations at SMT meetings, and match what we have seen to our development plan priorities, as well as our values and principles. Once a session, we formally ask all staff to assess where we are, how do they know and what do they think we need to do next.

We meet regularly with parents to garner their thoughts on how the schools are doing and how they think we might improve. We speak to other visitors to the school from the local authority, HMIe and elsewhere, and take their views into consideration in the overall picture. We also go out into the local community and speak to them about their impressions and thoughts on the school.

From all of these activities and interactions, we get a full 360 picture of where the school is at. We are confident we really know where we are, which gives us our starting point for our continuing journey of development.

The key point is we are in a different position to where we were last year, and every other school is in a different position to us. Yes we are happy to share the successes and challenges of our journey of development, but you need to start your journey from where you are, not where we are!

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