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A Few Thoughts on School Improvement Plans and Planning

Spring has arrived, daffodils and lambs abound, and it's the time of year when headteachers, certainly in Scotland, start to turn their thoughts to school improvement plans. There was a time when these were nothing short of works of fiction, and very long ones at that. They were written for an audience that resided outside of schools and a purpose that was most concerned with ticking boxes. All of which are characteristics of any development that schools are told they should be doing, by people who don't  understand the purpose, procedures or research that sits behind any such request. Schools, and their Heads, were put under pressure to complete plans, but were never given the time to understand their purpose or to consider what good plans and planning looked like. The result was a mish mash of plans and formats, that nobody really looked at once they were written, certainly not teachers, but which provided 'evidence' that schools and local authorities were engaged in improvement planning. They weren't!

I like to think we are in a different place now, because Headteachers and schools have had the time to make sense of school improvement plans and the processes involved, and thoroughly understand how such processes and plans can help and support them to achieve desired outcomes for learners. What follows are my own thoughts about the key processes and messages regarding school improvement planning and the drawing up of meaningful plans. Completed correctly, and they can support and protect you. If not thought out and used correctly they can cause you further stress and add even more mess to the complexity of school development and change, with a consequent drop in impact for learners.

My first thought concerns the audience for such plans. That audience should always be you and your staff. We should not be producing plans for other people. They are for us, and to enable us to make sense of and control the complexity of change and development within our schools. Without a good, well thought out and well structured plan, we are more likely to end up stumbling from one change to another with little impact for the school and, more importantly, for learners. Without a well structured plan you cannot be confident in what you are doing, why and how you will know if you have been successful. You probably will still be very busy, but with limited, if any, sustainable or meaningful impact. A badly structured and thought out plan also provides you with no protection from those who would seek to add to your workload and change agenda from outside. So, when you are not clear about what you are doing, why, and the time and resource commitment entailed, it is far easier for those without the school to try to add more items to your agenda. A well structured and conceived plan protects you from such vagaries and pressures.

Perhaps we are a little ahead of ourselves in considering our audience for the improvement plan, because to me another crucial thought is being able to recognise that the plan and all school development is part of a continuous process. We need to be clear about this. A new plan comes at a particular point in the development process, but it has to be connected with what has gone before and where you are trying to get to in a particular timeframe. School development should be a continuous process that is informed by self-evaluation processes that provide robust and holistic data. Like pupil reports, there should be no real surprises in a school development plan, because it is built on the previous one and will inform the next. I often make the case that anyone on my staff could write our next plan, because almost every action begins with 'continue to .....' To achieve this, self -evaluation needs to be continuous and robust. You should be provided with a rich, holistic suite of data that allows you to identify the impact of your current plans, and points you in the direction of your next one. Data should identify your strengths as well as your development needs. It should not be seen by school leadership, or staff, as something that happens each year in May or June. It needs to be an ongoing process, and seen as such by all.

As I said above, our first plans were were considerable in size, and possibly low on sustainable impact. They would be loaded with fully written, and a considerable number, of action plans. They were thick, and perhaps so were we in thinking we could possibly achieve everything that was set out in them! They were full of SMART targets, timeframes, responsibilities, desired outcomes, resources and were often seen as an end in themselves. Once, or if, you completed one action plan you then moved on to the next, or drew up another. There would often be eight to ten action plans, or more. I recently heard of a school that had eleven action plans related to learning and teaching alone, so perhaps that mindset is still out there. Pretty quickly headteachers realised these weighty tomes looked impressive but weren't really deliverable in the real world of a year in school. What started to happen was more and more actions were left incomplete and started to fill up the next plan, before it had even been written. This was soon seen as madness and we started to pare down future plans to make them more manageable and deliverable. Our own current plan has five actions, but two of these are only concerned with awareness raising in two aspects of curricular development, the bulk of our work in learning and teaching is contained in three very focused action plans. The other difference is that the impact of these plans is not measure in terms of the completion of the actions, but is very much focused on the impact they have had for learners, and the evidence we have to show this. This is now non-negotiable. If plans and actions have no positive impact for learners. They have failed and we then need to understand why. The basic rule is keep it small, keep,it manageable and keep it focused on improving outcomes for learners.

If you see improvement planning as a continuous process, then your plan is very much a working document. In my view, action-plans should not all be fully written at the outset, but high-level strategic messages should set out the direction of travel and areas of focus. If you are going to disperse ( I prefer this to distribute ) leadership throught your staff and your plan, then it should be the people who are going to work on a particular area who should flesh out the action-plan for this. I think this is best done as they go, based on data from the self-evaluation processes. Nothing should be set in stone, but plans should evolve, grow and change as actions occur, and in the light of circumstances and experiences. Change and development is complex and organic, it is hardly ever linear, so plans need to accommodate this. Our own plan is fully annotated as we go and is seen as very much a working document. We no longer give a copy of the plan to all teachers. We have it in the 'shared' area of our computer system and action-plans are on display in the staff-room. These are regularly updated so everyone can see the progress we are making in delivering on what we have all agreed on. This works better than giving everyone a paper copy then seeing the panic on their faces when you asked them to bring their copy to a staff training session, as occurred in the not too distant past.

Another strategy that has worked well for us is that of ensuring all our actions are connected. So we will no longer spend a year or so looking at how we might improve our curriculum, or assessment, or learning and teaching, or assessment, or planning, then look at something else. We are continually focused on looking at all of these in a connected way. If learning and teaching are core business, which they are, then all of these aspects are equally important and all need to be addressed at the same time. We realised we couldn't look at any of these aspects without considering, and impacting, on the others. So, that is what we do now. We are constantly and relentlessly focusing on how we can improve in these areas, and our main vehicle to drive this is through practitioner enquiry. ( see previous posts ) Whatever we identify as an area for development we look at it in this connected and holistic way. This leads to sustained and meaningful development that has produced tangible improvements in learning experiences for all our learners, our number one success criteria. People have asked me how we then fit in with local and national agendas? My answer is twofold. First, if you can demonstrate that the approaches you are adopting are leading to improvements in attainment for all learners, who is going to argue with you or try to stop you? And, secondly, in my experience, all the local and national agendas revolve around all of the above aspects. We are challenged to raise attainment for all, develop our curriculum, improve pedagogies, use assessment to support learning, reduce bureaucracy, and so on. All of these can be, and are perhaps best, dealt with in a connected way. I certainly found that the staff in the schools I lead felt less overwhelmed by everything they had to do, when they could see that we were dealing with it all in a controlled and managed way.

So, there you have some of my thoughts on school improvement planning and plans. As usual, fell free to comment. My main aim, as always, is not to say this is the right way, or the only way, to develop meaningful plans and processes, but to help you think about your own processes and how you might want to develop them yourself.

 To summarise the main points in this post:

1) School development is a continuous process
2) Plans should be manageable and focused
3) Impact for learners should be the main success criteria
4) Your plan should be underpinned by robust self-evaluation processes
5) You write your plan for your school, not someone else
6) Action plans should develop in response to impact of first steps and actions
7) Keep the number of actions small and deliverable
8) Data should inform actions and the plan
9) Plans should evolve and be seen as working documents, not set in stone

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