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Unblocking those JAMs in the system

I attended a headteacher meeting this week, where amongst the discussions and dialogue, was consideration of what we might do in schools to help close attainment gaps, especially for those at risk because of deprivation factors. This does feel like a never-ending conversation that we have, but has particular significance at the moment given the national political agenda for education.  The Scottish Government have announced the provision of Pupil Equity Funding (PEF) based on free school meals entitlement, which is to be paid directly to schools, as part of their strategy in driving forward excellence and delivering greater equity across the system. No matter what you think about this as a policy, there is no doubt that most schools are going to be in receipt of significant extra amounts of cash to help them deliver what the government, and schools themselves, are looking for.

Of course, as with all such funding there are strings attached, and it is clear that headteachers and schools will have to plan carefully, and collaboratively, how they will use this funding to make a difference. Additionally, they will have to show positive impacts for learners quickly, and over time. Again, you may question how quickly sustainable change can produce long-lasting impacts, but it is still incumbent on all schools and their leaders to ensure they spend this money wisely, and in order to have the greatest impact.

As headteachers, we were asked to identify issues that we thought were contributing to the gaps we identify, and to consider and discuss one of these with colleagues. The group I was part of were all focused on professional development of staff and we considered; the evidence we had for where the gaps were, professional development that works and has impact, and how we support all staff to move on in their practice and understanding. It was a fascinating discussion, with a mix of sectors and experiences that improved the richness of the dialogue and insights shared. Of course, we didn't come up with any answers or solutions, but often the first step in addressing issues is their identification and then the discussion around different perceptions and understandings of them.

As part of our conversations, we talked about the difficulty presented by teachers 'who were just doing enough' or who lacked high levels of 'personal awareness and insight'. To use the current particular political vernacular, we called these the JAMs, the just about managing teachers. These teachers present a variety of challenges for school leaders. However, such challenges are not such that they fall into the 'under-performance' category. What they do however, is have an impact on the consistency of pupil learning experiences, attainment and achievement, as well as teacher confidence. Of course, there may be a whole host of reasons for teachers falling into this category, some of which might have no connection to their working environment at all, and school leaders need to be aware of this possibility. Never assume anything.

But, given that everything else in their lives is in kilter, what should we do about such JAMs? We all agreed that taking the 'individual' out of the equation is often a good first step. To address this we should approach the issues from the point of view of the learning being experienced by the learners, it should not be about the individual, but how we can support them to improve the learning experiences for all their learners. I would argue that this is why culture is so important in schools, if we have created a collaborative culture based on common values, and trust, then it becomes easier to address such issues with individuals. What we can't do is give up on any teacher, or accept that they can't, or won't, try to improve their practice and understanding. But with the right culture, you are much more likely to get 'buy in' from such teachers.

JAM teachers can feel threatened by younger teachers, or older ones, who do not exhibit the same characteristics and attitude to their work as they do. But, buddying them up, and encouraging whole-school collaboration, can have positive impacts. Often, this takes time and will result in slow progress, but it is still progress. Slowly moving forward is much preferable to not moving forward at all, indeed we have perhaps all been guilty of trying to go too fast and cover too much too quickly. I have long thought that we can achieve more by slowing down and taking smaller steps. The best support we can give to JAMs is to try to understand them, help them identify where they might improve, then lead them through the small steps they can keep taking to achieve that. Writing them off or feeling you need to get them to move on or leave, just exhibits a fixed mindset of your own, not theirs. Everyone can improve their performance and their learning, when they don't this is a teacher problem, not a learner  problem. Sound familiar? We should view the staff we work with exactly like our learners. They are all individuals and are at different points in their learning journey and development. They will have gaps in their learning and understanding, and our role is to help them identify these, then provide support to address these, as part of an on-going and career-long process. This helps them, our learners, and our schools to keep moving forward.

As a post note, I would add that what I have written above can be equally applied to school leaders. Ther are many JAM school leaders who need similar support and understanding, to improve their practice and their confidence and their line-managers and system leaders need to recognise this too.

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