Sunset view of the Golden Gate Bridge and fog from Battery Spencer,  Golden Gate National Recreation Area, in San Francisco, California.

School Improvement: Where to Focus Efforts

By Bethany Spencer on January, 3 2019
Estimated time to read: 21 minutes

Improvement is at the top of every school leader’s agenda, which is why creating a detailed and well thought out SIP is critical to effectively communicate your goals to the entire school body and fundamental to your school’s success. A SIP acts as a roadmap which you and your team can refer to and ensure you’re on track to reaching your objectives.

Despite the importance of SIPs being well known, it would be naive to offer concrete advice on exactly how to create one due to how fluid a school’s SIP can be, and also how subjective improvement is. For example, one school would consider improving parental engagement to be their main priority whereas another’s could be to strengthen alignment across the leadership team - it is completely dependent on the individual school and their key areas for improvement.

This being said, no matter how different an individual school’s SIP priorities may be, we believe there are common core components that every SIP should include, as they impact all areas of a school and can have a positive impact on almost all school improvement objectives. These are areas which at times may be overlooked or deemed to be of a low priority, but this guide explores the importance and benefits of each one so you can take these into consideration when evaluating or creating your school’s SIP.

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Navigation

1. Leadership 

- Role of a school leader

- Traits of effective leadership

2. Staff

- Happiness and recruitment

- Wellbeing 

- CPD

3. Students 

- Digital Literacy 

- Wellbeing

4. Conclusion 

 

school improvement

Leadership

School improvement is nigh on impossible without strong leaders. The role of the Headteacher and their leadership team is instrumental in achieving school improvement. These are the people who enforce change and introduce improvements linked to their school’s SIP. Without effective leadership skills, they are unable to direct and lead their school to make successful improvements.

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Role of a school leader

Research shows that in order to achieve good improvements within the whole institution, school leaders are necessary at the start of the improvement journey.

There is a clear link between high quality leadership and management, and overall school improvement - in other words, when quality and leadership are good, the rest will follow. Research into school performance in England found that when a school’s Ofsted rating for leadership and management was higher than their overall school performance, they were 10 times more likely to see improvements at their next inspection than those whose leadership and management was ranked worse than their overall performance.

The influence of you and your leadership team should not be overlooked - you have the ability to motivate and inspire your staff so they perform to the best of their ability and provide your students with the best possible learning experience. Instructional leadership, in particular, is effective in motivating your staff through the setting of clear goals, regular teacher evaluation, managing curriculum and lesson plans, and when effective instruction and collaborative learning is used as standard.

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What are the traits of effective leadership:

Communication

Communication (and persuasion) is key to being able to successfully share your vision with your whole team and getting them to believe in it. Effective communication allows you  to inform the whole school, inclusive of all stakeholders, when new practices are introduced, provide praise, deliver updates and ensure everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goals.

Work collaboratively

Even when we’re in a leadership position, there is always room to learn from our colleagues. Working in collaboration with our team means that not only are we able to teach our peers new skills, but we’re also able to learn from them. In addition to this, it helps to delegate some of the responsibilities you have as a school leader - as time has gone on, schools have evolved and responsibilities have grown. This has meant that we, as leaders, are more likely to delegate and depend on our team. Recognising this and working with your team to action this is a key characteristic of being a successful leader.


Lead by example

As a school leader, you are responsible for actioning and implementing policies and initiatives that influence the whole school. In order to gain the trust and respect of the school body, it’s paramount that you follow the rules you are preaching. It’s easy to simply lead by words but more difficult to lead by example. Leading by example and following the same set of rules as the rest of the school gains the respect of your team. Also, displaying the traits you wish to see encourages the same traits in others.


Empower and inspire

As a leader, it’s your job to lead your school to success and to make them believe in the goals you are working towards. In order to do this, a clear vision is necessary, one that you can clearly communicate and your team are inspired to work towards. When all visions are aligned, you as a leader have the ability to empower your staff and students. You can do this by delegating more tasks which will increase the responsibility of your team, and with students, by providing them with additional opportunities to learn from their peers through expeditions or clubs.


Look after the whole school

It can seem that when you’re ferociously working towards one main goal, that this should absorb all your focus and resources. The reality is that in order to reach any one of your goals, you need to be maintaining and nurturing the whole school. A school is an ecosystem, each section depends on the other to survive, so even when your main goal is improving student outcomes, other areas such as the culture, parent-teacher relationships and budget will all have an impact on this. A good leader is able to drive forward the main goals and initiatives whilst still ensuring that all other aspects of the school are being looked after and cared for.

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school improvement leadership

Staff

Happiness and recruitment

Your staff are arguably your most important resource for your school improvement journey. Without their cooperation, the changes you’re attempting to implement will fall on deaf ears and as a result, won’t be actioned. In order to ensure the cooperation of your staff, you need to focus on their happiness, wellbeing and create a positive school culture and working environment. By looking after your staff and keeping their best interests at heart, they’ll be more inclined to support your initiatives and, if your staff are well looked after and your culture is welcoming, your school will become a sought-after place to work for new teachers.

Here are some areas you can focus on to help make your staff happy and improve school culture:

CPD

Teachers are knowledge hungry and want to develop. The opportunity for them to progress presents itself as a win-win - not only do they get to learn and advance professionally, but the implications of them doing so means they’re better able to educate their students with the new skills and techniques they’ve acquired. Offering your staff professional development opportunities will be central to their happiness and also a big draw for potential employees. 

Workload

Most people strive to find the perfect work/life balance but teachers arguably have a more difficult time achieving a ‘good’ one. Teacher workload has long been a cause for concern and has a huge part to play in their happiness at work. Taking steps to help manage the workload of your staff can have a huge impact on their wellbeing - consider initiatives such as: introducing time-saving software, conducting surveys and audits to find ways in which you can work more efficiently, introducing house rules such as no work emails to be sent on weekends or earlier and stricter finishing times on a Friday. Taking little steps to help provide your staff with a better work/life balance can make a big difference in showing you care.

Praise

Giving praise and showing recognition is quick, easy, cheap and effective. We understand the benefits of praise and rewards all too well working with students, and the impact is still very much the same even at a professional level. When we applaud our staff for their hard work, results and effort, they are motivated to continue with the work that they’re doing but also, it makes them feel appreciated. The key to retaining and maintaining happy staff is through letting them know they’re valued and praise is a proven way to show this.

Autonomy

Teaching is an art that is developed and mastered over time - your staff need the freedom to experiment and develop their own teaching identity in order to provide the best teaching experience for their students. You can help encourage this by giving them the ability to work autonomously - giving them this freedom will show them that you have trust in their abilities, but will also mean that they get to enjoy a more explorative teaching journey.

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school improvement teacher wellbeing

Wellbeing

The wellbeing of your staff and students should always be on your agenda, and as such take a prominent position on your school’s improvement plan. When thinking about the importance of wellbeing you should regard staff wellbeing just as highly as your students’ because teacher wellbeing has a direct impact on student wellbeing and attainment. It also has huge implications for schools related to operations and budget which should also be considered:

 

Implications of poor wellbeing:

  • Leads to stress: Teacher stress is a huge contributor in taking time off from work, it also makes the actual task of teaching extremely difficult and is a huge factor in teachers quitting the profession.

  • Absenteeism: 47% of teachers with mental health symptoms were off work for longer than a month last year - when teachers are absent from school, students suffer as they don’t receive the same quality of teaching from substitute teachers as they would from their regular teacher who knows them on an individual basis.

  • Presenteeism: Teachers working when they should be taking time off is almost more detrimental than simply taking time off to recover - it usually leads to teachers being off work for longer, lower quality lessons and longer recovery periods.  

  • Increased colleague workload: When teachers have to take time off due to poor wellbeing at times, the work they’re unable to complete falls on the shoulders of their colleagues, which means longer working hours for them and increased stress levels, creating a vicious cycle.

  • Reduced student progression: The implications of absenteeism and presenteeism affect how well students perform academically.

  • Budget expenses: Ultimately, if staff are taking time off due to poor wellbeing or worse, quitting as a result of it, you will be spending more on supply teachers and recruitment - money that could be better spent on CPD or resources.

Benefits of positive wellbeing:

  • Happy staff: When your teachers are in good health, their happiness improves massively and the impact of a happy team is contagious - staff are more productive, colleagues and students feed off of their energy and it makes school a better place to work.
  • Student wellbeing increases: The wellbeing of teachers has a direct impact on their students, which is why it’s so important to focus on the happiness and health of your team so students can feed off the positive energy they’re omitting.

  • Attractive place to work: We live in a world where mental and physical health are increasingly important to people on a personal level and therefore, when looking for a place to work, finding somewhere they know they’ll have enough time to look after themselves and where wellbeing is considered important will be a big draw for potential employees.

  • Less staff turnover: Teachers are quitting the profession due to ill health - focusing on wellbeing and introducing initiatives that work to maintain and improve wellbeing is one of the best preventative measures you can put in place to stop these members of staff quitting.

  • Positive work culture: The impact of a healthy and happy team is so valuable to your entire school body - one person’s good mood can infect a whole team, and this knock-on effect can happen through the entire school body creating a buzzing atmosphere in which students want to study, parents are happy, students want to get involved and where teachers are happy to go to work each day.

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CPD

CPD is an integral part of your school improvement plan, although it is often overlooked as the impact it has on raising outcomes and the benefits that come with it aren’t as instantaneous as other initiatives. However, the wider benefits that it can bring to the school outside of simply developing staff are desirable.

When trying to focus time, effort and resources into CPD, you may encounter push backs or have some reservations yourself, the most common being lack of money, time and the impact it can have on workload, but these can be overcome. Firstly, CPD needn’t be costly in terms of training and out-of-office courses, a lot of CPD can happen internally at little-to-no extra cost. Additionally, when it comes to shadowing, mentoring and providing training sessions to members of staff, providing these to multiple members of staff at the same time can reduce the amount of time it takes to provide training.

Workload also presents itself as a barrier to CPD because there’s rarely enough time to get day-to-day tasks completed in the working day, let alone additional training. This mindset means the idea of CPD adds extra stress on teachers which is far from the desired outcome. As a school leader, it’s down to you to help your staff find the time and push CPD as a priority. Successful and effective training can even help you and your staff to work more efficiently so that workload is reduced.  

In order to emphasise the importance of CPD, the Department for Education published a new Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development for all schools in England to follow. This standard provides clear guidelines on ways in which you, as a leader, can ensure that the CPD on offer to your teachers is effective, and provides breakdowns and examples in line with these headlines:

1. Professional development should have a focus on improving and evaluating pupil outcomes.

2. Professional development should be underpinned by robust evidence and expertise.
3. Professional development should include collaboration and expert challenge.
4. Professional development programmes should be sustained over time. 

And all this is underpinned by, and requires that:

5. Professional development must be prioritised by school leadership.

 

school improvement CPD

When done properly, CPD has the ability to make positive changes to your whole school - it’s a natural tool that helps to retain your workforce - teachers want to learn and progress and by offering them effective CPD you’re providing them with the incentive to stay at your school and develop their skill set. This would also help to retain teachers with more than 10 years’ experience in England, where there is a lack of experience at leadership level due to a high turnover in comparison to other nations who on average have 64% of teachers with over a decade’s experience, in comparison to England who only have 48%.

Additionally, providing your staff with the opportunity to develop has a positive impact on their wellbeing as it shows you’re invested in them, seeing talent that should be nurtured and value them as team members.

But perhaps the most obvious benefit of CPD is that the more skilled and trained your teachers are, the better education your students receive and the better they perform. When teachers don’t feel as though they’re performing to the best of their ability or providing as good a lesson as they can, they’re more likely to put pressure on themselves and to become withdrawn, which in turn has a negative impact on their wellbeing and on their students’ progression. CPD helps your teachers to feel confident in their abilities so they’re able to continue pushing themselves and their students. 
CPD is beneficial to everyone, including yourself, especially in an industry where skills, practices and challenges are developing constantly, regularly addressing these changes and educating yourself and your staff helps you to remain effective and innovative as a leader and educator.

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Students

Ultimately, your school’s success is reflected through the performance of your students and this is why your improvement plan will greatly focus on student attainment as well as teaching and learning. However, other areas that deserve focus are student wellbeing and digital literacy - both of which will have a positive impact on a student’s achievement and success in future life.


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Digital literacy

Technology is ingrained in our day-to-day life and as a nation, we depend on it - especially students, as they’ve been brought up with it in their everyday lives. The rate at which technology is developing means that it’s extremely likely their future career path will involve technology and for some, their future job hasn’t even been created yet.
As an educational institute, we are responsible for providing students with the skills they need to be successful in later life - this includes educating them on how to use technology properly. Providing evidence that you’re helping to prepare students for later in life through educational, cultural and personal learning is critical to your school’s success and should, therefore, take a prominent position in your school improvement plan integrated through the curriculum and PSHE:

Curriculum

In order to provide your students with high quality lessons in STEM subjects, you need to invest in your teachers either through CPD and relevant training or by hiring qualified staff that are skilled in delivering such lessons. By investing in the teacher, the content that is delivered is more likely to engage and motivate students who will then be more likely to continue studying STEM subjects in further education.
Promoting the uptake of STEM related subjects should be firmly on the improvement agenda, especially for girls. Women in tech are greatly underrepresented and we are in a position to help change this. Simple initiatives like introducing STEM clubs can help in nurturing talent and sparking interest.


PSHE

Despite the opportunities that are presented through new technologies, there are of course risks that come hand-in-hand when young people are exposed to them. It’s important that schools provide proper guidance for students on how to use the internet and tech safely.


The House of Lords has proposed that digital literacy should be a part of the PSHE curriculum but before this is properly actioned, PSHE should be leveraged to educate students on how to stay safe online. The threats posed by the internet and technology are huge - research claims that there is a link between social media usage and mental health issues, cyberbullying is ever prevalent on social media sites, predators use online websites to groom young people, and fraud and identity theft are commonplace online. By making our students aware of these threats and educating them on how to avoid or report them, we’re helping to protect their safety and wellbeing.


We have explored digital literacy, its importance and impact in our Digital Literacy Analysis which you can read here or download as PDF below.

digital literacy for digital detox


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school improvement digital literacy

Wellbeing

Every school should make it their aim to focus on the positive wellbeing of their students. Not only is the impact of happy and healthy students beneficial school wide, but ensuring the health and safety of our students is especially important in this day and age due to more students than ever before experiencing mental health issues as a result of the pressure they feel due to exams and their exposure to social media.
Knowing that these are some of the stressors impacting student wellbeing, it’s easy to create initiatives within your improvement plan that focus on counteracting the negative effects they have on wellbeing.


Rise in mental health issues in young people

Today mental health issues are affecting more children and young people than ever before with 1 in 10 suffering with mental health problems and almost 400,000 a year being treated for mental health problems in England. Poor wellbeing can seriously impact a child’s education and can result in students becoming reserved, lacking motivation, having difficulty concentrating and in the worst cases, taking extended periods of time off school.


We can help to identify symptoms of mental illness, raise awareness and provide help and resources where necessary. Good mental health in children and young people enables them to develop the resilience they need to deal with whatever life throws at them and attending a school that focuses on student wellbeing has a positive impact on this.


Discussion surrounding schools’ involvement in student mental health issues have concluded that more work that can be done. This was supported by the recent increase in funding that mental health care services received in the UK. This money will help to fund better mental health care which includes stronger links between schools and mental health services to provide better support.


Simple steps to start highlighting the importance of wellbeing can include openly talking about mental health issues, including posters to mental health services in and around the school and educating your staff in how to deal with identifying warning signs and the steps to take if they believe a child is at risk.


Exam pressure linked to mental health issues in students

A strong contributor to mental health issues in students are exams - the new style of GCSEs means that young people are taking on average 8 hours more exams each year and in general, students are finding the pressure unbearable.


When looking to improve the wellbeing of students, exam stress will be a major factor in this goal - the stress of exams cannot be removed, but you can pre-empt the stress and implement school-wide initiatives that help to nurture positive wellbeing all year round so that students are better equipped to deal with stress when confronted with it.


This can be something you work into your school’s culture through promoting mindfulness, a healthy lifestyle and calming energies. As mentioned previously, leading by example is one of the most influential tactics you can hold as a leader, so in these circumstances, on top of training your staff on how to identify symptoms of poor wellbeing in themselves and students, also introduce initiatives that focus on their health and wellbeing. Whether that’s after school clubs that explore meditation and yoga, or discussing coping mechanisms you have yourself in whole-school assemblies, taking the lead and creating a safe and healthy school atmosphere can have a positive effect on wellbeing across the board.


school improvement student wellbeing


Social media and its impact on student wellbeing

One of the other biggest contributors to poor wellbeing in students is social media, with research suggesting those who spend a lot of time on these sites are subject to feelings of depression, lack of confidence and poor body image. Similarly, studies have found that teenagers who are exposed to more screen time are more likely to have ‘symptoms of depression and suicidal ideation’ as opposed to those who spent more time on non-screen activities such as sports, exercise, reading, school work etc.


We explored this in-depth in a recent blog post and the impact (if any) digital detoxes can have on students’ wellbeing and mental health - read more here.


When it comes to social media websites, the role the school plays is somewhat limited as the time that students use these sites is predominantly outside of school. However, this being said there are steps you can take to raise awareness and counteract the effect they can have on students which include:

 

  • Reviewing your mobile phone policy to limit the amount of time students spend on social media during the school day
  • Providing more in-depth lessons on the threats and consequences social media can have on students and their wellbeing
  • Teaching students how to use the internet safely and securely
  • Introducing assignments that look at the impact of technology on our day-to-day lives such as taking part in digital detoxes and assessing mood before and after etc.
  • Put an emphasis on educating students for life in Digital Britain which includes promoting the study of STEM subjects and staying safe online


The impact that positive student wellbeing can have on your school’s performance is profound with wellbeing provision having been found to reduce poor classroom behaviour and bullying, however in spite of this, research into Ofsted reports found that only 1 in 3 included explicit reference to pupils’ mental health and wellbeing. This tells us more needs to be done to monitor student wellbeing. Having student wellbeing as a clear area for improvement on your SIP will show your staff, parents, students and external investigators that you take the wellbeing of your students seriously and parents especially will feel at ease knowing their children are in safe hands.


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Conclusion

This guide by no means outlines all potential areas for a school improvement plan as a school’s SIP depends on the individual school’s needs. We have simply outlined key areas that we believe to be fundamental to school improvement and which are sometimes overlooked or not fully understood.


The intent of this is to inspire you, as a leader, on what to focus on when assessing your current school. As a leader, you are critical to your school’s success and it is up to you to look after your staff and students by providing them with the training they deserve, the knowledge they need to look after themselves and others, and to create a culture in which learners and staff alike will thrive.

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