The Constant Gardener

We spend a great deal of time thinking (and writing) about school improvement, but far less about preventing decline. Perhaps we are guilty of assuming that once a certain ‘standard’ or ‘level’ is reached, we can turn our attention to other things. After all, the advice is often to focus our efforts on a limited range of things at a time.

Unfortunately, schools are like gardens in that they need tending.

Aspects of a school can decline suddenly, but this is rare and usually due to an internal or external shock. For example, a change of head teacher or a poor Ofsted inspection may trigger a change in intake, staff turnover, staff morale, behaviour of students, or academic standards.

More often, things in schools slip gradually, often when no-one is looking. I’d like to speculate on why this happens. These thoughts are not based on any research – I am not aware that there is any – but rather on my own experience of running a school. I spend a great deal of time worrying about slippage. I am also usually undecided about what to do about it!

What I hope to provide here is a rudimentary framework for why standards in schools slip and what we can do about it. This isn’t a well thought through thesis; more a screen capture of my mental model, tidied and simplified for your consumption.

Reason 1: Random events

Random events happen all of the time in schools. Sometimes these events lead to perfectly predictable consequences, but sometimes the consequences are as unpredictable as the event itself. Whilst our systems, cultural norms, and established practices shouldn’t be thrown off course by randomness, the law of probability suggests that now and again they will be. There is nothing we can do to pre-empt random events other than to ensure that change is well embedded in the first place and less easy to throw off course.

Example: New starters

Students move between schools all of the time, but now and again a new starter puts the cat among the pigeons. This can happen when there is an unstable dynamic within a social group, class or year group – a certain mix of students which leads to a micro-culture, dominated by group norms that are quite different from those in the wider community, or those the school have worked hard to cultivate. If behaviour is near a tipping point, the addition of a single student may be enough to set behaviour on a downward spiral.

Reason 2: Mundane changes

Not all changes are random or unexpected. In fact, most changes within schools are routine and well rehearsed. Every year, the timetable is completely rewritten. Every September, a new batch of students arrives. In my school, we move the lunch break earlier during exam season to accommodate afternoon exams, we close the field at breaks over the winter, we change the queuing order for the canteen now and again to make it fair, we have an activities week before the summer holidays, and so on… Most of the time – perhaps surprisingly – these mundane, controlled, changes do not significantly interrupt the functional regularities of the school. But significant attention is needed to ensure this. Operational management is often vastly underrated in schools (‘leadership’ and ‘school improvement’ are so much more sexy!), but getting the operations wrong has the potential to undo all your hard work in achieving a certain standard in the first place.

Example: Break time routines

Break times are the least regulated activity in a school, with the greatest potential for chaos. A useful analogy is to think of the school as being in one of the three states of matter: solid, liquid, or gas. In classrooms, groups of students should be in a ‘solid’ state i.e. the physical and social positions and bonds are securely in place. You know exactly what you are going to see. Between lessons, students are in a liquid state – a guided flow from one place to another. Break times can feel like the school heats up into a gaseous state, where students bounce off each other in unpredictable ways. A simple change to a routine, such as queuing procedures, creates an unpredictable dynamic. Schools that do not pay enough attention to the mundane are inviting slippage.

Reason 3: Positive feedback loops

In our book, The Next Big Thing in School Improvement, we wrote about a sandcastle building competition to show how a small difference in starting point soon leads to big gaps in attainment. Educational disadvantage is amplified where positive feedback loops exist. The ‘positive’ in this term does not imply benefit, rather that the feedback gained from interaction magnifies the initial input – like the screeching noise you get when a microphone is placed too near to the speaker. Positive feedback loops mean that small inputs can have large effects.

Example: Unnoticed disadvantage

You may have crafted an excellent reading intervention programme – the centrepiece of your school improvement efforts. However, since this was implemented there has been a change of personnel and there is now a different group of people carrying out the screening process for deciding which students should received the intervention. As a result, a small number of students who should be receiving this support are not. The positive feedback loops around students who cannot read well are strong as they quickly find they cannot access the curriculum. If unaddressed, this can lead to low attainment, poor motivation, damage to self esteem and academic identity, and even declining behaviour. If our attention is on the impact of the programme rather than the effects of erroneously missing out on selection then slippage will occur.

Reason 4: The side effects of improvement

When we improve one thing it can be to the detriment of another. One interesting version of this is the ‘stand-out’ effect which is that when most things have been improved, the bits that haven’t improved stand out more. This is most obvious when we improve the physical condition of the school. If we decorate most of the toilets, the old ones are even less satisfactory to us by comparison. But this happens in relation to human behaviour too. Stand-out effects in combination with positive feedback loops (above) are particularly problematic. Being one of a few weak readers may be much harder than being one of many.

Example: Compliance with behaviour systems

Imagine you are in charge of your school’s behaviour policy and procedures. Two years ago you carried out a piece of work to establish how consistently teachers were implementing the school’s ‘3 strikes’ removal policy when students misbehave. To your despair, you found that only 40% of teachers were implementing this approach fully. Now, after a school-wide focus on improving behaviour, 90% of teachers are consistently applying the policy. The effect on classroom behaviour has been very good. However, you notice that for a small group of teachers, behaviour in their classes has got considerably worse. What is even stranger is that these teachers are among your most experienced practitioners who previously had few problems with their classes. What may be happening here is that these teachers have not changed their approach at all, but things have changed around them. They have become the outliers. Their outlier behaviour is very noticeable to students and the students interpret this as a sign that the teacher is acting alone rather than in line with the group, therefore is easy prey to be picked off.

Reason 5: Exposure

Like an old-fashioned photograph, some aspects of a school can be exposed to the light for too long. In our enthusiasm to drive improvement or embed a new approach, we simply overdo it. We need to calm down; back off. Let things settle.

Example: A love of reading

I remember my daughter’s primary school going full throttle to create a ‘love of reading’ some years ago. Targets were set for how many books children had to read at home. Quizzes were taken to show comprehension (and, I suspect, to prove compliance). As parents, we were tasked with signing to confirm that a certain amount of time had been spent reading. The effect of this well-meaning initiative on my daughter was to make her dislike reading even more than she already did. And for us as parents? Well, we were eventually complicit in deceiving the school that this reading was happening. We might consider this as misguided school improvement, but I think of it as a reasonable idea that just went too far. Being relentless in the pursuit of excellence is sometimes counterproductive.

Reason 6: The new normal

Frederick Herzberg observed that pay rises may lead to a temporary increase in productivity, but effort levels soon settled back down once this adjustment came to be the norm. Pay, he said, was therefore a ‘hygiene’ rather than a ‘motivation’ factor. So too with many aspects of school improvement. The initial bounce we get from changing the norm may not lead to a permanent change in perception. What, therefore, slips is people’s perception of whether things are better than they were. This can be frustrating for school leaders who believe that standards are tangibly better than they were, but staff, parents or students have come to expect even more.

Example: Workload reforms

You have stripped back data input, moved to a ‘no marking’ policy, streamlined initiatives, allocated more INSET time to departments, centralised detentions, reduced the frequency of parental reports, and everything else on the DfE’s workload toolkit. These changes have, individually, been very welcome. Staff morale increases and your annual survey says that teachers work-life balance has improved. And then these perceptions start to slip. Concern about workload grows and senior leaders are thought to be not prioritising staff wellbeing. You know that if they worked at the school down the road they would really have something to moan about, but that isn’t the baseline for expectations. You have a new normal.

What do you do now?

So, if and when you notice that things are slipping. what should you do?

I think there are at least five responses, all with their own limitations.

  1. The relaunch. A classic when it comes to declining behaviour. Relaunches can be effective, but the risk is that relaunching suggests that the approach is currently failing.
  2. Doubling-down. School leaders might be tempted to lean into a something harder than before. More accountability. More detailed rules or justifications. Doubling down can lead to ever-increasing bureaucracy and managerialism if we are not careful.
  3. Change tack. Knowing when to try something different is important. But doing this too often can lead to inititaive overload.
  4. Cut your losses. Sometimes you have to know when you are beat. If you can’t get students to wear their ties properly, move to a clip-on tie. Of course, doing this too often is to surrender control.
  5. Ignore. Do this at your peril.

When things start to slip, there is no perfect solution. Sometimes we need to be stubborn and relentless, at other times humble and reflective.

In my experience, we will manage this aspect of running a school best if we expect slippage, take the time to diagnose why it is occurring, and narrate our response carefully to staff and students. The story we tell is important. Nothing lasts forever, and we should expect to have to evolve our approaches. If we adopt the language of ‘fixing’ and ‘implementing’ change, then we create the impression that the changes we bring in will be all that is ever needed. Instead, we should talk of ‘next steps’ and of ‘responding’ to an ever-changing environment.

Maintaining what we have is just as important as improving the school further. It is in some ways a different art, more akin to tending a garden that souping up an engine.

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