Using outcome agreements for school improvement


I came across the concept of a social return on investment last summer when Jim Honan explained the Program Logic Model.

The model seeks to find a way in which public services can actually have a greater impact by focusing upon the things that will actually lead to a return on social investment.  The tendency in education has often been to focus on outputs or activity and to only try to work out the outcome – or success criteria – at the end of the planning process, i.e. there are a legion of initievies and activities which have been implemented in Scottish education which have not had any discernible positive impact.

The model flips this on its head by forcing the service to consider the impact that we wish to have as the starting point for action. I’ve explored this in a number of previous posts but this week we sent out our Service Improvement Framework which schools will use to guide their activity for the coming year.

The Framework tries to make a link with the Council’s corporate plan and priorities but the pages which schools will undoubtedly focus upon are pages 8 and 9 – which set out the outcomes which we will use to judge the level of return we are getting from the investment in education in East Lothian, i.e. £75 million.

Borrowing from the Scottish Government’s concordat with Local Authorities we intend to give much greater flexibility to schools and clusters as to how they will go about achieving these outcomes – what works in one school or community won’t necessarily work in another school or community.

I know how positively I would have responded to such an approach, or as  one head teacher said to me this week – “trust us and we’ll do the business”.


Intellectual chat – (Mark Walker is in the centre of the photo)

I received an unexpected, yet very welcome, comment on my Log today from someone I’d met at Harvard in the summer (had I mentioned I’d been in Harvard?)

Mark Walker and I had I struck up a mutually abusive friendship during the course which our American hosts couldn’t quite understand – how could two people who had never met before be so rude to each other? For an Australian he was a decent enough chap! – if a bit “dull” – yet the Scots and the Aussie groups formed an formidable alliance.

It’s one of the joys of keeping a blog that people can keep track of each other and I’m looking forward to reading Mark’s own version when he sets it up – that is assuming he can master the technology and manage to write – two significant feats for an Australian!

Loss of the Future

It was Roland Barth who asked us to think back to an incident in our life which had been our most intense learning experience.

That’s a really interesting question to ask anyone – if you don’t believe me try it for yourself.

What emerged for me was the moment when our first child was stillborn. Gill was two weeks overdue and the baby just stopped moving one Saturday morning. We went up to the hospital and it took nearly an hour for someone to confirm our worst fears. We were sent home and told to come back the next day where gill would be induced. Gill was in labour for 14 hours before giving birth to a beautiful baby boy who we named Stewart.

We went on to have two wonderful sons Douglas and Lewis but that experience was one which has had a major influence on our approach to life.

As I thought more about that experience I realised that the sense of “loss” which we experienced was to do with our future rather than our past.  We had plans, expectations and dreams which we hoped to fulfil with our son – when he was stillborn that loss of the future made our grief even more intense.

So what’s this got to do with learning? Well it struck me that what Norman Kunc called the “hurt of change” might just be connected to people’s fear of losing their future.  Leaders often complain about people’s unwillingness to change, to embrace new practices, to adopt a new culture. But what if that unwillingness was actually to do with the fact that they can see the future because it looks just like the present.  When a leader comes in who paints a picture of something out of sight then is it any wonder that they recoil, resist – or worse stiil – ignore.

Perhaps the leader might do well to recognise people’s fear of “losing their future” – and through such recognition develop approaches to change which took account of these feelings – as opposed to simply writing off anyone who offers resistance?

Compulsory Training in Mind, Brain and Education for teachers?

I find it ironic that the only training/continuous professional development (CPD) which is compulsory for educationalists in East Lothian relates to such things as Health and Safety; Recruitment and Selection; or Disciplinary and Grievance courses.

My experience at Harvard has made me question whether or not there might be a place for compulsory professional updates on new knowledge and practice emerging from research into the Mind, Brain and Education.

Picking up on Richard Elmore’s thoughts the profession is often at the mercy of the latest fad/methodology/approach which will have some theoretical context and background but which is all too often ignored in favour of getting down to what we might call the “tricks”.

Would it not be liberating for teachers to treat them as professionals – in much the same way as doctors – and give them the most recent knowledge relating to the brain, mind and education which they could then apply to their own practice?

In this way they can be reflecting upon their own and others practice in a much more meaningful way than merely implementing an “approach” which has been developed by others.

If we did go down this route I’d like to explore the possibility of establishing a team of staff members from throughout our authority who would pull together the materials, devise the teaching model, and deliver the courses.

In our Health and Safety course – which all senior managers must complete – there is a necessity to pass the final written assignment. Would such an approach have merit in relation to our professional practice ?- I think it would and I would be willing to be one of the first through the course.

Back Home and a pledge

I got back to Scotland on Friday.

So what did I take from the Harvard experience?

There are ten inter-related things I’d like to do as a consequence of attending the course:

  1. Identify and remove all things which erode or prevent a sense of belonging – in schools and the authority
  2. Reduce the variance in the quality of learning experience in every classroom
  3. Promote the notion of a “person” being separate from their “practice”
  4. Believe in every person’s capacity to learn – children and staff
  5. Listen carefully to what people say and avoid moving into problem solving mode too quickly
  6. Encourage, model and support people to say “These children are mine”
  7. Focus our attention upon improving the quality and complexity of “learning tasks” provided in every classroom
  8. Keep returning to the measureable impact of our work
  9. Ensure that all teachers have a comprehensive understanding about current research into the brain, mind and education which they can use to develop their own professional practice.
  10. Establish unambiguous, consistent and shared norms about what we expect from our children and ourselves – and ensure that these are vigorously upheld.