Aspiring to be “good” – would this provide space for improvement?

Amongst a number of  other duties the Standards in Scottish Schools Act 2000 sets out two key responsibilities for Scottish Local Authorities in respect to school education, namely Raising Standards and Reviewing School Performance.

Yet I was wondering if it’s time to reconsider these duties in light of the impact – or otherwise – that Local Authorities have had upon schools in their charge? As a headteacher, and in my ten years a member of school senior management teams in a variety of schools,  I would have to question what impact Local Authorities had upon raising standards in the school and whether or not the School Review process made a positive contribution to the raising of said standards. I want to make it clear that I am not denigrating in any way the efforts and support given to schools by Local Authority colleagues but that the very assumption that an external force can drive improvement within a school is perhaps founded upon a false premise.

For the reality is often that the standards in a school are directly related to the quality of leadership and commitment from staff in that same school. However, by giving responsibility for raising standards to the Local Authority it creates an expectation – from all – that the authority can make an impact from an external position.  This is turn gives rise to what I’ve previously described as the “Dae Sumthin”  mentality where Local Authority managers are under pressure to be seen to be taking action – even if this action doesn’t necessarily result in any observable consequence.  The important thing is that action is taken. 

In a similar fashion Authorities have gone to considerable trouble to create a range of means of “Reviewing School Performance”  . These mechanisms have taken many different forms all with the intention that we can “know our schools”.

What I want to question is the assumption that there is a direct causal relationship between how well we know our schools and how well we can raise standards? ( in the case the “we” are those outwith the school).

It would be my contention that the responsibility – and much more importantly the capacity – to raise standards lies with those who work in a school.  That was always my belief as a headteacher, a principal teacher, or even as a teacher and I’ve seen nothing in the last five years as an educational administrator to change that opinion. I’m not saying here that all of our efforts in Local Authorities are wasted but that there is an unintended consequence of our adherence to the notion that the more we do from “outside” the school the better things will be “within” the school.

So if the responsibility for raising standards should lie with the school does that mean that the Authority can abdicate from it’s responsibilities for school education?  I would argue that the quality of school education should still lie with the Local Authority – yet the responsibility to raise standards should lie with the school.  Now if this seems like “having one’s cake and eating it” I can understand how such an assertion might appear peculiar.  Yet what I have in mind is much more of a commissioning approach, whereby the Authority commissions the school to deliver education on its behalf.  Just as Children’s Services currently commissions a charity to deliver an aspect of its service, the overall responsibility still lies with the  commissioning body. It is the role of the commissioner to ensure that those who are commissioned are delivering the service to the agreed standards – it is not the commissioner’s responsibility to raise standards, simply to ensure that the standards set out in the agreement is achieved.

This actually chimes with something which Pasi Sahlberg said recently at a  conference when describing the success that is Finnish Education. For Pasi said that in Finland to be “good”  is “good enough”.  They do not aspire to excellence as a system but focus on ensuring that everyone is at least “good enough”.  I know this seems to lack the aspiration of our Journey to Excellence – but I actually think that this provides exactly  the kind of space in which teachers and schools can flourish. 

So in such an environment what should happen to the Authority’s responsibility to “Review School Performance”? Perhaps the clue lies with the last couple of sentences in that particular section of the Act when it describes how where the Authority concludes that following a review that where:

” the school is not performing satisfactorily they shall take such steps as appear to them to be requisite to remedy the matter.”

It’s here that I would want to refer to the model of practice which is emerging from many directions, namely Risk Assessment.  What I’m wondering is whether or not a Risk Assessment approach might provide schools with much more space to innovate and develop local solutions to raising standards?  Would it be possible for an Authority to assess the “Risk” relating to the quality of education provided by a school.  Rather than stating that a school’s performance is somewhere on the six point scale we instead provide a simple statement to parents and others that the risk that the school is not providing a “good” education is low, medium or high.  Schools would aspire to be in the “low” risk category.   I would reckon that only around 5% of schools would fall into the high risk category and that the Authorities’ resources could be targetted on those same schools – with others being given ever more freedom to innovate and create local solotions without external interference.

Learning or checking?

I was in West Barns Primary School yesterday and was speaking to a P6/7 class. One of the boys asked me if I was an inspector and I asked him why he thought that –  “Well you’re wearing suit and watching what we are doing”, was his logical reply.  Euan had never seen an inspector in the school before.  Yet the notion of the “inspector” in our society seems to be deeply ingrained.

I asked him what he thought an inspector’s job was – “They make sure that we are doing the right things” – he replied.  I suppose he managed to capture the traditional  conception of the inspector’s role. But I wonder if that role might be on the verge of evolving into something quite different? – or at least how we replicate that role within schools and local authorities.

Perhaps we need to imagine a time when we could leave the school to judge if they were doing the “right things”.  Such a model would depend upon trust – but more importantly that the school knew what the right things were and  had the capacity – and the information – to make that judgement for themselves and the capacity to do something about it if they judged a gap.

I found this linked well with a discussion we had today at our 3-18 Strategic Learning and Teaching Group about classroom observation where we explored the following: “How do we make sure that classroom observation has a positive impact upon learning and teaching in the school?”

I used my recent post on this issue as a stimulus . What emerged in the course of the discussion was that the output – e.g 75 observations undertaken by management in  a school in a single year, has no correlatiion on the quality of learning and teaching that one might expect to see in that school. Our group – which involved people from all levels in the service agreed that it was more about creating a learning culture or ethos where such observations played a key role in that learning process geared towards improving what we do in the class..

To return to my visit to West Barns I had explored this with the class and it was amazing to listen to how they understood the difference between someone watching and checking and someone watching and learning.

It was a credit to their teacher and their school that they were able to actively engage with a stranger in such discussion at such a level and differentiate between these two alternative dimensions.

I know which dimension I would prefer?

TESS Article 2 – Classrooms with limits

 I’ve been working on a draft for my next TESS article.  I’d welcome comments and suggestions for improvement:  

One of the best parts of my job is that I get to observe the learning and teaching process in all of our schools. One of the things that I’ve been struck by during my visits is how necessity is the mother of invention – particularly where the organisation of learning comes into play. 

East Lothian has many 2/3-teacher schools, which necessitates the “dreaded”  (by parents) composite class. In such a situation the teacher might have three or four different year groups represented in the same class.  There is no alternative so the teacher accepts the responsibility to organise learning in such a way that every pupil in the class gains access to the curriculum and makes progress.

Contrast this with the secondary school where it is possible to split a single year group into discrete “ability” groups and give responsibility for each group to a single teacher.

The logic of  “ability” setting appears to be compelling.  It’s surely easier for the teacher to teach one “ability” level in a class. The pupils in a set have access to a curriculum that is tailored to their “ability”. Pupils in a set are working with children of the same “ability” and the confidence of pupils of lower “ability” is not compromised being in presence of higher “ability” peers. Lastly schools can focus their support staff on lower “ability” groups. Of course all of the above depend upon the premise that we can actually make accurate judgements about children’s “ability” and that each set is a homogeneous group, which requires no further differentiation.

The second reason for setting is that most parents, who express a preference, prefer setting – in fact huge concerns can arise if their child is not in a set appropriate to their expectations, i.e. at least one above where they actually are.

The final and  unspoken reason- for “ability” setting is the reality that pupils of lower “ability” are those who are likely to disrupt classes and the learning of others – by removing them from the presence of those who “want to learn” the teachers are able to make progress with the curriculum. Finally, the HMIe themselves have actively promoted setting since 1996 as the preferred mode of organising learning.

It’s a brave secondary Head Teacher then who even thinks of challenging such overwhelming forces in favour of “ability” setting – especially where the scale of the school makes it easy to facilitate.

Yet the small school Head Teacher faces no such pressure and although they might look to emulate some of the setting models from larger schools the prime modus operandi is the use of groups characterised by careful planning, differentiation and personalisation.

I spoke to such a group of pupils in a P5 – P7 class and asked them if they saw any disadvantages of being in such a class – they saw none! Yet when I asked them what the advantages were I got a long list, which included:  “You get to hear things that you’ve done before but didn’t perhaps understand the first time”; “You get to help other people in the class who are doing new things”; “You get to know people of different ages”; and “You get to see what you will be doing next year” – wow – talk about metacognition!

In the summer I was fortunate enough to listen to Norman Kunc – who enjoys (as opposed to suffers from) cerebral palsy – and has the most challenging views about how schools unwittingly erode and prevent children from having any sense of belonging to the education system they experience.

Kunc used Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and pointed out that modern society values mastery over belonging – yet in Maslow’s hierarchy mastery cannot be achieved unless the “need” for belonging is first fulfilled.  The result is that young people are disengaged from the learning process and seek out other groups with whom they can form allegiance and fulfil their need to belong.

I’m not decrying setting in all circumstances – but I do have to question the unwitting impact, artificial limits and fixed expectations which extensive setting places upon children particularly in the early years of secondary school.

As a former secondary Head Teacher – who allowed setting in Maths and English – I only wish I had had the courage of my convictions to explore alternative and more positive ways of organising learning.

Leadership for learning: The challenges of leading in a time of change

The HMIe have recently published a fascinating report into educational leadership in Scottish education.

It starts out by asserting that 85% of educational leaders in all sectors are good or very good – which obviously leaves a question hanging about the remaining 15%.

I really like Graham Donaldson’s foreword where he says something very important about the type of culture to which we should be aspiring:

“Developing leadership is not just about honing the skills of those in the most senior positions, important though that undoubtedly is. It is also about releasing the energies of every member of staff and every learner and about giving each of them a sense that their contributions are valued.”

He also makes an important statement about responsibility and accountability:

“A desire to take responsibility and to accept accountability is part of good leadership. Ultimate accountability rests with the person at the head of the formal structure but all members of staff must be committed to and feel accountable for their own development and performance. Such commitment lies at the heart of professionalism.”

In his conclusion he reaffirms the notion of the culture to which we should be aspiring:

“…build a leadership culture in Scottish education which encourages initiative, tackles difficult problems directly and is genuinely aspirational.”

The report chimes with something I was recently writing about when it states:

“It adopts a cross-sectoral approach which asserts that the principles of effective leadership are common to all sectors although the challenges and methods of approach may well vary depending on context”.. pg 2

I wonder if this opens the door for primary and secondary leaders to operate in their counterparts’ context?

The Report sets out to:

Provoke discussion

Identify key issues in leadership and management

Identify and disseminate features of good practice

Encourage all those with a stake or interest in education to consider their contributions to leadership.

There’s a very useful summary section included in the introduction.

I think the document manages to summarise and exemplify many important leadershipattributes and actions. I particularly like the notion that there is no single leadership style is being promoted.

The report emphasises that the development of vision must be part of a collaborative process. However, I have worked in organisations where it’s quite obviously that the leader has no particular vision themselves and this can be debilitating when this happens.

The report quite clearly sets out the danger of over-simplification and of the downplaying of management and management practices and the over-used word and under-used reality of operating strategically is well defined:

“Strategic thinking is a demanding task that requires leaders to consider competing priorities and make the hard decisions about those issues that are absolutely central to future development. It requires the ability to look some way ahead and to understand the factors that will have an impact. An effective strategist is able to see the big picture: pg 48 -with some very useful examples being drawn from inspection reports.

I found a lot of the section on developing people and partnerships to be a bit shallow. It’s all very well to describe the importance of creating an “empowering” culture – quite another to translate it into reality. Reference is made to Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline but I was surprised that it completely missed out the most important concept of systems thinking – i.e. seeing the inter-connections between all the various things we do as leaders – I feel this is a critical element to successful leadership practice.

I was also disappointed that the relationship between “challenge” and “support” was not fully explored. These are key phrases used by the HMIe and local authorities yet no definition was offered. I’m keen that we move on from the notion of challenge and support to validation and support – which would sit much more neatly with the focus on valid and reliable self-evaluation. There was also an important omission about the difficult conversations that leaders need to have to people who are quite obviously underperforming.

However, I liked the emphasis on high leverage activities such as:

  • regular opportunities to observe what is happening in ‘classrooms’ along with immediate, face-to-face feedback to staff;
  • rigorous analysis of data to highlight trends in performance, pinpoint areas of under performance and develop plans of action linked to priority areas;
  • simple and effective target-setting and tracking systems to monitor the performance of learners;
  • opportunities for staff to meet in teams and review and develop the quality of provision on offer; and
  • effective and targeted CPD linked to the process of professional review and focused on improvements in learning, teaching and achievement.

The report concludes with a very powerful section with some very useful advice about the type of Leadership CPD which proves worthwhile – and is worthy of repeating here:

  • Learning ‘on the job’ through shadowing and team teaching.
  • Coaching and mentoring experiences.
  • Teaming up with another member of staff or organisation or establishment to exchange practice and ideas (at times, by buying in supply cover to allow staff to undertake peer observations or visits).
  • Secondment opportunities.
  • Opportunities for team teaching/team presentations followed by review and agreement on action points.
  • 180° or 360° feedback to identify strengths, areas for development and aligned CPD opportunities.
  • Being involved in chairing a working group or project or committee.
  • Leading a development project.
  • Attendance at leadership seminars, master classes or conferences.
  • Attendance at agreed ‘core’ leadership and management courses in local CPD directories.
  • Professional review and development which is effectively tied into a leadership framework such as the Standard for Headship in schools.
  • Multi-agency professional development to share best practice and take forward the children’s services agenda.
  • Away days and retreats.

The accompanying Case Study exercises should prove very useful for schools and authorities although I’m not sure that they will result in significant change unless implemented within cultures which seek to nurture and support their staff. If leaders are instructed to complete the self-evaluations then it’s unlikely to have any real impact.

In conclusion I think this document will prove to be a very useful tool for schools and authorities to use in well considered and “strategic” manner

Linking evaluation with development planning


One of the tasks we need to complete this week is the Service Improvement Plan update.  This is the document which provides guidance to schools about any priorities they should be including in their own School Development Plan.

Our Service Improvement Plan covers a three-year timespan and uses the National Priorities as a scaffold to give our plan some sort of coherence and shape.

However, it struck us today that the National Priorities are perhaps not the best way to present our plan – particularly given Journey to Excellence and the revamped version of How Good is Our School?

As Graham Donaldson, HM Chief Inspector of Schools, wrote just last month in the foreword to the third version of HGiOS?:

“The set of quality indicators continue to provide the core tool for self-evaluation for all schools, but they are now complemented by the very useful materials in other parts of The Journey to Excellence series.”

I think this gives a strong clue as to the most appropriate route to take in relation to linking planning and evaluation – i.e. use the ten dimensions identified in the Journey to Excellence as a planning framework – and HGIOS? as the evaluation template. This is not to say that we ignore the National Priorities but just that these are now embedded within the other two documents.

We’ve hopefully have moved a long way towards promoting a strong self-evaluation culture in our schools and authority but we need to develop a framework for planning which gives schools enough flexibility to address their own specific needs whilst ensuring consistency of approach across East Lothian. Hopefully our ideas will enable there to be a clear and coherent link between the planning framework and the self-evaluation framework – which is not currently the case.

Aspirations – might be scary?

During one of our meetings today we explored our aspirations for education in East Lothian.

The challenge was – if there were three things we would like to be excellent at in education in East lothian what would they be?

The answer? learning and teaching; self-evaluation; and leadership.  Arguably, if we got these three things operating at an excellent level then everything else would fall into place.

However, it was pointed out to me that such aspirations might actually scare people – “Are you saying that ‘very good’ isn’t good enough?”  I don’t think I was but what we’re keen to do is to lift the lid off our aspirations and really extend our current practice.  Hopefully it won’t be too scary along the way.

Dynamic Standards and Quality Reporting?

We have been trying to use this blogging platform to fulfil our statutory obligation to complete our Standards and Quality Report on education in East Lothian.

The reasons for exploring this format were threefold: improve accessibility to the report; cut down on environmental impact of producing a ‘glossy’ report; enable people to interact with the report.

However, another reason has emerged which wasn’t so obvious when starting out. Each year authorities and schools enter into the “reporting season” where they gather together evidence and spend a significant amount of time into pulling together the report. Yet there is an alternative!

What if the report became a dynamic document capable of being updated on an on-going basis? For example, an authority might only be able to award a level of performance for a quality indicator as being “good” but find that after a particular survey that it has gone up to being “very good”. Rather than waiting for the time for writing up the report the level of performance could be changed immediately.  In this way the report is accurately reflecting reality in ‘real-time’.

The on-line reporting format allows that level of responsiveness. It also turns the theory of on-going evaluation into a practice. 

As an after-thought – this format also has potential for pupil reporting where parents and pupils have “real time” access to progress. I know GLOW will be picking up on this but as a teacher I would have liked to have been able to enter pupils’ marks into a data base and for the marks and comments to be automatically transferred to the pupils’ on-line record. All instead of staying up to 3.00am completing reports!!


As I reported on prior to the holidays I’ve been working on an on-line version of our 2006 Standards and Quality Report. 

I have to admit to being quite pleased with the results so far although it will remain a draft version until the end of this month. 

Our hope is that this version will be a much more user friendly format for people to access information as and when they need it whilst significantly reducing costs and environmental impact.

We will still publish a short-hand version of the report and people can still receive a paper version of the report if they so desire but we will no longer be publishing a ‘glossy’ brochure.

We hope that readers can use the comments section for each indicator to make it a much more dynamic and interactive document than has been the case in the past.   

Please remember that this is a draft and still has a couple of sections still to be completed – the final levels of performance may yet change – depending upon feedback received.

You can access the report at Standards and Quality Report 2006

This report will from the bedrock of our next service improvement plan.

Standards and Quality Reports

I’ve been working on our Departmental Standards and Quality Report. I’m trying to set up a template which can be used by schools – with a view to reducing workload but improving the impact it makes.

One of the other differences is that I’ve used this blogging platform to present the plan on-line. There will be a front page with links for people to drill down if necessary. I’ll post a link here in a c ouple of days.

The key to the approach we’re developing is making use of the statements for quality indicators and using highlighter to show if we have evidence, possibly have evidence or just don’t agree, e.g.

How well do we meet the needs of our stakeholders?
QI 2.1 Impact on learners

This indicator relates to the impact of the education service on learners, including pre-school children, school-aged pupils and adult learners, focusing in particular on their current experiences. 


From this analysis – and in light of an absence of some data – we would score this as a 4 (Good).

Child at the Centre

I’ve pulled apart the most recent new-format
HMIe inspection report of the education functions of Clackmannanshire Council undertaken in May 2006


The various headings I’ve identified all feature in the actual report.

It would be my hope that something like this would form the basis of our 2006 Standards and Quality Report and the foundation for next 2007 Service Improvement Plan.

As the document’s name suggests it starts from a focus upon the impact of our services on the child and opens out thereafter. We would require to have clear criteria and robust evidence for each of the elements identified within the Report.