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How we used research to drive school improvement

Written by: Lisa Hickman
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5 min read

Inheriting a school with poor academic outcomes for students (Progress 8 of -0.78 ) leaves you with one fundamental question: where do we start?

Leadership of a school that needs improving across the board requires laser-sharp prioritisation, and amongst the myriad of research on curriculum, pedagogy, staff wellbeing and student progress, we knew two things: we wanted to lead with integrity and purpose, and we needed to do this by choosing a path that would rapidly improve our school and take our teachers with us. We visited and were warmly welcomed by other schools from all sectors, with a variety of outcomes to enable us to investigate best practice and evaluate research in action. We targeted the areas that would have the most immediate impact, whilst also building sustainable success for our students.

There were no knee-jerk reactions, which have been commonplace across the education sector due to outcome-based inspections, changeable policies and high-stakes performance tables. All strategic decisions were rooted firmly in research-based studies. This was critical in ensuring that all staff were engaged with and had ‘buy in’ to what we wanted to do, as the impact of change is restricted if engagement is partial.

We were focused on building long-term, sustainable improvement as opposed to a quick fix that would collapse as soon as leadership changed. Our aim was supported by the findings of the Harvard Business Review (Hill et al., 2016), which presented the ‘architect’ style of leadership as the most sustainable model to deliver effective long-term improvement in schools. We realised that this was a perfect fit for our own experience, personalities and ethos, and this helped us to define our own vision for leadership. This was illustrated by the positive feedback from our Ofsted inspection in our first term of leadership, which recognised our moral purpose and pursuit of excellence within a culture of high staff morale (Ofsted, 2017).

One ingredient we quickly identified as having a negative impact on learning, behaviour and aspirations was the curriculum and setting structure that we inherited, where students were rigidly set based on ability on entry, with very little opportunity for movement across all five years of school. It perpetuated a culture of narrow aspirations, minimal effort and underachievement. As part of an evaluation of our Key Stage 3 curriculum content, we explored the impact of mixed attainment teaching groups in a variety of schools, locally, nationally and internationally. The impact on progress over time was clear to see, and we adopted mixed attainment teaching in all subjects except for maths as the vehicle with which we could deliver a newly developed, challenging, knowledge-based curriculum. We did want to raise the achievement and progress of our students but we also wanted equity of educational experience, which, in our context, would also widen aspirations and opportunities. We wanted our curriculum to challenge all students, and their experience in our school to reflect a society that is diverse in academic ability and cultural understanding.

Early evaluation of student learning demonstrated an absence of commonality around what excellent teaching looked like, and therefore a lack of consistently effective practice. Amongst the research pertaining to the knowledge curriculum, metacognition and retrieval, we found that Rosenshine’s principles of instruction (2012) fully encapsulated what excellent learning looked like for us at Redmoor. Teachers recognised and responded to a research-informed article, grounded in cognitive psychology and educational research, that sharpened focus and delivery of new knowledge. Coaching discussions now centred around the language of scaffolding, stages of practice, chunking and reviewing in order to provide our students with the best learning experience possible.

In practice, we saw an increase in consistent approaches to teaching and learning across the school. For example, co-construction of student responses, model answers and modelling strategies such as the use of visualisers were reflected in our quality assurance and in the high standard of student work. So often we ask students to be excellent, in work, attitude and their application, but how can they do that when they are unsure of what excellence looks like? Once students knew how to be excellent and were guided as to how to achieve it, they could attain success, a fact borne out by our much-improved GCSE results.

Therefore, Rosenshine’s principles run throughout our CPD, through carefully crafted teacher training and sharing good practice. All teachers now undertake action research projects focused on these elements to discover what excellence looks like in their own subject areas. The principles are used as the language for our quality assurance, but again not as a stick to beat teachers with, but as a commonality of vision and support; there are reasons why we have extremely low staff turnover, and our shared vision of excellence and support is, we believe, one of them.

However, it is not just in student outcomes that impact is evident. The synthesis of a unified vision supported by all staff and translated into consistently high-quality teaching has had wider benefits. Students of all abilities and backgrounds have equity of experience, and a more positive culture for learning is emerging. This is reflected in observations, work scrutiny and student voice, which demonstrate that students are taught to the top and work is scaffolded to allow previously lower attainers to access a challenging curriculum and move to independent practice. Current tracking data for our Year 11 mixed attainment cohort indicates further rapid progress at all attainment ranges. As Francis et al. (2019) indicate, even the best practice in setting does not improve outcomes for previously low attainers, and an undercurrent of bias may lead to students being misplaced in the first place. Hallam and Ireson (2005) and Boaler et al. (2000) (cited in Francis et al., 2019) suggest that teachers of higher groups set more fast-paced, challenging work than that experienced by lower sets. As a disproportionate amount of Pupil Premium students are in these bottom groups, the disadvantage gap widens. Using the principles of instruction, in conjunction with Francis et al.’s advice on ‘doing mixed attainment grouping well’, all students access the same high-quality curriculum with equity, using a common vision of excellence.

Two years after inheriting a school with poor academic outcomes, a rigid setting structure and a curriculum that lacked challenge, we now have a positive Progress 8 score, but, more importantly, we also have students who have become more aspirational and have been able to access higher-level post-16 qualifications. We started with a shared vision, a united purpose and an understanding of how to get there, with a common language to underpin it. The question we ask now is: Where do we go from here? The answer so far seems to be equity, progress and success for all.

References

Francis B, Taylor B and Tereshchenko A (2019) Reassessing Ability Grouping. London: Routledge.

Hill A, Mellon L, Laker B  et al. (2016) The one type of leader who can turn around a failing school. Harvard Business Review, 20 October, 2016. Available at: https://hbr.org/2016/10/the-one-type-of-leader-who-can-turn-around-a-failing-school (accessed 26 November 2019).

Ofsted (2017) Redmoor Academy, full inspection report, November 2017. Available at: https://reports.ofsted.gov.uk/provider/23/137968 (accessed 26 November 2019).

Rosenshine B (2012) Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator 36(1): 12–19, 39.

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