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Raising academic standards by giving teachers confidence and autonomy

Written By: Miriam Fredrickson
9 min read
Handing back responsibility to teachers is a gradual shift but it can lead to long-lasting change

Headley Park Primary School is a two-form entry community primary school, with 468 pupils including a 52-place nursery. It’s located in a little-known area of Bristol with a static population of largely white working-class families. Despite relatively low income levels, deprivation indicators (and Pupil Premium funding) are low (11%) as only a small percentage rely on benefits.

There is a strong sense of community and children are generally well looked-after and supported. Academic education, however, is not highly valued by many families and life goals are often not aspirational. Sporting achievement tends to be prioritised over academic endeavour.

As a result of this – and years of prioritising sport in the curriculum – the school has an excellent sporting record. Before 2014, we also had a high percentage of children achieving the required standards for English and maths at the end of key stage 2 (KS2). In 2012, 94% of children achieved the required standard in both English and maths. With the increased demands of the 2014 curriculum, however, standards dipped.

We are taking the long view with this: it is not about cramming for tests, narrowing the curriculum or prioritising English and maths.

The challenge

The percentage of pupils achieving the expected standard in 2016 went down to 41% for combined, and between 61% and 71% for individual subjects. So we have been working over the last three years to raise aspirations and strive for greater academic excellence.

We are taking the long view with this: it is not about cramming for tests, narrowing the curriculum or prioritising English and maths over the many other crucial parts of primary education. We believe excellence is achieved through aspiration, developing a growth mindset and a love of learning. We want our school to be a safe place to take risks and make mistakes; to offer the broadest possible range of new experiences and learning; and we are working on developing future skills such as resilience, imagination, creativity, resourcefulness and collaboration.

Our challenge is to make rapid improvements to academic outcomes, while not falling into the trap of quick fixes.

I have been increasingly aware of declining levels of confidence among teaching professionals. When I took over the school as headteacher in January 2015, we had a wealth of talent and expertise, but low levels of confidence and autonomy. I felt there was an unhealthy focus on ‘consistency’ and ‘uniformity’ and excessive reliance on prescribed ways of teaching. Attempts to raise standards and make changes resulted in growing levels of fear and uncertainty. Teachers felt restricted, over-scrutinised and were losing motivation, drive and passion for the job.

If we were to raise aspirations and achieve excellence, we had to shift this culture. When I refer to teachers, I also include Learning Support Assistants (LSAs) as the teaching expertise in the classroom is provided by both.

We needed to be bold and flexible, providing teaching and learning which genuinely met our needs, regardless of the growing pressure to homogenise and focus on data.

My approach

I wanted to create a culture where teachers were the experts, could realise their potential, and had the autonomy and trust to create teaching and learning that was right for their students. My philosophy was greatly influenced by the work of Alison Peacock and the ‘Learning without Limits’ project (Hart et al 2004).

I was inspired by the way Wroxham School achieved success by school leaders looking beyond the immediate and narrow constraints of what appeared to be non-negotiable expectations, for example, defining children by their ‘levels’ and ‘sub-levels’.

I also thought that focusing on the individual and collective potential in the school community was the right approach for us. We needed to be bold and flexible, providing teaching and learning which genuinely met our needs, regardless of the growing pressure to homogenise and focus on data.

What I did

Some practical ideas and principles could be implemented quickly. I allowed teachers a choice in how they organised their planning and gave them freedom about how they communicated learning objectives (LOs). Previously every lesson had to be presented in the same way, on a SMART notebook, with the LO on every page.

The bulk of what was to be achieved however, would be the result of a much slower, cultural shift, and we still have a way to go.

Reducing the fear of criticism

The top priority (and there have been many strands to this) was to reduce the fear of criticism and encourage more risk-taking and willingness to try new ideas. A crucial part of increasing teacher confidence has been an insistence that teaching and learning policies should be based on teacher expertise, formulated collaboratively and driven by educational principles – not administrative efficiency or to ease the processes of scrutiny.

The first policies I chose to re-design ‘Learning without Limits’ style, were those that would have an immediate impact on classroom practice. We revised our marking and feedback policy, starting again with a blank piece of paper. All of the teaching staff were involved and we had a wide-ranging discussion about all the different ways we do or could give feedback to children to help them progress. We drew on our own experiences, ideas we’d read about or had experience of in other schools. We thrashed out why we mark, when it’s useful and when it isn’t with a range of practical examples.

The policy became a summary of principles – a description of the kind of marking and feedback we aim for with examples to illustrate. New teachers coming to our school wanting to know how to mark, will not find the answer in our school policy. They will be reminded of the professional judgements they need to make to ensure feedback is meaningful and effective, and they will be supported with ideas and examples.

This was done in March 2015 and it had an immediately positive impact on the sense of ownership teachers had – they understood that they were not being asked to mark for marking’s sake. Since then, the policy has been implemented and interpreted in a variety of ways. We formally reviewed it again in 2018 and added more examples of effective strategies.

During these three years, I found that some teachers were better than others at working within a principles-based policy. Many were energised by the freedom it gave them and rose to the challenge of trying out new ideas and evaluating their success. Some, however, either carried on with the methods previously prescribed or found the lack of prescription de-motivating. In some cases the standard of marking and feedback went down. In both these scenarios, I asked: ‘How do you know how well pupils are doing?’; ‘How do you and they know what they need to do next?’; ‘Why have you planned this lesson?’. This has led to more useful discussions and had more of an impact on practice than simply reiterating instructions. You can find our latest policy in the documents below.

Working on praise

Another important strand is praise. I highlight examples of good practice spotted through the week publicly at weekly briefings. At first, people were embarrassed by public praise – one or two were also cynical. Now, however, I have several suggestions every week for the ‘wow spots’ at briefing and everyone is much more relaxed about receiving praise. It has helped create an upbeat and celebratory feel to Friday briefings.

Encouraging collaboration

Collaboration is another aspect. Everyone is encouraged to share their ideas and try out possible solutions to thorny problems. We have provided many opportunities for discussion – in small teams, year group pairs, curriculum teams, key stages, coaching groups, mentoring meetings and whole-staff discussions. In all of these we focus on finding solutions together. We are aiming to remind our professionals that they have the answers, they are the experts.

Reflecting on practice

Reflective practice was another important strand. Reflections on practice and sharing of good examples were hard at first – people were reluctant to come forward with ideas for fear of what others might think or feel. There was a culture of guardedness and reticence, and a strong desire to stay firmly behind their own classroom doors. I had to force the issue at first, e.g. timetabling the use of IRIS (self-evaluation video recordings) and formally including feedback from this at key stage meetings. Through persistent and regular celebration of people trying new things and achieving success (often in very small ways), everyone is encouraged and steered to raise their game and think for themselves about how to improve their practice.

We believe excellence is achieved through aspiration, developing a growth mindset and a love of learning.

Colleague contributions

As a result of this approach, a number of teachers, in a variety of roles and with different levels of experience, have come up with ideas and strategies that have become part of effective school practice.

Meeting Early Learning Goals

A Reception teacher was keen to develop ‘in the moment’ planning. She persuaded me – with her training and research – that it can be successful if implemented well. I was keen not to dampen her enthusiasm and wanted to support her, but I was nervous. Everyone in primary school leadership knows how difficult it is to get the balance right between child-initiated learning and adult-led or scaffolded learning, and how quickly it can become out of balance. Our record of good levels of development (GLD) was just above national average, but early reading and writing was still an area of concern. The risk that this approach could set this back further was very real.

I agreed to trial the approach on the condition that it was monitored very carefully. We agreed how it would be evaluated and which elements of the approach we would trial in which order. The teacher rose to the challenge: she trained her colleagues and informed parents of the aims of the trial and how it would work. She was meticulous in her assessment and evaluation, adjusting it as the trial developed.

The children grew in independence and enthusiasm for learning very quickly and we ended up with more evidence than expected about how the children were meeting the Early Learning Goals. Their play has become much more focused, collaborative and full of conversation and original ideas. The Reception team became increasingly ambitious and their practice has been cited as exemplary by the local authority and shared across the city.

Focusing on maths

In another area of the school, a team of LSAs and teachers showed an interest in learning more about maths mastery and wanted to explore the ‘Success @ Arithmetic’ intervention they had read about. We organised for them to attend training and carry out further research. As a result, they collaborated with professionals across the city, observed examples in other settings, passed on their knowledge and enthusiasm to other staff; set up interventions and trialled initiatives in class. 100% of children taking part in these trials made progress with a concept of maths they had previously struggled with.

They became experts and the progress in maths among the children involved significantly increased. Both the LSAs and teachers contributed to staff training and policy development in maths and the intervention they trialled has now been rolled out across the school.

Removing prescriptive and handing decisions back to the teachers – the experts – is not always welcome and doesn’t always lead to instant improvements.


Removing prescription and handing decisions back to the teachers – the experts – is not always welcome and doesn’t always lead to instant improvements. Some teachers, particularly those who are relatively inexperienced (but not new) and used to high levels of prescription, can find it overwhelming and daunting. At times, they needed a bit more guidance and a few specific ideas or strategies to help re-focus or start them off.

While people try out new ideas and take the time to reflect on what they want to do and why, there may be a period of time where the positive impact is not clear. This approach does not have a massive immediate impact on data as it is focused on a longer-term goal of changing attitudes and culture which takes time. Our results since 2016 are improving and I trust they will continue to do so, perhaps slowly at first but with long-term sustainable improvement. Although still below national average, 2017 saw a 20% increase in our combined age related expectations at KS2.

This is a challenge for school leaders who are frequently put under pressure to demonstrate the impact of their leadership on teaching and learning, often within very short time frames. Increasing teacher autonomy and handing back responsibility is a gradual shift, but it can lead to deep and long-lasting changes which will, in turn, dramatically improve the quality of teaching and learning in our schools.

  • Hart, S., (2004), Learning Without Limits. Open University Press: London.
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