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To improve or not improve; that is the question

By Eddie Hannifan

Question: Is there anyone in your organisation who has been given permission, implicitly or explicitly, to stop improving?

I imagine that, if the answer is yes, perhaps this individual has finally ‘won the race’ or ‘reached the top’.

A quote from a former colleague echoes through my mind: “If there was a ‘right’ way of doing it, we’d all be doing it by now”; and, in education, this simply isn’t the case. We have not won the race and many of us believe that it is not there to be won but to be engaged with to our fullest ability.

But if the answer is still yes, what is the permission founded on? Has this ‘improvement-free’ individual, instead, simply been given-up on? ‘They won’t improve so why bother trying?’ The wheels in my mind come screeching to a halt at this thought: But this is education and these are educators so we can always improve; we WANT to improve! Don’t we?

And if the answer to the above is no – “No one in my organisation has been given permission to stop improving” – is there an implicit expectation that all are ‘required to improve’?

‘Required to improve’? Sounds a lot like ‘requires improvement’.

I feel some of us shudder.

But why can the word ‘improvement’ do this; especially if there is a legitimate expectation on us all to improve, and at every scale? Students, staff, the whole school, are required to continually aspire to better themselves in one way or another; so why is the word ‘improvement’ causing so much angst?

Re-establishing the why

In 2012, ‘Satisfactory’ was called out for what it was: not good enough; satisfactory requires improvement. With one chance to do the best by our pupils, satisfactorily is not it.

Both the OLEVI Improving Teacher Programme (ITP) and the Oustanding Teacher Programme (OTP) existed prior to the political movements being made at this time but this is inconsequential. OLEVI’s principles were and remain the same: how do you improve the quality of teaching and learning effectively, regardless of starting points?

For those who are in the process of ‘meeting the challenge of teaching’ (i.e. they have not yet met it), there is the Improving Teacher Programme (ITP). This gives those who have the capacity to teach consistently good lessons the time and space to reflect, observe and engage in what that really means. ITP delegates who engage with the full programme come out more confident in themselves and their practice – the foundations on which to sustain their continued improvement as leaders of learning in the classroom.

For those who have ‘met the challenge of teaching’ (i.e. they teach consistently good and outstanding lessons), there is the Outstanding Teacher Programme (OTP). This engages delegates in the next stage of their practice, to consider the impact they have on both pupils and colleagues. Hence the deliberate inclusion of the coaching element to build further social capital in those who can and should lead the learning of others both inside and outside the classroom.

Despite drawing the intended differences between the ITP and OTP, the reality is often far less distinct. Consider the Power of Three:

  1. The quality of the programme – this does not simply mean ‘a series of empty booklets in the sessions’. The programme must include the time and support delegates receive back in their schools, for example, the additional PPA time and access to a supporting mentor or coach.
  2. The quality of the facilitation – the process of building delegates’ sense of self, ensuring delegates take ownership of their own thinking & learning, and striking the right balance of challenge and support is key to an effective programme.
  3. The quality of the delegate – someone who takes ownership of their own learning throughout the programme (including outside of the sessions), who commits to implementing new learning in their practice and who commits to meaningful reflection around their Post-Session Challenges.

The Power of Three is important in identifying what constitutes a successful programme. An ITP can be hard to separate from an OTP when the three elements are truly in place. It is a fragile relationship, however, and so the effectiveness of the improvement process can be easily hindered by something as simple as; for example, the delegate not feeling trusted or empowered back in their school, the time for ‘in-school practices’ not being given to delegates, the programme being ‘delivered’ rather than ‘facilitated’, or simply the room provided is not fit for purpose thus the professional does not feel valued.

And the Power of Three helps explain why the feedback from programmes (be it from ITP, OTP or OTAP: Outstanding Teaching Assistant Programme) is consistently so positive.


Numbers alone do not tell us much beyond the overwhelmingly positive experiences delegates enjoy on their programmes. But when coupled with delegates’ testimonials, it is hard to imagine why some find so much scepticism, cynicism and negativity around the word ‘improvement’.

“The programme has given me confidence in my own practice in relation to OFSTED visiting. I felt like I had more ownership and conviction in my practice, thinking about ‘the why’ behind my decisions.”

 

“I feel much more valued in myself and my own leadership; for example, knowing when to ask for help rather than hiding away.”

 

“My reflection on my practice has become much deeper; it has an improving focus now – ‘what went well?’; ‘how do I make that better?’”

 

“I now hold a real value in learning; it’s like a car service – everyone should do it.”

 

It is apparent that the ‘i’ word (i.e. ‘improve’ and its derivatives) has two very different interpretations: one which takes us backwards and the other taking us forwards.

But what’s in a word?

Something I have noticed over the last two years has been around the consistency in behaviours and barriers towards the ‘i’ word, regardless of context. To think this is a ‘mainstream’ phenomena is simply not the case: nationally, internationally, primary, secondary, FE, HE, special or independent, the same behaviours are presented by those who feel the need to defend themselves. And it appears to be a very human thing; a response to a threat – ‘fight or flight’ or inertia?

The word ‘defend’ is an important one; why is it that some feel the need to defend themselves? And what is it some feel the need to defend themselves against? Two particular anecdotes stand out from recent conversations:

“But we’re an Outstanding school; we don’t have any failing teachers here.”

 

“If our staff have had consistent RI observations, we use the ITP as a tool to move them out.”

 

I breathe a heavy sigh. It is no wonder some feel the need to defend themselves against the concept of improvement. In these contexts, I can imagine the word floating its way eerily toward me like a Dementor (Harry Potter!), coming to suck the hope and happiness out of the life around me. And it supports other symptomatic challenges schools have been confronted by.

“We’re running the OTP but no one seems to want to do the ITP. I think it’s the word ‘improving’; people see it as really negative.”

 

“Can we change the name of the ITP to ‘developing’ or ‘inspiring’ teacher programme?”

 

Change the name, by all means, but if any efforts to move someone forward are still felt or seen as a threat, changing the name may just be putting a party hat on that Dementor; it still feels like intervention and potentially feels more patronising. I would still feel like I need to defend myself, and at the end of the day it’s still not the Outstanding Teacher Programme!

Those conversations represent the issue quite clearly: there appears to be two conflicting interpretations of the culture that surrounds improvement; the issue is not with the word itself. The following comment from a head teacher emphasises the differences in the cultures:

“All staff will have a choice to make; this is an organisation that expects everyone to be improving. If you don’t want to improve, this is the wrong place for you.”

The cultures that surround the word are what the leadership of the school make of them; are you perpetuating a culture of ‘fear of improvement’ or a culture of ‘drive for improvement’? The sceptical responses from a small percentage of people will always likely remain, but what examples are being set before them; what are the explicit expectations of members of that community? Are those expectations equal and inclusive or are they hierarchical and exclusive?

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So, what’s in a word? Nothing and everything simultaneously; it depends on the prophecy behind its intent. If you have a culture of ‘fear of improvement’, telling someone to improve and sending them on an ‘intervention course’ will not just turn the targeted individual to be backward-facing but will spread amongst others this culture of fear and cynicism surrounding improvement. If, however, you are role-modelling a genuine and continuous ‘drive for improvement’ in which those targeted individuals see others embrace the value of learning and self-improvement, you will achieve exactly that.

‘Trust the process’ is something we encourage when training facilitators. But this only goes as far as the trust that exists within the profession. Without the trust in each other to drive the process forward, we are fighting amongst ourselves and going backwards. Until there is a consensus in the value of everyone engaging in the improvement of their practice, our efforts to legitimately raise standards in the quality of teaching and learning will be less effective.

Eddie Hannifan is an OLEVI lead facilitator and a senior member of the OLEVI Educational Team.