Building capacity for sustainable improvement by schools

1. Introduction
1.1. This paper provides a framework for sustainable improvement. The principles set
out apply to all schools as improvement is possible even in the most outstanding of
1.2. Over the years there are have been a number of initiatives aimed at supporting
school improvement, raising attainment and closing attainment gaps. These have
often been linked to additional funding. Too often, however, improvement has not
been sustained especially when funding ceases as the focus has not been on
improving the core elements of a school.
2. What is sustainable improvement?
2.1. At its most straightforward level sustainable improvement is that which does not
need additional resources or support to maintain it. In national initiatives schools
have readily made use of additional funding to provide additional staffing and other
interventions. Where these have been targeted at groups of children and young
people, they have benefitted, and so may have others who see that success is
possible. But such use of resources cannot result in long term improvements once
the resources are removed. So we can say sustainable improvement:
means improvements in outcomes achieved by children and young people in the
schools, this year and in future years
maintains accelerated progress for the children and young people who are
under-achieving / under-performing
happens as a result of permanent improvements in the schools' effectiveness.
is change that will continue after any additional support has ceased.
depends upon the schools becoming increasingly self-improving institutions with
effective leadership and governance.
requires that children and young people from deprived communities make much
better progress than has historically been the case.
2.2. The concept that frequently sits alongside sustainability is that of capacity building.
Capacity can be built in three interlinked ways:
enhancement of the skills of practitioners in the school
creating strong and effective systems within the school (some of which will
result in enhancement of practitioner skills)
creating a positive culture within the school (which results in part from both of
the above)
2.3. Interventions that are aimed at capacity building are those that will result in
sustainable improvement and it is these interventions that head teachers and
leadership teams need to focus on.
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3. Building Capacity
3.1. Enhancement of the skills of practitioners in the school – the quality of provision in a
school rests fundamentally upon the quality of the people in the school. Key areas
for leadership teams (and governors) to ensure are:
the school leadership has a clear idea of the skills and capability of every
member of staff, including themselves;
there is, in the first place, a clear CPD plan for every member of staff whose
skills need to be improved and in due course a plan for development of all
there is an appropriate sense of urgency for the improvement of those staff
most in need and that the objective setting and monitoring cycle for those
staff are bringing about the necessary improvements within the agreed
3.2. Creating strong and effective systems within the school – Effective planning rests at
the heart of sustainable improvement. In addition to a School Development
(Improvement) Plan, which tends to be strategic and longer term, short term Raising
Achievement Plans, with limited priorities and timescales, have been seen to be
effective in driving improvement. (Ref Improving Schools Programme and National
Challenge). The focus of the RAP is to improve attainment and progress of children
and young people; this is sometimes interpreted as meaning a narrow focus upon
English and mathematics, thus the RAP can, in some schools, turn into the English
and mathematics intervention plan. This is emphatically not the intention. Everything
in the school’s plan and everything it does should contribute to raising attainment and
improving progress.
3.3. It is important to ensure that the school has robust systems for ensuring consistent
and effective practice across the whole range of its activity. A benchmark for an
evaluation of school management systems is the following areas:
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High quality and effective line management
Effective performance management and objective setting
Collaborative professional development at all levels,
Securing behaviour for learning across the whole school
Periodic Assessment (Assessment for Learning)
Effective identification of and intervention for individual and groups of
children and young people
Quality standards in lesson planning and delivery
Monitoring and evaluation of learning
Tracking pupil progress at school, year, class and pupil/student level
3.4. Creating a positive culture within the school – Organisations always have a culture,
the only question is what sort of culture it is?
Culture is the shared beliefs and values of a school:
what people agree is true and what people agree is right.
However, such beliefs become entrenched and can
persist after changes in the school’s environment render
them irrelevant or harmful. Culture is therefore both a
resource and a risk.
Hay Group 2004
The Hay Group found:
Where the culture promotes improvement we would expect to see
Well behaved children and young people with a positive attitude towards the
school and their learning;
ambition and motivation in the children and young people;
a staff body that is equally motivated and ambitious for their children and
young people, for the institution and for themselves;
everyone in the school having high expectation of themselves and each other.
At the other end of the spectrum there are opposites to all of these. Unlike some
studies, where the contrast is between outstanding and failing schools, the Hay
research quoted above identified some common characteristics in successful and
less schools by asking staff in them to rank order some statements defining beliefs
and values of the school. It is useful in defining schools as successful / less
successful as it is affine line between the two. The findings are summarised in the
table below. The first two culture statements are shared in both types of school. The
statements used are useful because they don’t set out an acceptable/unacceptable
It is important to appreciate that these were not set out as good or bad descriptors,
nor does the absence of an aspect of culture in the list for successful schools mean
that it is undesirable or negotiate or even that it does not exist in successful schools
(for example “Warmth – humour – repartee – feet on the ground” is something that all
schools would probably wish to have as part of their culture). The lists are those that
were most commonly most highly rated as features in the schools concerned.
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Successful School
Less Successful School
 Measuring and monitoring targets and test results
 Working together – Learning from each other –
Sharing resources and ideas – Investing in others
Promoting excellence – Pushing
 Experimenting – Trying new things
the boundaries of achievement
– Looking to the next big idea
Raising Capability – Helping
 Warmth – Humour – Repartee –
People Learn – Laying
Feet on the ground
foundations for later success
Hunger for improvement – High
 Recognising personal
hopes and expectations
circumstances – Making
allowances – Toleration – It’s the
effort that counts
Focusing on the value added  Creating a pleasant and collegial
Holding hope for every child –
working environment
Every gain a victory
Making sacrifices to put children
 Keeping up with initiatives – doing
and young people first
what’s required – following policy
While the Hay work is nearly ten years old it is very applicable to schools now. The
full research document is interesting and is worth reading.
Culture for Learning
How sustainable is sustainable improvement?
4.1. If we accept that sustainable improvement is built upon skilled staff, effective
systems and positive culture then we also have to accept that improvement is only
sustainable whilst these are in place. Whilst it is the case that an effective head
teacher can build all of these where they are not present, it is equally the case that
an ineffective leadership can rapidly lose effective systems, resulting in decline in
culture and loss of good staff. No matter how sustainable a school’s improvement is,
it always requires effective leadership to continue to be sustainable.
4.2. This has implications for supporting leadership development and succession
planning at all leadership levels across the authority.
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