It’s the last week of the summer holidays, and – re-energised after a break and with the start of term looming large on the horizon – I’m turning my attention to the school improvement plan. Although I certainly feel optimism about the year ahead, and things are no doubt moving in the right direction, I’m sure I’m not alone as a school leader in approaching tasks like this with a sense of frustration: we are working hard, we have a committed and talented staff team, we have invested time and resources into high quality CPD, and yet…in too many respects, we are still not where we want to be. Some subjects are performing better than others. Some groups of pupils are making less progress than they should. Often, despite our best efforts, new initiatives have lost momentum during the year and faded away. Or, in other cases, they have just not had the expected impact. Where are we going wrong?
Typically, this line of thinking will result in a rush to introduce a raft of new initiatives at the start of term, in a desperate bid to find that holy grail, the strategy that will make the difference. And so begins another cycle, one in which, inevitably, our well intentioned initiatives will fade away as we struggle to juggle our competing priorities.
This year, though, I am trying to look at things differently. Of all the research I have engaged with in the last year, the ‘uncommon common sense’ of ‘Putting Evidence to Work’, the EEF’s Guidance Report on Implementation, has resonated with me the most. Unlike the EEF’s other Guidance Reports, which have tended to focus on the ‘what’ of the evidence around specific areas of school practice (such as Literacy, maths and metacognition), ‘Putting Evidence to Work’ focuses on the ‘how’ of implementation.
Implementation is something which we ‘do’ constantly – arguably too much – in schools: we identify problems and then we introduce solutions to improve things and become more effective. Yet the process of implementation itself rarely receives much attention. The evidence points to the fact that highly effective schools give just as much attention to how they implement new approaches as they do to what they implement. ‘Vision without implementation’, said Thomas Edison, ‘is hallucination’. Or to put it more simply, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it…
Using the evidence as a guide, then, I am asking myself these five key questions before implementing anything new this year:
Have we laid the right foundations?
As the old proverb goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Sadly, there are times in some schools when leadership is less effective, when the vision of school leaders is not necessarily shared by the team as a whole, and when in turn the vision is even less likely to be translated into shared practice.
Culture and climate are key here. Do staff feel empowered to take on new approaches and new responsibilities? Have we set aside adequate time for training? In my school, we have spent a lot more time this year thinking about how we can create the right climate for effective implementation of new strategies. For example, when introducing new teaching and learning strategies, we identified a group of effective, experienced teachers who could facilitate training sessions and support colleagues. This gave the strategy momentum and, crucially, credibility with staff.
Are we treating implementation as a process or an event?
Rather embarrassingly, I can think of countless examples of new initiatives which I have been involved in launching over the years to much fanfare and excitement, but which have fizzled out after a few weeks or months. The key thing here is to see implementation as a stage in an effective cycle of school improvement, not as an event in itself. Have we given enough time to the planning and preparation for implementation? Do we think about implementing changes in a structured and staged manner? (The EEF guidance identifies four stages to this process: explore, prepare, deliver and sustain: it is worth noting that actually doing the new intervention or strategy doesn’t start until half way through this process). Crucially, it is just as important to make decisions about what we stop doing, as well as what new strategies we might introduce. Good implementation is often about doing fewer things better. This year, for example, we have reviewed our feedback policy and identified things which we will ask staff to stop doing, so that they can focus on the aspects of feedback which (based on the evidence) we believe will have the greatest impact.
What’s the problem?
This may sound incredibly obvious, but in the busy and high-pressured life of schools, failing to step back and really think about this question is often the reason why we end up getting derailed in terms of improvement. Bombarded daily with information about new interventions and support programmes, and under pressure to drive continuous improvement, it is all too easy to start with a solution and then go looking for a problem. That new reading intervention programme that promises two years’ improvement in six weeks? Great...except, does it really address the issue for our pupils? Have we taken the time to properly diagnose the gaps for those children? Do we know with certainty, for example, whether phonics or reading comprehension is the issue? If so, we may be looking at the wrong intervention entirely.
Will it work for us?
Having taken the time to diagnose and define the problem we want to solve, we need to consult the evidence. We need to remember here that even the most robust, large-scale studies will only tell us what has worked before in other contexts. Last year, when we were thinking of introducing a new teaching strategy in our school focused on retrieval practice, we were concerned that the existing evidence came largely from trials with college students in the US, and we questioned whether the strategy would work with our younger secondary age students. We therefore set up a Randomised Control Trial (RCT) to test and evaluate the strategy in our own setting, before deciding whether to adopt the strategy at a whole school level. And whilst this level of research is certainly not possible every time, it is always important to examine the fit and feasibility for our own context before making an adoption decision.
How faithful do we need to be?
In terms of adopting new practices, the evidence points us to the need for ‘faithful adoption and intelligent adaptation’ – where should we be ‘tight’ with the intervention and when can we be loose? If a new maths intervention has previously been successful when it takes place for 20 minutes every day, we should probably be faithful to this schedule. We should certainly not be surprised when we introduce it for 30 minutes twice a week and it doesn’t work! However, we may well need to make other sensible adaptations to the strategy for our pupils and our context.
Considering these questions certainly helps focus thinking before putting pen to paper on an implementation plan. Ultimately, though, they may lead to further questions than answers. And, crucially, they may lead to a decision that now is not the right time to implement that new strategy. For me, this is what has had the most impact on me as a leader: the realisation that deciding not to implement something – or to stop doing something which isn’t working – is just as important a leadership decision as deciding to implement something new.
In reality implementation – like all aspects of school life – is a messy process.