“Can you give me an example of a bad decision you’ve made? What would you now do differently?” My interview for headship stalled, as I pondered some stinkers from over the years, and wondered which was least worst, while offering the best opportunities to show how unlikely I am to do this. Ever. Again.
A better question that I have asked myself since is why did I make those decisions? Sub-questions: who/what influenced me? What was my rationale for change, or for not changing? Who opposed the bad decisions? What prevented me from listening to them? We have to work in the best interest of our students, so there is an imperative for me to make the right decisions, to “do no harm”.
Most importantly: how can I and my fellow senior leaders take responsibility for making better decisions in the future? What do we need to do differently, not with reference to that decision which is long past, but when making all future decisions?
Firstly, we need access to the best evidence available so we can be informed; but we also need to go further and engage with that evidence so that (HT @fullonlearning ) we are not simply implementing the what of recommended practice; but are also getting the context right with the how, who and why. In addition to the Education Endowment Foundation ‘s excellent and growing research base, used in 2014 by 54% of secondary senior leaders and just 11% of secondary classroom teachers, there is also Evidence for the the Frontline which enables teachers to pose their own questions to researchers. In this way research can directly affect classroom practice and does not rely on school leaders catching up with a wide range of subject specific research that might be beyond their understanding.
There is a threat to this best evidence, however, as seen by the 73% of school leaders who learn from what works in other schools – many more than the 54% who use the Toolkit. The best example of learning from other schools that I am familiar with is PiXL Group, dissected thoroughly by Tom Sherrington in this blog. The PiXL phenomenon has taken learning from other schools, with member schools faithfully following the PiXL way, to such a large scale that the Secretary of State has had to change education policy to cope with effects of mass numbers of retakes or iGCSE entries. Does PiXL – learning from other schools – offer the best evidence to support our decision making?
Since liberation from the National Strategies in which the state knew best about education and told us how to do it, there has been immense growth in sharing of personal experience and expertise; and ensuing enlightening arguments over competing groupthink in education (HT Twitter). Yet the state continues to get in the way of evidence-engaged practice. Some of the best evidence is ignored by the majority of schools on the basis of ministerial or inspectorate announcements, for example the evidence on mixed ability teaching being more effective than setting/streaming. The DfE is implementing the Y7 SATs resit policy despite clear evidence that far from helping children catch up, repeating a year of school sets children back even further behind their peers by a whole term. I realise that pupils are not exactly repeating Year 6, but in effect a Y7 resit group would need to repeat Y6 study to focus on passing KS2 SATs, so academically they would be.
Meanwhile sharing I see via Twitter can rely on little evidence and can make assertions about effective practice that are not even clearly evidenced by results or impact shared from the tweeter’s own classroom, never mind the broader evidence base. Having eagerly adopted and shared resources for “outstanding teaching” for many years, I then as eagerly adopted ungraded lesson observation, reminding me that a pinch of salt is as useful a Twitter tool as the DM.
In my current school we benefit from dozens and dozens of evidence-engaged practitioners who have completed Teach First, Teaching Leaders, Future Leaders, NPQML/SL and/or Masters study; and have taken other opportunities to learn from experts via our links, for example with Learnus, the National Education Trust and a range of ITT providers (we are a specialist teacher training partner with UCL/IoE). Our teachers run and attend subject specialist networks across the Local Authority; and many have completed the Excellent Teaching coaching programme to engage further with research and bring this in to their day to day classroom practice.
How have I managed to make any bad decisions, as a listening leader surrounded by these experts? I did struggle at first to answer the headship interview question, but luckily it was asked during a practice interview with the amazing School Improvement Officer from our LA, who works closely with us and so was able to come up with a great (terrible) example. Suppressing my instinctive response that the bad decision had nothing to do with me, I took responsibility and my answer was about evidence. Had we researched further and weighed the available evidence properly, we would not have made that decision. Or, better, I could have stopped the decision using the cold hard facts. As school leaders we need to make learning from the Toolkit and other evidence higher priority than learning from other schools. The evidence is out there. We have a duty to engage with it, rather than simply joining the PiXL gold rush on the off-chance that we may strike gold.
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