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Keeping the focus on the core purpose

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Reducing teacher workload

Markingn glass table, shallow depth of field

School improvement is all too often overcomplicated by leaders, who are under pressure to make ‘quick wins’, as a result of the high stakes culture that schools now find themselves in.  As a result, teachers are asked to do things, that they know intuitively won’t make a difference to their teaching or student learning.  This is an unfortunate position.  School improvement should be simple and focused on allowing teachers and leaders to focus on their core purpose – to ensure that teaching is effective in every classroom, every day.  This is what we’ve focused on at Durrington High School.  Working on Dave Brailsford’s idea of ‘marginal gains’ we have looked at the small changes we can make, that will allow teachers and leaders to focus on their core purpose.

The following is a list of some of the key changes we have made over the last few years.

  • A ‘tight but loose’ approach to teaching – we don’t prescribe to teachers how should they teach. We have identified six evidence informed pedagogical principles i.e. challenge, modelling, explanation, practice, questioning and feedback, that we believe contribute to great teaching.  Teachers are expected to implement these principles well in their lessons, but in a way that that best suits their teaching style.  These principles have formed the basis of the book ‘Making every lesson count’ by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby.
  • Lesson observations and exercise book reviews are not graded. They are used as a formative and developmental opportunity to share best practice and to support improvement.  As teachers we all subscribe to the idea that we can we all grow and get that little bit better.
  • The best and most relevant educational research is summarised and shared with teachers through our own teaching and learning blog - a useful one-stop place for busy teachers to read about best practice from within school and beyond.

Making feedback effective

The feedback policy has been reviewed and has now been written by department teams, as opposed to a generic policy for all teachers. This was carried out by a team of staff who identified some key principles for effective feedback, based on the on the research evidence from John Hattie, Dylan Wiliam and the Sutton Trust:

  1. Feedback should be used to identify the ‘learning gaps’ of individual students.
  2. Feedback should be specific and clearly focused on learning goals – with a view to moving on the learning of individual students.
  3. It should also focus on what students are getting right – so they can continue to do so.
  4. Students must be able to, and expected to, respond to the feedback, so they can work towards closing the learning gap.
  5. Feedback can take a variety of forms – teacher to student; student to teacher; student to student; written and verbal; focused on classwork, homework and assessments. All are equally valid.
  6. Different forms of feedback will be more appropriate for different subjects. Subject areas will agree and decide on how feedback is consistently used across the subject.
  7. Feedback – in terms of how well students are learning – should inform the teaching.
  8. Feedback is not an add on. It is an ongoing and essential part of excellent pedagogy, used to deepen learning and improve teaching.
  9. Feedback should be challenging – and used to encourage students to aspire to excellence.
  10. Feedback should be high impact but manageable and sustainable for staff

Subject teams were then asked to identify the form of feedback that best suits their subject and then use these principles to state what effective feedback will look like in their curriculum area.  This then becomes their feedback policy.  As a result of this,  there is now a much greater emphasis on ‘live marking’ i.e. teachers giving students formative, written feedback in the lessons, as they are doing their work, as opposed to teachers having to take sets of books home to mark.  This has reduced teacher workload, but is a far more effective form of feedback, as it is in the context of the lesson and there is an expectation that the student will respond to the feedback immediately.

Our approach to CPD

  • CPD is very much based in subject teams. Every fortnight, subject teams meet for one hour for a ‘Subject Planning & Development Session’.  During these sessions, they discuss what they will be teaching over the next fortnight and share ideas about how to teach it well – the purest and most effective form of CPD you could get.  This has replaced traditional ‘departmental meetings’ – much of the information shared at these meetings, is now communicated by a weekly email bulletin.
  • Alongside this, we have a range of CPD activities that allow teachers to engage at a level that best suits them. This ranges from weekly 15 minute forums, where teachers meet briefly to listen to a colleague sharing an aspect of their classroom work, to a two year school based masters in education programme.
  • Data analysis is carried out by an online platform (we currently use SISRA) and a dedicated data team.  After each tracking point (termly data collection point), the data team analyses the data and identifies any issues that the data turns up e.g. underachieving groups of students in that curriculum area such as disadvantaged students, or students with high starting points, as well as individual students who are underachieving.    This is then presented to teachers and leaders across the school, so rather than using their time to do the data analysis, they can focus their time and effort and what they are going to do about any issues that the analysis throws up.
  • We now use generic appraisal objectives – we all do the same job, so rather than spending time mulling over the objectives during the appraisal meeting, we think, it’s better to use this time to have a fruitful discussion on the support/CPD that will help teachers to grow and improve over the year. Furthermore, teachers are not expected to keep lengthy ‘appraisal evidence files’. The best evidence they can present is the outcomes of the students they teach.
  • Teacher reports no longer have a written comment, just a judgement on the current attainment, effort, behaviour and homework of each student. This has dramatically reduced the workload of teachers, whilst producing a more concise but focused report for parents and carers.
  • Department Learning Reviews are now controlled by subject leaders – they decide when they will do lesson observations during the year, to make it a more useful process for them and their teams.
  • Teachers are not expected to write lengthy ‘ intervention logs’ for students who are underachieving. We feel that it is more appropriate for teachers to use this  time to plan and actually do the intervention (in most cases, teaching them well!)
  • Any behaviour reports, detentions etc. are now paperless and completed using an online system that notifies parents, collates information for pastoral teams and provides information on behaviour trends and patterns.

Keeping Focus

As a Senior Leadership Team, it is our job to keep this under constant review.  We need to be looking at what we are asking teachers and leaders to do and if it is taking them away from their core purpose, ask ourselves why – and do they really need to do it?  If we subscribe to this approach, we will develop a culture where teaching and learning drives what we do and in doing so, we will also grow professional capital within our schools.  In the words of Stephen Covey ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing’.

Follow Shaun Allison on Twitter @shaun_allison

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  1. Comment by Peter A Barnard posted on

    Is the school vertically tutored? Does the complete system support the "main thing"? I ask out of curiosity believing that the fine efforts described are rarely sufficient in themselves and why (by the way) call yourselves the "senior" team when what you are clearly and laudibly doing is enhancing and enabling those working at the edge...the place where the only work of value is done. Keep up the good work but my interest as a systems thinker is in the complete system of the school and how everythngworks together. This is still quick but valid wins in my view and more prescriptive than stated? Clearly a great school nevertheless...

  2. Comment by Ove Christensen posted on

    Thanks Shaun Allison for this post.

    Your post is very much in line with a presentation I gave this Saturday at the researchED National Conference in London.
    The focus on who is the true agent on school improvement, I think, is key. There are of course more agents and all should be hitting at the same direction.
    The focus on only a few initiatives that is directly connected with a clear strategy will ensure that things are done. As a school or any other organization it's important to work with what truly makes sense for the practitioners.

    If interested you find links to my slides and my blog post accompanying the slides at

  3. Comment by Ben Cristopher posted on

    Great article. Thanks for sharing 🙂