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Raising Standards of Writing on the Cheap

It's no secret that school funding is being slashed.  Over the past seven years I've seen a year-on-year decline in spending on CPD for teachers (and a bigger decline in spending on CPD for TAs).  It seems ridiculous that, as learning organisations, schools are cutting their budgets for strengthening the skills and knowledge of their staff.  But, I can see the dilemma.  Like all other public sector organisations, with reduced funding, Heads have difficult choices to make.  All is not lost!  High quality training, coaching and support do not need to be expensive.

Back in 1998 I worked in a school in special measures.  On many levels it was the most formative time of my career.  I inherited a Y5 class who had had thirteen supply teachers the previous year and the Y6 SATs results stood at around 30% Level 4+ for reading, writing, maths and science.  In addition to the learning that took place from the half-termly HMI lesson observations, we were put through a rigorous CPD programme.  Not only was it rigorous but it was, arguably, highly effective.  The secret of its success was how specific and targeted it was, NOT how much money was thrown at it.  

So, here's how you can raise standards on the cheap:

1. Be really clear about what needs to improve
If it's spelling, for example, WHAT is it that is a problem?  Are teachers teaching it?  If so, how well?  How do you know?  Do you have a scheme?  Is everyone following it?  What are they doing in the EYFS regarding whole word spelling?  What about Year 1?  How are teachers assessing spelling?  Is the assessment leading to next steps? etc...  Keep asking questions until you get to clear answers.  This will help you to establish what training and support is needed.

NB As a consultant, I am experienced at helping schools to establish what the problem area is.  But, I truly believe that they can do this alone, without external help.  You need to really get underneath what is going on, and the best way to do this is to ask (audit staff, ask the pupils) and to look (observe teaching, look at outcomes).  Ask 'why' five times  (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5_Whys).

2. Find out what budget you have to help make the improvements needed
Usually, budgets for resources are separate from budgets for staff development.  As I see it, you need to make sure you have enough money to properly resource the area that you are developing, for example do you have a spelling scheme in mind?  How much is it?  Will you need additional resources for EYFS?  Can these come out of the EYFS budget? Etc… And you need to think about what, if any, external support you need.  Broadly you should be considering the cost of staff meetings and consultancy days.  Also, think about the cost of release time for staff members to support one another or lead on key areas.  On the whole, schools can manage release time internally but you may not get quality development time if you are worrying about your class or called on every five minutes to deal with behaviour.

3. Make a plan
The plan should be a one or two year plan.  If you're after quick fixes stop reading this blog.  It takes at least a year to change practice and to build up something that is sustainable.  You may feel that everything needs to change or improve but if you have a scatter gun approach it WON'T WORK. Bombarding people with change, INSET, coaching etc is a useless waste of time - it is stressful for all involved and distracts from the core business of teaching children.

The plan should be simple and strategic.  It should state the following:

  • What is the action or activity?  For example ‘Spelling scheme staff meeting’
  • When is the action or activity?
  • Support of the action or activity?  For example ‘Learning walk to look at the teaching of spelling’ or ‘paired coaching sessions’ or  ‘1:1 support meetings re spelling for identified staff members’

NB If the action or activity is training it MUST be followed up with support.  You cannot hit staff with new learning and then expect them just to get on with it without any follow up support.  They may need more than one follow up/support session.  Differentiate this support as you would with the children – we all learn at different speeds, some of us need more repetition than others.

  • Monitoring of the action or activity? For example ‘learning walk’, ‘spelling session observations’, ‘book look at end of half-term (spelling outcomes within writing)’.
  • Further action or activity based on monitoring? Plan to follow up the monitoring – there are bound to be staff that need further support.  

The next action might be to have a training session on the teaching of spelling and the plan would continue.  A strong, robust plan that seeks to raise standards MUST include support in the classroom for improvement in teaching.

4. Decide who is going to do what

The school, and only the school, is responsible for all actions or activities on the plan.  If you need to name external consultants or trainers on the plan, someone in school should be the person responsible for overseeing their work.   

Firstly, look at the expertise you have in-house.  From your audit and pupil voice activities is there anyone who is showing a passion for, or high quality skills/knowledge in, the area that you are developing?  If so, make sure that you draw them into the development activities.  Perhaps they could support colleagues or monitor with you.  Maybe they could do a model session or even run a staff meeting.

Next, if you need support from a consultant or trainer, look really carefully at what you would like them to achieve.  A one-off stand-alone staff meeting rarely works.  The best, most inspirational trainers can’t possibly make enough difference unless their role is part of a wider, strategic plan.  This is where you can get really good value for money: tell him/her what you would like them to do, for example, a staff meeting on using a spelling scheme, or a staff meeting on teaching spelling and a day of spelling surgeries for all teachers and ask how much that would cost.  Know what your budget is and negotiate.  As an independent consultant I have costs to meet and have to be careful that I can pay my mortgage, however I’m a teacher/school leader in my heart and will always try to accommodate a school, especially if I can see that the school has made a really clear plan and where my work fits into it.


A final word about money
 
There is no evidence whatsoever that big expensive schemes, resources, consultants or training sessions alone raise standards.  External people coming in, selling their wares, doing it all for you, may seem really attractive, especially in such a busy and pressurised work environment.  But it is what YOU do with it that makes a difference.  To quote Martin Lewis (Money Saving Expert) “If it seems too good to be true it probably is.”

So, to raise standards (on the cheap):

  • Know exactly what you want to change
  • Take small steps – don’t try to change everything at once
  • Take small steps – do ONE thing really, really well
  • Plan
  • Use in-house expertise
  • Be in control of any external consultants/trainers – direct their work, know what you want them to achieve
  • Monitor impact
  • Think really hard before you spend money
  • Take small steps, build on firm foundations

AND

  • Take small steps!