Focused School Improvement

4 June 2017

Author: Alex Quigley

“After 30 years of doing such work, I have concluded that classroom teaching … is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented. ..The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster”

Lee Shulman, The Wisdom of Practice

Saying schools are complex places is a near-comic understatement. Aiming to improve schools is tantamount to Shulman’s emergency-room analogy. In our attempt to do so much, getting to the root of each issue in our classrooms, we can too often do so little. Paradoxically, it may be in doing less, more focused work on school improvement that we actually see the improvements we wish to see.

I have had conversation after conversation with teachers this year about the challenges of the new curriculum. When listing the ‘priorities’, we too often create epic lists that simply cannot be addressed satisfactorily. Extrapolate the same issue to the level of school improvement and the results are no different.

For me, the issue with trying to improve schools with countless developments is that school leaders and teachers are left with no time to properly consider implementation and evaluation. Proper implementation should take time. Ideally, strategic small scale pilots will be undertaken to test the ground and learn what ingredients of improvement are essential.

And yet, too many schools are under the cosh of rapid school improvement plans. With multiple strands of improvement being demanding on a lengthening fast schedule. Everyone is busy – painfully busy – but the apparent ‘improvements’ are seldom deep and sustainable. In trying to fix everything, the faithful implementation of anything proves too hard.

There is currently school improvement funding available. The Department for Education ‘Strategic School Improvement Fund’, a 140 million pound bid pool, is one such funding source that could be used with great impact. It may well need a shift in emphasis with regard to school improvement. The “focused” approach to school improvement – targeting fewer strategies, but each strategy being evidence-informed and effectively and thoroughly evaluated (every step of the process, from beginning to end).

The Education Endowment Foundation has produced an excellent document for organisations looking to bid for the ‘Strategic School Improvement Fund‘ – see HERE.

It is a worthwhile read for all school leaders, not just those looking to bid for funding. It begins with the crucial call for focus: “Identify a tight and specific area of focus through a diagnosis of local need”. It is easy to say, we are already doing that, but given the pressure for school improvement from external bodies, like OFSTED, or simply trying to face the challenges of a new curriculum and assessment regime, it is hard to be focused.

Following the five steps in the EEF guidance cited in this blog is a really useful and positive tool for focused school improvement.


Alex Quigley, Director of Huntington Research School 


Posted on 4 June 2017
Posted in: Blog

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