Moral Purpose and the Path to School Improvement

“History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme”

The Cure at Troy - Seamus Heaney 

The ‘Cure at Troy’ and Moral Purpose 
I can’t claim to have read ‘The Cure at Troy’ but I do know that these few words, which I found at the front of a book by Tim Brighouse and David Woods many years ago, have sustained me in Headship more than anything else. 

For Headteachers of my generation Brighouse and Woods are the Lennon and McCartney of school improvement. They moved knowledge around the system about school improvement and created a shared language to describe it before the internet took over. Even now a personal appearance by one of these aged school improvement rock stars will cause most education conference rooms to be overflowing. What is far more remarkable is that they do not rely on playing their greatest hits, they are still seeking out new ideas to develop and share. I love these guys. Their work and their approach to it gives me hope whenever I need it.

Over the last 17 years Lilian Baylis Technology School, where I am Head, has slowly been transformed in a way that was unimaginable before the narrative of school improvement took hold. In addition to our own journey of improvement we have been privileged to support other schools do the same through the London Leadership Strategy ‘Moving to New Headship’ programme and sharing our experiences at a number of London Leadership Strategy events but especially ‘Good to Great’.

However for school improvement to be effective there must be a clear and shared moral purpose in the school. Creating a sense of shared moral purpose which becomes the touchstone for what a school does is, I believe, the most important job a Head can do. My experience of schools in difficulty is that all sense of moral purpose has been lost and that most of the staff, students and families cannot articulate it. In improving schools, this is not the case and the Headteacher not only articulates the moral purpose at all times but sees him/herself as the chief promoter and protector of it.

Moral Purpose and Lilian Baylis Technology School 

Lilian Baylis Technology School was inspected in 1993 and at that time only 60% left with 1 GCSE A-G versus 92% nationally. Attendance was 77%. Clearly there had been a loss of moral purpose. Since then the school has embraced school improvement strategies to improve using its regained moral purpose to guide it. The OfSTED inspection of 2013 which graded the school as Outstanding, the year in which our 6th form opened, confirmed that we had regained our moral purpose. For far too long Lilian Baylis had failed the community it served. Even as the school improved families always had the lingering doubt that they could have chosen a better school. That is no longer the case. Students and families no longer feel they have to put up with second best because of their social class or where they live. That is our achievement. It is, as if, to paraphrase Seamus Heaney ‘The longed-for tidal wave of justice had finally risen up’.

School Improvement 

So I’ve made the case for moral purpose being needed for school improvement to be successful but what school improvement have we actually done to actually improve the school? A glib answer would be everything, but such is the nature of school improvement that when done properly no stone is left unturned. It is a process which is based on honest self-evaluation, informed by data, that then leads to issues to address. It uses strategies to make changes that are developed within the school and informed by the school improvement literature. It has an impact on outcomes that can be measured. Most articles such as this feature reductionist lists and I am not intending to disappoint the reader so here it is. 

‘Teamwork makes a dream work’ - John Maxwell

Of course it’s a cliché and a truism but school improvement must be developed and conceptualised by the whole staff. If staff merely passively receive a school improvement strategy it will not be understood and it will not be embedded. Failed school improvement strategies are far worse than none. Failed strategies lead to the Head losing authority and having to rely on power. They lead to a disempowered staff waiting to be given the next strategy. In schools where there are no whole school led strategies there is often some fantastic individual, year-based and/or subject-based school improvement strategies. 

‘A yes, a no, a straight line, a goal’  - Friedrich Nietzsche

Whatever you choose to do to improve your school, keep it simple. Staff mobility, student turbulence and parents who don’t or can’t read your letters home all make it hard to implement complicated strategies. Every great scientific theory is beautifully simple. Great complex ideas are described in a few symbols, letters and diagrams yet school improvement strategies often require volumes of plans. Resist the urge to make it complicated. If it can’t be summed up in a soundbite it probably can’t be successfully implemented.

'Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.' - Benjamin Franklin

Huge amounts of passive listening to Powerpoint presentations is not CPD and will not help to implement a new school improvement strategy. School staff, students and parents need to learn, not just be told, what is required to implement the strategy. Staff need to be actively engaged in CPD and they need to learn how it fits into meeting the moral purpose of the school. Like all learning it requires mastery through being interleaved and it required checking and intervening whilst being implemented. In short it needs teaching. Proper teaching.

‘What Doesn’t Work in Education: The Politics of Distraction’ - John Hattie

The point of the school improvement literature, visiting schools, reading and being part of social media is to find out what works and does not work in other schools and other organisations and apply it in your own school. Simple. However there is also very strong evidence, in particular from John Hattie and the Education Endowment Foundation, as to what does not work and a lot of it is very powerful. Of course atomistic lists of good and bad strategies do not give the whole picture, but they do give starting points and stop schools going down dead ends.

School improvement is about outcomes but more importantly it is about what Bruce Springsteen sings about in High Hopes when he sings: 

‘I wanna have some kids
I wanna look in their eyes and know they'll stand a chance’

It is about moral purpose.

Gary Phillips
London Leadership Strategy Director and Headteacher of Lilian Baylis Technology School
August 2016

2nd August 2016
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