Grasping the power of innovation

As Matt Ridley says, innovation is gradual, however, as we described in our previous blog, the pace can accelerate as a result of a change in circumstances. In this blog, we describe how the interjection from an individual can result in a critical step-change.

In 2009, we held the inaugural meeting of the National Teaching Schools Council.  At this meeting we presented the rationale for the work on the creation of teaching schools that we had been formally developing over the previous six years. This was supported by colleagues presenting case studies of their own work in this area. Finally, we presented for their approval the National Teaching School selection criteria which we had refined with our colleagues.  The work formed part of our contribution of the City Challenge which built upon the work we had started in the London Challenge. The work was project-managed by Rita Bugler. 

There were four elements to the selection criteria: the headteacher had to be experienced in their school, the school had to have an ‘outstanding’ rating by Ofsted, and a track record of working with other schools to improve their performance.  Finally, they had to pass a site visit, which set out to triangulate these factors. This criteria had been devised by our team of headteachers and was intended to be aspirational, for we wanted National Teaching Schools to be among the role models of excellence in a school-led system.  There was growing evidence that we were creating an aspirational model as initially only one school met the criteria, but already ten schools had met the standard, and a considerably larger number aspired to achieve it. 

In the invited audience sat many of the headteachers of these schools, including the headteachers of the four pilot teaching schools. The discussion over the selection criteria was held over to the conclusion of the meeting.  As it progressed, there appeared to be general consensus to accept the proposal we had put forward.  However, towards the end Professor Peter Matthews, who up until then had remained silent, questioned whether the Ofsted criteria of ‘outstanding’ was a stringent enough measure of a school’s performance. He explained that schools at that point in time which attained an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted grade overall could achieve this without attaining an ‘outstanding’ grade for the teaching and learning element.  He considered this a weakness. He argued that a National Teaching School should have an ‘outstanding’ grade in teaching and learning, as this would mean that teaching schools led the way in ensuring the learning experience of every child in these schools was of the highest possible quality.  

His comments were met with a thoughtful silence.  The headteachers in the room knew that this was setting a higher bar for entry than our proposal, and in accepting it they were eliminating a number of their colleagues’ schools from being designated. For, to obtain an ‘outstanding’ rating for teaching and learning required a very high level of consistency and the high ratio of outstanding rated lessons to others, which was extremely challenging to achieve.  In addition, a school’s grade could be dependent upon its point in the five-year Ofsted inspection cycle. 

However, we all knew that Peter’s was the right stance to take. So setting self-interest aside, we agreed to his proposal unanimously.  Thus, a single interjection moved our work to a higher plane, one where we would ensure that the quality of our students’ day-to-day learning experience sat at the heart of our work.  

In hindsight, we realised that we had always been aware of the issue but, we had for the reasons stated above, skirted around it.  We were also being careful not to offend  a number of colleagues who ran Ofsted ‘outstanding’ schools without an ‘outstanding’ grade for teaching and learning, some of whom had been recognised nationally for their efforts. If we had not been challenged by Peter and chosen not to address this issue, we were in danger of creating a club, an organisation which sets out to accommodate our peers, rather than an aspirational organisation with a high level of self regulation.  We also understood that in the future this would be the major challenge for those running the selection procedure – how would they continue to self-regulate to maintain excellence? 

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To bring this story of the development of Teaching Schools in England up to date, our long-standing colleague Professor Louise Stoll with Doctor Iain Barnes of the UCL: Institute of Education published a paper called Creating connections: learning from successful Teaching Schools for the Teaching Schools’ Council in March 2020.  We intend to reference this paper at a later date. 

Take care and stay safe

George