Snowball Uplands: where do we want to get to in our student and staff experience?

Knowing where we’re going in school improvement – heading for great learning, great knowledge, and a great student and staff experience – lets us light the way for those around us. 

Millions of teachers, headteachers and school staff all round the world set out every weekday to help children learn. Some kids love every moment of school. The truth is, many don’t.

Some schools help all kids love learning. Many of us in school leadership struggle with this. I’ve struggled with this every day for over ten years, choosing to work in schools in deprived communities, where it can be an uphill battle for kids and families to see why school subjects and education matter.

How can we help get more kids to enjoy school and get the best out of it?

Start by knowing exactly where we don’t want to be, and where we do want to get to for staff and students. 

What’s the staff experience in schools that are furthest from where we’d want them to be?

Staff are overwhelmed. Overloaded. Unsupported. Underappreciated. Exhausted. Burned out. Counting the days til the end of term and the holidays. Staff are ignored, abused. New teachers are goaded. Cover teachers are tormented. Vulnerable staff don’t feel safe. Pastoral leaders blame subject leaders; subject leaders blame pastoral leaders. Teachers complain about SLT; SLT complain about teachers. Support staff are treated worse than teaching staff. Staff have stopped believing students can behave or achieve well. No one is that clear on what to do. Staff attendance is low; staff turnover is high. No one seems to have time to plan CPD well, and it’s ineffectual. Teachers can’t teach well and students can’t learn well due to disruptions and distractions. Staff feel dejected. They can’t see themselves staying long at the school, or even in schools at all. 

What’s the student experience in schools that are furthest from where we’d want them to be?

Students are struggling. Not many enjoy school or feel happy to come in. There’s bullying. There’s abuse. There’s vandalism. Truancy and litter are rife. There’s intimidation, threats and assault. Corridors and staircases are out of control, dangerous. Students don’t feel safe. Fire alarms get set off often, halting lessons. Students don’t think their school is much good; many of the loudest say they hate it and don’t care. Kids who are different are vulnerable to being shunned by others. Students who work hard in class or who make mistakes are jeered at, mocked and sneered at. Students fall behind in their reading, writing, vocabulary and numbers. They underachieve in their qualifications. They don’t go on after leaving school to good opportunities or to stay in education. Students feel downbeat.

800,000 children in England are in schools that are not yet good for behaviour, teaching, leadership and overall. I’ve worked in several schools like these. New teachers, supply teachers, cover teachers and middle leaders share what it’s like. 

What’s the staff experience that we want to get to in schools?

All staff feel clear, supported, learning all the time and happy. Staff are clear on why we’re here, where we’re trying to get to, how we each contribute. CPD is valued and impactful in building staff knowledge and habits. Pointless bureaucracy and needless tasks are out. Staff have the time to pursue their own professional learning and the best development opportunities are shared often. Staff culture and interactions are warm, friendly, open and honest. Staff feel able to be honest and direct in professional conversations. SLT seek feedback and involve staff in decisions. Line-managers are supportive and share regular chats. Recruitment is well run. Induction sets up new staff for success. Probation gives and invites honest, useful feedback. Appraisal is valued as a chance to discuss career progression opportunities and resources required to access them. Staff are encouraged and feel appreciated, committed and motivated. Staff want and plan to stay.

What’s the student experience we want to get to in schools?

All students feel positive and happy about school and their learning. Students are known by name and greeted warmly around school. They interact well with each other and are not unkind, inconsiderate or bullying. Kids believe in and feel proud of their school and themselves. Kids who are different are celebrated for who they are. They can learn in peace in lessons. Corridors and staircases are calm. Students who are behind catch up fast in their reading, writing, vocabulary and numbers. They achieve well in their qualifications and go on to great opportunities. They feel excited about their education and their future. Their positivity snowballs into staff positivity, which snowballs back.

Easier said than done! 

To help visualise the student-and-staff experience, we could try seeing all kids, staff, classes and teachers as somewhere on a spectral map from worse to better places to be. 

The best schools are those who help get as many kids and staff as possible furthest to where we’d most like them to be. 

The best-improving schools are those whose starting point is furthest from where we want schools to be, and who are improving the staff and student experience every day. 

Pitfalls: what we are NOT trying to do in schools 

  1. Exam factory hot-housing
  2. Managerialist monitoring and bureaucratising 
  3. Overloading, overstretching, overcomplicating it and overwhelming ourselves 
  4. Oversimplifying, reductively contorting reality to fit our boxes, spreadsheets and templates 
  5. Neglecting, segregating or excluding those who find learning hardest 

We must be alert to avoid these.

Limits: our creative constraints 

We have limited resources.

We have limited finances.

We have limited time.

We have limited attention.

We have limited headspace.

We all have limited expertise.

We have limited influence.

We must keep these in mind if we are to evade the pitfalls of overload, overstretch and burnout.

Even so, I was struck by headteacher Roly Speller’s take on how schools improve: painstakingly battling uphill at first, reaching a tipping point, and then increasingly rapidly as critical mass gathers momentum.  

School improvement champions defy the odds

Given the limits – and how self-reinforcing difficult student and staff experiences like disruption, confusion and turnover are – are any schools actually achieving these improvements, whilst evading the pitfalls? 

Yes. Here are some of the ones I know outside of the London and free school bubble, defying the odds often in areas of great disadvantage. 

Charter Great Yarmouth. Charter had 10 heads in 10 years, high disruption, defiance, disrespect and underachievement. In 2018, with a new headteacher, it improved its staff and student clarity, focus, learning, enjoyment and achievement from just 20% of kids passing their exams year on year to over 50% passing in 2019 to 2022. Ask headteachers Barry Smith and Darren Hollingsworth to learn more. 

Gloucester. Gloucester for years was racked by disruption and distractions; now every lesson, every day is calm. Watch to see if Gloucester joins the 1% of schools who have gone from being inadequate to good. Ask headteachers Jonathan Heap and Phillipa Lewis to learn more. 

Henley Bank. The school struggled for years, until Henley Bank’s new leadership team from 2018 rapidly improved the school, achieving a good rating in behaviour, attitudes, leadership, personal development and quality of education and high progress in 2022. They vastly improved attendance, and won the national award for best secondary school for supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities. Ask staff or headteacher Stephen Derry to learn more. 

Holmleigh Park. Inadequate on all levels in 2018, lessons are now disruption-free. Ask staff or headteacher Patrick Farmborough to learn more. 

Yate. In 2022, Yate achieved a good judgment across all areas, with very high progress, after years battling with disadvantage and underachievement. Ask staff or headteachers Izzy Ambrose and Nat Wilcox to learn more. 

Bideford. In 2022, Bideford College achieved the first good judgment in the school’s history, across all areas of behaviour, attitudes, leadership, personal development and quality of education after decades battling with disadvantage and underachievement. Ask staff or headteacher Claire Ankers to learn more.

Launceston. In 2022, staff and kids were experiencing lots of disruption at Launceston College. By 2023, lessons are calm, and much less learning lost. Ask staff, VP Tegen Thompson or headteacher Jenn Burn to learn more.

Atlantic. Inadequate in all areas in 2016; fast-improving behaviour, teaching and leadership every day since 2022. Ask staff, VP Linda Blackburn or headteacher Lynsey Slater to learn more. 

The first time I met Izzy Ambrose, Director of Education at the Greenshaw Learning Trust that backs some of the fastest-improving schools I know (including some of those above), she asked me a great question: “Joe, what do the best schools have in common?” 

Fast-improving, high-deprivation schools like Atlantic and Bideford get great leadership, great behaviour and great teaching happening fast, without falling into the traps of hothousing, bureaucracy, overstretch or neglect. In so doing, they improve both the student and staff experience every day.

By reducing disruption and confusion, and increasing clarity, focus and learning, we can improve our staff and students’ enjoyment and success at school, and give them the knowledge that Helen Keller saw as love and vision and light.

Little matters more for the 800,000 kids in England, and millions more worldwide, who don’t get to go to a good school. Yet! 

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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