School Improvement Stories

My school improvement plans lacked imagination.

I was struggling. There was no emotion, no adventure, no excitement. They seemed cold, clinical, rational, bureaucratic, bloodless. Sure, there were flaws a-plenty, but obstacles, adversities and conflict were avoided. 

I wondered – what could I learn from storytelling to infuse awe and wonder into our planning?

What could I learn from beloved literature? 

What if we drew on some of the best stories of all time?

Great stories have great characters

Great stories have great conflict.

Great stories have great choices.

Characters – bands of flawed heroes and flawed guides like the kids lost in Narnia and Aslan; the hobbits and Gandalf; Neo, the Nebuchadnezzar crew and Morpheus; Dumbledore’s army; Odysseus, his family and Athena. 

Conflicts – conflicts of family, parents, siblings, friends, rivals, loves – conflicts of the heart.

A cast of villains like Dickens’ Bill Sikes, Grimwig, Fang, Jaggers and Tulkinghorn the lawyers, Uriah Heep, Miss Havisham, Orlick, Murdstone, Bentley Drummle, symbolising unkindness, bullying, jeering, sneering, leering violence, brutality and cruelty. 

Choices – fears, temptations, dilemmas, struggles, adversities.

Stories are characters’ struggles to overcome obstacles.

Growing up, I liked quest stories, team stories best: William and the Outlaws; Treasure Island; the Fellowship of the Ring and the Battle of the Five Armies; the Musketeers; the Artful Dodger’s ‘street artists’.

Life stories, too: Wilberforce’s Abolitionists; Anne Frank, her family and her diary; Sophie Scholl, the pamphlets and The White Rose; Frederick Douglass’ escape and freedom fight; Mandela’s Umkontu We Sizwe. 

Literature is a laboratory.

What if we tried applying the power of stories in our school improvement planning?

“A struggling student who finds learning difficult and sees maths as impossible; a teacher believes in her, teaches his heart out all year, and her confidence soars.”

“A student permanently excluded from two schools; joins a new school, is flooded with encouragement, positivity and recognition, and in his new-found efforts, realises he can succeed in education after all.”

“A shy student, bullied at primary school, starts at secondary, scared and alone. Her new compatriots take her under their wing, take care of her and build back her self-belief.”

“A staff team battling defiance, disruption and disrespect, being shouted at, constantly fighting fires. The leadership team determines to overcome these battles, and with courage, perseverance and tenacity, they win staff minds to achieve unity, cohesion and consistency, calm the storms, and build a great school community that changes children’s lives.”

“A group of school leaders, passionate about education, wanting to make a difference, but not knowing how to turn apathy into motivation. They find a trust that backs them, supports them, champions them, shares how to preempt the pitfalls and succeed in creating a great character curriculum.”

“Two twins from deprived backgrounds dream of becoming surgeons. But they’re worried about finances and debt. Their school helps them find a new scholarship bursary that helps students from disadvantaged families access University. They work super-hard to get onto the program, and are able to go to University without financial pressures or worries.”  

“Where were we as a school? Frazzled; overloaded; overwhelmed; harried, hassled, harassed and under constant pressure. Where are we now? We’ve cut workload by 200 hours a year. No more futile marking that’s ignored, no more pointless data input, no more bureaucracy, no more evidencing. Where are we headed? Great subject teaching and learning all day, every lesson, 195 days a year! Great experiences, great interactions every day for staff and students.”

‘Battling overload and distractions, we champion all our staff and students to dream big, learn and lead well.’

“After tough adversity ripped into our hearts and brought us together, our dream is a world where all our staff and kids learn together to overcome hardship and lead great lives.’

Just like great stories, school improvement plans involve characters, conflicts and choices. 

When drafting, crafting and recrafting a school improvement story, we can experiment with imaginative narrative.

1. Start with a character: a staff and student team!

2. Show a struggle or conflict: defiance? hostility? disruption? apathy? adversity? dependence? underachievement? life-limiting disadvantage? 

3. End with liberating choices: leading great lives. living life dreams. changing children’s life chances. finding fulfilling futures. creating memorable, meaningful experiences. combating disadvantage. spinning apathy into gold. doing what we love. loving what we do. creating wonderful works. leaving amazing legacies.


Our stories are how we make sense of the world, who we are and why we’re here.

Our stories help us imagine, see the world in new ways and dream big.

Our stories help us reconnect with where we come from, where we are, and where we’re going. 

Storytelling brings us promising ways to approach school improvement and help us evade the many pitfalls.

I wonder – maybe with storytelling, we can fire each other’s imaginations.

And create inspiring adventures! 

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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