Our students only get one shot at their education; we must make it count.
Yet, too often within schools, leaders appear to overlook this truism. Some leaders often postpone or simply avoid decisions they know they should make for fear of upsetting people. Even worse, some leaders bury their heads in the sand and are oblivious to what goes on in their school. But as all good leaders know, ignoring a problem does not lead to the problem going away. It only gets worse! It is for this reason that effective quality assurance processes must be commonplace within schools.
For teachers, when they hear the words ‘quality assurance’ there is often a sharp intake of breath. For too long, ‘quality assurance’ has been twinned with ‘high stakes accountability.’ This has led teachers to view ‘quality assurance’ as a ‘gotcha’ exercise more than anything remotely developmental, and certainly unrelated to improving actual outcomes for students. Without careful thought, quality assurance can be reduced to a series of box-ticking exercises, in turn damaging staff morale, and leading to little tangible impact on student results and experiences.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The model of quality assurance I propose here comprises of challenge, review, and support in equal measure. By challenging ourselves to provide the very best education we can offer to our students, we ensure we maximise and maintain our standards and high expectations over time. From regular review and reflection, we ensure we constantly push for improvements in our work and understand that there are always elements we can improve to enhance our students’ education. Finally, we support colleagues by ensuring they understand that ‘we are on the same side’ and by offering them advice, assistance, and support in improving the situation together.
Finally, the model illustrates the importance of triangulating methods to create effective quality assurance. Quality assurance should not be reduced to one or two singular processes, but should encompass a variety of areas, over a significant period of time, with all aspects coming together to form a more accurate picture.
Methods of quality assurance
Within society, the importance of academic qualifications cannot be understated. Many jobs require minimum qualifications in core subjects, whilst highly competitive jobs and universities are likely to use examination grades as part of their selection procedures. Greater outcomes, across a broad range of subjects, are likely to lead to students having greater life choices, enhancing their own enjoyment, and positive contributions to society in the future. I also argue that student outcomes is the most useful proxy we have at our disposal to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching and learning within our schools. It is for the reasons stated here that I have placed ‘Outcomes’ as central to the model of effective quality assurance.
Ultimately, if examination outcomes for our students are exceptional (regarding both attainment and progress), how those results were achieved are rendered superfluous. Conversely, where departments or schools use a multitude of strategies, yet examination outcomes remain poor for them, further work must be done to improve their current situation. Being forensic with data leads us to reflect, improve, and tweak our instruction to improve outcomes down the line.
Effective curricula development, as well as robust curriculum reviews, are one of the highest leverage actions to improve outcomes for students. Teachers, department leads, senior leaders must therefore have a broad and deep understanding of effective curriculum development.
Elements from cognitive science such as interleaving, spacing, interweaving, retrieval, overlearning, dual-coding, generation, elaboration, and concrete examples must be included in every curriculum within your school. Subject leads should deliberately include these elements into their curriculums and be able to articulate why they have done so.
Subject leads must know themselves, and ensure their teams know too, their subjects in granular detail. They must know how topics progress through each Key Stage and beyond. They must know why topics are sequenced in particular ways, what prior knowledge is required to teach certain topics, the best way to teach given topics, how students will retain knowledge learned previously, and how students will maximise examination outcomes through the most effective revision strategies within their domains.
Robust ‘Curriculum reviews’ can be held on a regular basis between middle leaders and their line managers (or wider senior leadership team where appropriate) whereby the curriculum is ‘interrogated’ and curriculum conversations develop. From discussing and articulating their curriculums, middle leaders can further develop their own understanding which can lead to iterative developments of their own curriculums. The benefit of including these conversations as part of line management meetings is that the line managers can act with ‘professional curiosity’ and in a supportive capacity to upskill middle leaders in articulating their curriculums, praise them for work they have done so far, and challenge in any areas that could be improved further.
If departments can clearly, confidently, and concisely explain the rationale for curriculum sequencing, articulate and carry out consistent methods of instruction, assessment, whilst also understanding the learning sequence for that topic alongside any misconceptions and crucial examples, they would be in an extremely strong position and their student outcomes would likely reflect this.
For school leaders at all levels, the main source of challenge and support will come from your line manager. Your line manager should act as your accountability partner and critical friend, whilst also offering their unequivocal support throughout.
For me, effective line management is where a line manager sets a goal in conversation with their direct report, clearly and explicitly delineates the parameters of engagement, but then allows them the freedom and space to allow them to go about their work. The line manager can then hold their direct report to account for their performance towards the designated goal. This favourable method of line management provides reports with autonomy over how to achieve a goal, whilst developing their leadership capacity in pursuance of the goal.
When done properly, direct reports look forward to line management meetings as they can engage in critical discourse about how to move their department forward, with line managers acting as an invaluable sounding board for improvements. Line managers, in turn, can update their reports with any developments across the wider school, providing further clarification where necessary. The line management relationship can then develop into a ‘critical friendship’ where both individuals are working together with the goal of improving student outcomes within their departmental area.
Lesson Drop Ins
No quality assurance process would be complete without an effective system of lesson drop ins taking place. Historically, whenever school leaders would ‘drop in’ to a teacher’s lesson, it would be one of the few occasions during that year where the leader would carry out a high stakes, graded, formal lesson observation which would count towards the teacher’s performance management that year.
This practice, thankfully, appears to be declining in popularity and by being superseded in many schools by semi-regular (every 2-3 weeks on average), low stakes, ‘drop-ins’ of approximately 10-15 minutes and which are critically no longer related to a teacher’s performance management. As such, teachers can expect to have more than ten such lesson developmental ‘drop ins’ throughout a year, greatly increasing the level of feedback and developmental opportunities teachers receive during the year, all crucially concentrated on improving student learning and not on improving teacher performance.
Critically, this increased level of teacher development should lead to an increase in teaching capacity across the school. Improving a teacher’s practice is one of the highest leverage actions a school leader can use, as any improvement is compounded by the sheer number of students that teacher will teach in their ‘other’ classes and also across their entire careers. Clearly, the success of teacher development depends on the quality of observation, feedback, school culture, and the buy-in from staff, yet it is transformational when done right.
When looking through books, we must prioritise focusing on ‘learning’ rather than what simply ‘looks good.’ Whilst we must never mistake activity for achievement, we must never mistake perfect presentation for effective education. Although looking through books is important in ensuring students take pride in their work, we must look beyond the simple underlining of dates and titles, robotic checking of the frequency of book marking, and instead concentrate our efforts on making a judgement about the student learning that is evident.
When looking at books, it is important to address the aspects most associated with student learning:
– is the curriculum faithfully enacted?
– are misconceptions seen and addressed?
– is there sufficient quality and quantity of student work?
– is work self-marked where appropriate?
– is the quality of student writing exceptional?
– are topics ‘retrieved’ to prevent loss of learning over time?
Some school leaders give student voice a wide berth as they choose to back their own judgements and argue that students ‘don’t know’ what’s best for them. I can understand this logic to a certain extent, but I do think that student voice offers another extremely good viewpoint to help triangulate quality assurance within a school.
Ultimately, students know whether they are making progress in a certain subject or not. They know whether behaviour is good in their lessons. They have a good sense of whether they think they would learn better in another classroom. By asking specific, non-judgemental questions, without undermining teachers in the process, one can glean a lot of information from students which adds to the overall picture of quality assurance within your school.
Not only can it help you to quality assure your school, but it also has the dual purpose of engaging some of the most important stakeholders within your school environment, your students.
Although governors should not be tempted to interfere with the operational aspects of a school, they are crucial in holding the school to account for its provision. Yet, how do we ensure we have effective governance when governors are often volunteers from different industries and where they are frequently overseeing areas outside of their own areas of expertise?
As governors are not often trained in the area they oversee within a school, there exists a peculiar situation whereby leaders of all levels need to upskill their link governor in holding them to account more effectively. I suppose it is in some ways a perverse incentive to train someone up to provide greater challenge and support to you in your role, but it was one that is crucial to ensure the longevity, sustainability, and excellent performance of a school.
I would recommend that governors are aware of whole school teaching and learning initiatives, departmental expectations, curricula expectations, as well as the common vernacular surrounding their link area. Governors can, and I argue should, be encouraged to accompany leaders in any elements of quality assurance mentioned within this blog and we should therefore invite our link governors to these accordingly.
Our students only get one shot at their education: we must make it count. Some argue that quality assurance is superfluous, as teachers should just be trusted to ‘get on with their jobs’. Yet, I argue our students’ education is far too important for this to occur. We must make sure that all students receive the highest standard of education, and effective quality assurance must play an effective part in this.
Effective quality assurance must constitute challenge, review, and support in equal measure. We must challenge ourselves to be as effective as possible, but we must also never forget we are all on the same team. Where excellent practice is seen, we must recognise this and let colleagues know; recognition goes a long way, especially in what is often an isolated profession. Where development needs are found, conversations must be supportive, targeted, and focused to give individuals the best opportunity to improve.
Within this blog, I have highlighted one model of effective quality assurance. I stress that no particular method should be used in isolation, but should instead form part of a wider triangulation of elements to build up a more accurate picture over time.
Through this model of quality assurance, I argue that school leaders have a solid basis to understand the strengths and development areas within their schools, which can then be used to improve outcomes and ultimately the life chances for our students.
Thank you for reading and I look forward to continuing the conversation.