In an overwhelming majority of schools, we identified and observed specific, useful teaching strategies. In some cases, effective practices were visible across the school; in others, they were found only in particular syndicates or classrooms. Generally, leaders and teachers were interrogating and responding to their assessment data. They knew which children were not achieving at the expected level and were trying different things to bring about ongoing improvement.
Some leaders were able to confidently explain why their school’s data was as it was. They knew what was working and what to do next. They knew why there were more children achieving success as they moved through to the upper primary school.
In over one-third of the schools, leaders could articulate what they were doing that was raising or maintaining achievement and had successfully implemented the agreed approaches and strategies across the school. The leadership teams worked with and influenced a wide variety of people in the school community with the result that the children were engaged, motivated and achieving right through primary school.
These schools had teachers and leaders with a strong sense of collective responsibility for all children and an urgency to accelerate the progress of those who were behind. Learning started on day one of the school year. Well-paced lessons kept children engaged and learning. Achievement issues were identified and addressed quickly, with every teacher contributing to improvement strategies for priority learners. In some of these schools genuine learning partnerships with parents increased children’s learning opportunities at home and at school.
Children generally enjoyed learning experiences across the full curriculum. Leaders and teachers carefully designed the curriculum to make sure core reading, writing and mathematics was integrated across learning areas. This meant children could develop their literacy and numeracy skills by engaging in activities that interested them. Consistent approaches and a common language of learning meant children did not have to work out what their teachers expected of them when they moved to a new class. Children experienced established, high expectations and knew what they had to do to achieve success.
The boards of trustees were equally focused on raising achievement. They were knowledgeable about the challenges and issues, often because leaders had presented them with well-considered cases for funding new programmes, professional learning and development (PLD), resources, or teachers’ academic research. Trustees were able to ask good questions about why children were or were not progressing. They wanted to know how new funding was contributing to improved outcomes for children.
Leaders often focused on improving teachers’ content knowledge as well as teaching practice. A collaborative and supportive culture encouraged teachers to identify knowledge gaps and learn together. Sometimes this meant adopting a new perspective as they came to realise they could make a difference, and that no child should be expected to fail. Teachers were also seen as learners.
Engagement and motivation were both crucial for supporting the learning and achievement of senior primary school children. Many schools were successfully giving students greater opportunities to work in multilevel groups and to make choices about their learning. Teachers grouped children for the purpose of learning about a particular concept, acquiring a specific skill, or exploring a context that interested them. They no longer grouped children by achievement level or reading age. In some cases, children were able to select which workshop to attend or which context to explore. Children were taught how to work well together, contribute, listen to others, and take responsibility for completing something successfully. Some children who had been working in a bottom group or even independently with a teacher made considerable gains when put into a multilevel group – they no longer felt designated as failures and enjoyed being supported by, and learning from their peers.
Teaching as inquiry was strong in many of these schools. Formalised systems prompted teachers to:
Leaders and teachers in almost all of the 40 schools had looked carefully at their assessment data, had been involved in PLD, and were working more collaboratively together. However, in some cases, they had managed to get effective approaches and strategies embedded only in parts of the school. The staff could be making many changes but were unsure which were contributing to a positive achievement trajectory.
Where good practices were evident only in parts, we identified a variety of factors that were limiting effectiveness. Credible PLD alone was not enough. Effective change management and monitoring practices were also necessary to make sure agreed new strategies were being implemented and they were working for both teachers and children.
In other cases, leaders had implemented or were considering implementing actions without researching how they influenced achievement. Some engaged in high-level thinking about vision, wellbeing and relationships, but did not similarly focus on achievement.
Leaders in some schools talked about the present and the future without paying much attention to what had gone before, including what may have been working. These schools risk dropping successful practices and wasting time replacing them with approaches that are actually less effective in raising achievement.
In a very small number of schools, leaders were wedded to an action or programme without evidence it worked or were stymied by individual leaders or teachers who refused to implement the agreed changes. In almost all of these schools, however, we saw some high quality teaching strategies working for students.
It is vital all schools have organisational structures, processes and practices that enable and sustain collaborative learning and decision making designed to continuously improve student achievement.
Many of the schools in this study were happy to share a wide variety of things they were doing, yet often with little knowledge about which of these were contributing to improved achievement. It is just as important to know what is working as it is to know what the achievement issues are. Schools that focused deeply on a small number of areas or systematically practised teaching as inquiry were better able to identify approaches that warranted continuation or extension. They were also better able to monitor the impact of new strategies to determine whether they were accelerating the progress of students who had been achieving below expectations.
In some schools, leaders assumed – wrongly – that whatever was being introduced as a consequence of PLD was being implemented as agreed and was working for the children. Others did regular classroom visits and observations, providing feedback and ongoing support for teachers. Through classroom observations and by talking to children, we found that agreed strategies had sometimes not been implemented, or that the children were unaware of them or how they might benefit from them. Without ongoing monitoring, worthwhile strategies may be abandoned, not because they did not work, but because they were never properly implemented.