Consistency is Key – Good to Great!

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Ann Berger, a former HMI in one of the three presentations she made at a recent conference, outlined the key finding from an analysis of a number of Ofsted reports. Half of the reports were from schools that had achieved an overall effectiveness judgement of good and half were outstanding. The most significant difference between the two sets of reports was that in the group of outstanding schools the word ‘consistent’ or ‘consistently’ was used significantly more often than in the good schools.

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In other words, schools on the journey to becoming great have recognised that it is important to not only have clarity around what should happen in school, but have created an environment where this clarity translates into consistently applied practice.

To a large extent these schools are seeking to become high reliability organisations. The commonly used analogy of the airline pilot is useful here. Our expectation as a passenger on a plane is that 100% of the journeys undertaken will be successful, with a safe takeoff, flight and landing every single time. It is no good to us as passengers if the pilot’s performance is only 95%. He or she needs to get it right every single time.

There are a number of elements that were identified:

Achieving buy-in and communicating clearly

All successful schools long ago recognised the importance of achieving strong buy-in from their staff, students and parents. An important part of this process is to involve key stakeholders in the development of the policy. It is common for schools to involve their staff in a process of consultation when developing policies on a range of issues and managing behaviour should be no exception. However, many of the most successful schools have extended this consultation to include students and parents on the basis that the more people feel a sense of ownership of what is agreed, the more likely the success of the policy.

The next crucial stage in gaining consistent application of these agreed processes and procedures is effectively communicating what has been set up. For staff this will probably involve the implementation of an effective training programme for all colleagues, not just teachers. This training should form an automatic and essential part of any new member of staff’s induction programme. A simplified version is also often made available for visiting staff such as supply teachers, student teachers or even work experience students. There is also clearly explained documentation in schools’ staff handbooks that outlines how the systems and routines are expected to work.

Running alongside this, there is clear information made available to parents that explains how the schools’ systems work. Many of these schools issue a handbook to parents when students start at a school that covers all the key areas. The most effective schools will also make sure there is a direct and regular channel to update policies when they change. One way of doing this involves schools putting all the key policies into the front of student planners as part of the personalised service menu planner publishers now offer to schools.

It is also useful to remind parents of certain policies at those times of the year when they are particularly relevant. For example, expectations relating to conduct, timekeeping and dress code for exams could be published just prior to the exam season, beginning via the school’s newsletter and website.

Using parents to support consistency

Parents who have relevant details about how different systems should be operated provide schools with a powerful tool in two respects. Firstly, when things go wrong and a punishment is applied, parents may sometimes feel that their son or daughter has been unfairly treated. To be able to show parents that the school has simply implemented its agreed policies often leads to a shared agreement that the situation has been handled appropriately. The focus can then move on to how the school and parents can support the child in the future. It takes the emotion away from the decision. However, if the school hasn’t followed its own procedures then the parents will have a legitimate concern.

Secondly, if parents know what should happen, they can spot when it hasn’t. Staff know that they will be held accountable for their role in properly implementing systems. So long as parents feel able to raise concerns without school leaders becoming defensive, this feedback loop provides a powerful tool in maintaining consistency.

Working with students

The final group that need to be made aware of how the systems work is the students themselves. Schools need to make up their own minds about how much information to share with students directly. It could be argued that there should be a positive (if naïve) assumption that there aren’t going to be any problems, and only explain the consequences of action as and when the need arises. In such a scenario, time would be spent in assemblies explaining the reward system to each year group with only basic reference to how the sanctions system will work.

This is often sufficient. When things do go wrong, students are very quick to notice how they are dealt with and will remember what action was taken, whether the misdemeanour was their own or that of a peer. What matters to them is that the system is followed fairly by the staff involved. If it is not, staff face the challenge of ‘that’s not fair’ and the situation becomes even further from resolution. The desired response needs to be much nearer to ‘fair cop guv!’

The acknowledgement from those students who have done wrong and recognition that they have been treated fairly is an essential part of any restoration of relationships. Being treated more harshly than they know the system says they should gives a message to pupils that the member of staff has some reason to pick on them, thus making the way forward more challenging.

As with parents, it is important that students are able to discuss a situation where they have a genuine complaint about the application of procedures. The best school leaders will welcome this feedback as another mechanism for the promotion of consistency. It is not about giving in to students or taking sides. It is about being completely transparent about what is expected from all members of the school community.

For any set of policies to be consistently applied, systems need to be simple. Overly bureaucratic systems that place unrealistic demands on staff will ultimately fail to pass this test as only a proportion of the staff will follow through agreed procedures. The most successful schools will have created procedures which they can confidently expect all staff to implement because everyone is able to see the benefits for them as individuals as well as for the school as a whole. They are a manageable set of arrangements that won’t just be followed for a while. They will be followed by everyone for the long-term.

Careful monitoring of such systems is therefore crucial in assessing whether they are working. This is explored in a later chapter, but the basic principle of making sure that a school ‘does what it says it will do’ is at the heart of creating a climate where consistent practice is assured.

In ‘Twelve outstanding secondary schools’, Peter Matthews identified that consistency of approach was one of the key characteristics shared by all of the schools. ‘They are truly corporate cultures, with staff and usually students working for each other sensitively and co-operatively. Students do not receive mixed messages or perceive staff to have vastly different values. They see common purpose: adults who are working in students’ interests, who like being in the school, who care for it and are ambitious for its future.’

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