What does it take to see real change in literacy outcomes?
When it comes to literacy, we all agree that it’s important. But that’s often the extent of our impact. There are multiple reasons why literacy intervention at secondary school often founders, and does so repeatedly. Here are five key reasons:
- Erroneous beliefs and assumptions
- Conflicting priorities
- Token allocation of time, staffing or resources
- Ineffective programmes
- Ineffective teaching
Each of these is worth a post in itself, but the common thread is that all of these issues are under the control – and the responsibility – of school leaders. We know from our work with schools that leaders who address these issues, and all the baggage that comes with them, are able to achieve striking results. Conversely, we know that where these issues aren’t addressed, funds, staffing and student time may be squandered for few if any gains. Why are the differences so glaring?
Essentially, it comes down to how clearly leaders see the problem and what they are prepared to do differently in order to get a different set of outcomes. An integral part of the evaluation of our six-day training programme in schools is to interview key leaders. Recently we talked to the leaders at Meols Cop High School, an ‘outstanding’ school in Southport, about their observations of the process of change, the impact they had seen, and the consequences of that impact for the school community. We are very grateful that they have allowed us to share their comments.
Part 1: Identifying the problem, locating the solution
Head Teacher David Jones was already on the lookout for ways forward. “Issues with literacy were a big learning barrier to a lot of students achieving in both key stages. One good example would be their difficulty in accessing some of the GCSE exam questions. They were struggling with lots of subject specific words, or if the nature of the question changed the students were being thrown by it. Then as the school worked more on literacy and SPaG, we began to think, ‘Is there something more we should be doing?’ . . . Inset days were followed by learning hubs and lots of shared cross-curricular activities. Student and staff surveys tried to monitor the impact but I wouldn’t claim the process to be one of our greatest successes.
“However, our issue quickly became ‘what’s the best practice to help students with their basic literacy including reading?’ At secondary school we are specialists in our own subject areas but we are not as used to supporting traditional primary areas of expertise such as reading and weren’t quite sure what the discussion about ‘phonics’ was really all about!”
It was a sense of dissatisfaction that led him to look for a different solution. He contacted a head teacher who had written a post about looking into Thinking Reading. “He was just beginning it and said that it looked as though it had great potential with good evidence from one or two other schools in London. I spoke to Leon [DHT] and Sarah [Head of English] and both of them went to [a school in] Tower Hamlets. They came back fully enthused about the tremendous results they’d seen from it. So initially it was the power of social media that brought us to you.”
This practical investment in investigation meant that the school had a very concrete plan for moving forward. Deputy Head Leon Walker made the journey to London to study the intervention first hand. “A key thing for me was seeing it in action, and then processing that in my own mind as to how we could take what they were doing in London and make it work for us . . . . once you’ve had that first-hand experience, you appreciate what can actually be achieved.”
The hands-on approach to the initial investigation affected the way that he planned the implementation. “I think that if, for example, Lisa [the Literacy Lead] had gone and seen it, and come back and tried to describe to me what she’d seen, I don’t think I would have been as enthusiastic as I was.”
For Leon, communicating the initiative to staff as part of the school’s vision and mission was an essential part of the process. “I could present it as a strategy that was going to help each department deal with the demands of the new GCSEs. I think that was key, because everyone was getting very worried about the new GCSEs and this was now linked to each department’s improvement plan . . . People can see that it’s part of the school’s mission.”
Mission is an important word here. For David Jones, investing in literacy – especially ensuring that every student can read well by the time that they leave school – is a crucial part of the school’s mission. “If I can change their experience with us and equip them far better for their learning here and for their future lives – I would fail them if I didn’t make the most of what I know to be available. I have to do everything possible to find the resources and show my commitment and support to professional development that extensive research shows to be effective.”
We draw from these comments three key points for reflection:
- The motivation for improvement is driven by dissatisfaction with the status quo. David Jones’ question, ‘Is there something more we should be doing?’ neatly encapsulates this attitude.
- Senior leaders need to be practically involved in investigating new initiatives. Leon Walker’s experience significantly affected the way that he and his colleagues went about implementing change.
- It is essential for senior leaders to articulate a sense of mission that helps to unite all staff around the whole school’s responsibility for literacy.
Underlying all of this, successful implementation was founded on a clear view of the extent of the problem, and assessing the scale of commitment required to implement a solution. This clear-eyed understanding is essential: there are no short-cuts or magic bullets to deal with such a pervasive and longstanding problem, namely, adolescents who cannot yet read well enough to access the curriculum.
The next post in this series will focus on the leadership required to ensure a literacy intervention has impact.
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