Education Policy, Reading Interventions, School-wide Literacy
Comment 1

The Implementation Trap

When Ofsted review schools under the new category of Quality of Education, the Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, says that they will be looking at three areas: intention, implementation and impact. While it’s almost impossible to find a school that doesn’t proclaim laudable intentions, implementing such intentions successfully is quite another matter.

Part of the difficulty is that many of our stated ambitions are aspirational: the intentions indicate a direction of travel, rather than a destination that all students will reach. One of the questions raised by the new approach to inspection is whether schools’ statements of intention are too lofty, and so the school can never meet the standards it has set itself.

A second problem is that statements of intention have often been generalisations that were never expected to apply to all students. School leaders may well find that they have to be much more precise in specifying the types of outcomes they are aiming for, especially with groups who were previously at the margins of the school’s results. And then they have the problem of justifying the exceptions they have made, when Oftsed asks why they didn’t adjust the provision for those students.

Let me explain. Within the bedrock of secondary education, there are layers of sub-strata that comprise deeply held, but barely perceived, beliefs about intelligence and student potential. These beliefs often result in actions that compromise students’ opportunities to grow. In some schools, for example, the response to pupil premium accountability has been to designate pupil premium teachers, segregate students into pupil premium form groups, and set up interventions specifically for pupil premium students. What pupil premium actually means is that students have met the criteria for poverty. In effect, some schools have actively singled out and in some cases, segregated poor students.

Under the new inspection regime, the Ofsted question: ‘what do you want for all your students?’ will require schools to explain their aims and ambitions –including for pupil premium students.  The conversation will then move on to how that vision is being made real. Schools that have toyed with changing structures, job titles and segregation will find that these have not resulted in meaningful outcomes. Why? Because what pupil premium students need, like every other student, is well-planned, well-executed teaching.

Let’s take the specific field of reading. Nationally, about 20% of students arrive at secondary school reading significantly behind. However, about 40% of pupil premium students have this level of difficulty – that is, they are twice as likely to fall into this category. When schools aim to take such students on trips to boost the students’ cultural capital, but don’t have the inclination – or, let’s face it, the expertise – to address the actual problem of not knowing how to read text at their age level, the reading achievement won’t change.  (In case you think I am exaggerating, I have seen schools where the strategy for those with a pupil premium form class was to ‘take them on a trip’.)  And if the reading achievement doesn’t change, it’s unrealistic to expect other areas of learning to advance. Reading is an academic bottleneck.

Equally, a school may wish to address the reading achievement of pupil premium students ambitiously. Unfortunately, ambition alone is no guarantee of success. The implementation of genuinely effective intervention at this late stage in students’ schooling is beset by the complexities of secondary school organisation, the complexities of students’ reading difficulties and the complexities of teaching a great deal in a short time. Without a clear strategy, and a day-to-day monitoring of its implementation, seemingly small decisions can completely derail the best of intentions.

Seemingly innocuous or minor decisions can make it very difficult for an intervention to succeed. Short of staff? Just redeploy the specially-trained TAs who are delivering that intervention until the crisis is over. Short of space? Move the reading intervention into someone’s office. Exam support for special considerations? Those TAs are only teaching a few kids to read – pull them out so we can get through this. Need help to run a special event? Just pull some students out of their reading lesson.

And thus, as Shakespeare noted, the whirligig of time brings in his revenges. Before we know it, the students have lost momentum, the staff have lost motivation and the results drop away. Then a member of SLT asks why we’re bothering with this initiative anyway, given the mediocre outcomes, and so the whirligig continues. We drop this intervention, pick that one up, and undermine our own efforts again and again.

Now, when Ofsted come calling, it may become a little awkward. After all, if our mission statement says that all our children will become caring, literate, global citizens, and Ofsted asks, ‘why are some of your students still not literate?’, we won’t be able to evade the question by pointing to the good progress of the top four sets. What is your ambition for those at the lower end? What was your plan? How did it work out? Why did it fail? What will you do now? These are the kinds of questions the new framework will lend itself to.

Unless we have a very clear plan and protect it fiercely, the likelihood is that intervention with the most challenging groups will fail. It will fail because there are dozens, if not hundreds, of ways to fail, and the job of SLT is to make sure that none of those ways to fail gets a look in. Senior leaders not only need to set noble aims, but to devise a coherent strategy, then ensure it is implemented with vigilance and discipline. If not, the ‘implementation’ question from Ofsted will become an albatross around our necks.

And no amount of good intentions is going to stop that.

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