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Two ways to share the ‘DNA’ of effective school improvement

Over the last fifteen years or so the school system in England has changed massively.

Comparing metrics over time is fraught with difficulty as definitions change, but the number of schools rated ‘good’ or better is up by nearly a third, and we have risen as a nation in international comparisons of education.

The number of academies has gone from a few hundred to more than 10,000, and most are part of a trust that brings multiple schools together.

I believe it is not too much of a stretch to suggest these two things might be linked, but what is the special sauce of being part of a school trust that makes a difference?

At the Confederation of School Trusts, we believe a big part of that is the unique ability school trusts to have to draw together the talents working to support children.

Whether that is expert estates and finance teams freeing up school leaders to focus on education, or removing the barriers that can prevent teachers sharing and learning from each other.

But how do the trusts that are most effective at school improvement go about it, and how can we learn from them?

‘Current research is of limited use to leaders’

Knowing the answer to this requires good evidence, sound theory and the ability to share these insights so we can reap the benefits across the sector.

So, last year we set up an inquiry to try to answer that question, bringing together chief executives and leading researchers.

What we discovered, in short, is that the evidence base on what effective trusts do is still maturing.

Too much research has focused on narrow questions about different structural models, without looking at the effective practices that are actually happening on the ground in trusts.

This is of limited use to teachers and leaders who are working to make education better for children.

But our inquiry did find that we can make real inroads by developing a shared set of concepts and language and by carefully building that evidence base over time.

‘New model seeks to describe DNA of improvement’

To that end, today CST is launching a new conceptual model that seeks to describe the DNA of trust-led school improvement: a triple-helix of evidence-informed considerations.

Similar to human DNA’s distinctive double helix shape, the conceptual model of trust-led school improvement is structured into three inseparable and intertwined strands forming a ‘triple helix’: curate clear goals, build capability and capacity, and implement improvement initiatives.

For the non-scientists wondering about it: while unusual, triple helix DNA does exist in nature.

It is a device intended to illustrate the complex and interdependent considerations involved in school improvement, and to make it easier to talk with a common language about the types of work trusts are doing.

The model is based on research into effective improvement processes in a range of fields, including education, healthcare and business.

‘The model doesn’t tell trusts what to improve’

It is important to understand the model doesn’t tell trusts what to improve within its schools, as this will depend on the context. Instead, it outlines the key aspects of how a school improvement process, strategy or model is enacted within the trust.

This allows the model to “speak to” improvement strategies that span the potentially infinite range of things a school or trust could seek to improve.

If a trust thinks the curriculum – as just one, but by no means the only example – is central to school improvement, then this would be reflected in various components within the model, including how the trust defines its conception of quality and improvement goals.

It could also flow into other aspects of the model. For example, there might be considerations linked to school culture that are pertinent to curriculum improvement, or the development of expertise.

The model also includes the concept of “de-implementation” – ensuring that trusts focus on what works and removing what doesn’t to help protect staff workload.

Essentially, the model is intended to help trusts trace a pathway from what their improvement strategy intends to address, to a holistic consideration of how they do this.

It will also allow us to more meaningfully and systematically compare what trusts are doing so that we can build our collective understanding.

New ‘school improvement hub’

Just as Crick, Watson, Franklin and others contributed to the discovery of DNA, we are calling on the trust sector to work together to build knowledge about school improvement at scale.

To that end, we are also launching a new School Improvement Hub website in partnership with ImpactEd Group, to collate examples and develop case studies of school improvement practices used by trusts, with a first round of a call for evidence running until the end of June.

We hope this can become a repository for the evidence of high-quality practice we need to answer the questions that our inquiry originally posed, and help us understand more the nuts and bolts of how trusts can most effectively support schools to get better.

That can then help us pave the way for the next 15 years, so that trusts – and what they are able to do for pupils – can continue to grow in strength, as well as in numbers.

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