Mary-Jo Hill

29 Sep 2020
So, what does a school improvement specialist do indeed? It's not a simple answer or even a simple role, but one that can only be achieved when schools have the time and space to do it.

Do schools really need improving right now? I think we are still feeling lucky if our local schools are open without any isolation of bubbles going on. Headteachers have never had to work so reactively. Managing three hour staggered lunch breaks. Responding to hundreds of e-mails from concerned parents on what to do if their child has a temperature that morning. Ensuring that there are enough staff to manage the day. Managing vast amounts of procedure. I hasten to comment that they all doing their absolute best so I would say that no, no current improvement is necessary but that statement would be undermining our professional integrity which is fuelled every day by teachers and all Edu-staff doing their absolute best; striving to do more for all of their pupils all the time.

So what does that make of school improvement or professional development these days? The honest shift towards schools supporting schools is great from a position of strength. Schools value their neighbours more than ever but what method can support this to best effect? But does this support the ‘I’m all right, Jack’ feeling for those that are currently ‘in balance and performing’ but negates the very real experience of those schools that have factors that mean that they will never be judged in the same way. This gives me the opportunity to explain what coaching in schools is about, dispelling some of the myths that may weaken its impact and some potentially unflattering assumptions about it.

And what it is?

The work of a school improvement specialist is a great cooperative effort. It is ‘co-constructed’, just as Ofsted have recently announced. Actually, it is the identification and understanding of a school’s or a professional’s needs at a point of time and place. Furthermore, this can be made by the use of structured conversation and approach techniques, which will enable the coach or school improvement professional to then find an appropriate way to tackle these necessities in tandem with those that spend their entire time doing what they know best and as all teachers do, trying to create the best outcomes for all their pupils and staff.

Although it sounds simple and direct, school improvement via the process of coaching does not depend only on the coach. In reality, it is a joint effort that relies intensely on the school side of the equation to work. Nevertheless, the specialist might get hired, might be there with his training, qualifications and techniques in the bag and yet without the school staff cooperation, improvement can’t be achieved.

The other side

One can look at this blogpost and think: ‘It does not sound that hard! Why would I need a specialist for that?’. However, these people are usually the same ones to run and hide when difficult conversations come to the table during a coaching session. It is not all fun and games, even less a support group where nobody gets judged. Improvement can’t be done without discomfort, pain and sometimes, sadness and confrontation. Identifying weaknesses or unhealthy behaviours in ourselves and schools is also at the core of the specialist role and is, most of the time, what brings the biggest changes.

So, what does a school improvement specialist do indeed? It’s not a simple answer or even a simple role, but one that can only be achieved when schools have the time and space to do it. I have been supporting schools for over 25 years and focusing on coaching was a process that I boarded in 2012 with no plans to stop anytime soon. And I won’t.