Project-based school improvement

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To improve a school, it is necessary to focus on one or two things and then relentlessly go after them for about four or five years. That seems to work. However, it doesn’t sit well with the way that most schools operate.

One reason that we are at the mercy of quacks and their quick-fix fads is that these fads serve a pressing need within schools. This is not the need of school improvement but rather personal advancement. The ideal career path for someone who wishes to be a school leader is to cycle through a number of schools, leading a project at each.

A project is ideal for discussion at interview because it is the kind of object that people can see all the way around. As an interviewee, all you need to do is gently orient people towards the needs that the project was intended to meet, describe what it involved and then claim success. Nobody can prove you wrong and you can position yourself as someone who gets thing done; an implementer who sees stuff through.

In my experience, schools are overburdened with such projects. Some are new and shiny. Others are already in the recycling bin. A few sit on deckchairs in the twilight like glimpsed ghosts, goading teachers to ignore them.

And each project comes with a sunk cost; the money spend on training, the ego paid out in evangelising. So they don’t go away easily. They are like tar in the curtains.

Project-based school improvement is a vicious system that funnels money and resources away from good, simple ideas and towards the pockets of a few waffle-mongers.

There has to be a better way than this. Teachers must be able to gain credit as leaders for saying that they joined a school, inherited a plan, worked that plan daily and left before it was even close to being finished. Because that’s what real school improvement looks like and that is exactly the kind of apprenticeship you need to serve in order to become good at it.


7 thoughts on “Project-based school improvement

  1. Excellent point. This connects of course to the madness of thinking you can observe progress in a lesson. When people demand rapid evidence of improvement, they tend to get fake evidence of improvement.

  2. In my experience performance management targets encourages senior leaders to pick a project and test it out in schools. It doesn’t matter whether it works or not, cherry picking the data provides evidence of ‘improving standards’. Unfortunately I have witnessed it effecting a whole teaching staff and therefore all students. It wouldn’t be as bad if the projects chosen were likely to have any positive impact on teaching or learning. Instead they choose the next tin pot idea and expect everyone else in the school to get on board with as much enthusiasm as they have.

  3. All of this is so true, except I would say that it is remarkable how many projects seem to die before “completion” when the initiator leaves the school for a promoted post. Surely if they were genuinely effective someone would continue them?

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