Rethinking school-wide self-review: a New Zealand model and application

Introduction

Cashmere Primary School in Christchurch was already well set up in terms of school development and review processes. Principal Jacqui Duncan used her sabbatical time to think about ways to advance the school's practices of critical school-wide self-review.

I was thrilled to have a principal’s sabbatical in term 2, 2010. I had some clear goals about what I wanted to achieve. I wasn’t going to travel this time. I wanted to be a thinker, and a reader and a learner.

We already had self-review practices happening in the school. But they were a little disjointed, it was all a bit fragmented. I wanted time to think about it, to step up, climb the mountain, to really think about what it meant right through the whole school. (Jacqui Duncan)

Key evidence

From her investigations, reading and thinking Jacqui has focused on the following understandings which she developed or had validated during her sabbatical. They represent the key factors in working with staff to implement the kind of critical school-wide review she wanted at Cashmere Primary School.

  • Student learning, engagement and achievement needs to be the focus of school leaders and the focus of school review (KLP, 2008).
  • School leaders make a critical difference to the quality of schools and the education of young people. The closer that educational leadership gets to the core business of teaching and learning the more likely it is that leaders will have a positive impact on students (Robinson, Hohepa and Lloyd, 2009).
  • Building relational trust between leaders and teachers is important to engender and sustain improvements in teaching and learning (Robinson et al, 2009). Leaders who show regard for others and treat them with respect are seen to be competent, have integrity and are trusted. Such leaders can foster the levels of inquiry, risk taking, and collaboration that school improvement requires. For example, performance management, accompanied by transparency, honesty and accountability are important components of critical school review and school improvement. Coaching and the development of learning communities also use relational trust to change practice by school leaders and teachers and lift school-wide achievement (Timperley, et al, 2007).
  • Home-school connections are important. School leaders can build educationally powerful connections with families, whānau and communities through their approach to home learning, and by developing strong relationships with them (Robinson et al, 2009).
  • It is unrealistic to expect any one leader to possess all the leadership knowledge, skills and dispositions that a school needs. It is important that a principal develops other leaders within the school. A school leader also needs to strengthen networks with experts beyond the school. In these ways school leaders give and gain support to develop effective learning communities (KLP, 2008).
  • Understanding of adult learning is crucial as adults need to be involved in the co-construction of their own learning and need to believe that the changes being suggested will lead to an increase in student achievement. Simply mandating change won’t shift practice. However there does need to be pressure and support within a school to ensure changes that lead to school improvement and better teaching and learning do happen – "engagement in constructive problem talk" (Robinson et al, 2009).

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Implementation 

Jacqui has developed processes to implement the new critical school-wide self-review approach. In doing this she has used the reading, thinking and learning time of her sabbatical to keep the planning on track. In particular she has:

  • continued to focus on improving student engagement and achievement
  • ensured that what they do makes a difference for students and uses evidence to evaluate that difference
  • stopped what doesn’t make a difference for students, and soaks up time and resources
  • focused on continuous research based school improvement
  • continued to build staff capacity to improve students’ outcomes so they all experience success as learners
  • worked on keeping a link between theory and practice in all they do
  • streamlined the development of the school charter, strategic plan, the annual plan, and the school review process so that they are research based, future focused, challenging and rigorous
  • continued to build leadership capacity by coaching leaders on how to lead professional learning conversations and quality learning circles.

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Conclusions

Jacqui Duncan is an experienced principal. Her sabbatical gave her time to read and think, and to develop an evidence base for the developments she wanted to take back to her staff, board, families and students. The board has approved her new self-review model, so she is empowered to get on and do it. She also has an external mentor who is involving the board, staff and students. The mentor is preparing a report which Jacqui will use with her leadership team as part of her on going review of what happens in the school. This will be part of the commitment to evidence-based continuous school improvement.

She is also embarking on another process which involves her directly in the continuous cycle of critical review. She has asked her leadership team to take part in assessing her own leadership – the aspects of her work that help them, the aspects that are a barrier for them. She is taking out of their feedback what her strengths are, what things she needs to see as developmental opportunities, and from those things what are the next steps for her in terms of her leadership of the school. As she said, this has taken some courage! But as she has owned the process she sees it as an example of a high trust approach, and another layer of the review process.

What I am accountable for is to show that I have gone through a process. I am looking at it as objectively as possible, and I have come out of it with some next learning steps that mean something to me. We ask students to do this all the time. I hope that our values of respect and honesty in this school are lifted by my involvement too.

Reflective questions

These reflective questions might guide you in your reading of this article:

  • To embark on critical school-wide self-review you need to be clear about the changes that your school wants to implement. In discussion with your leadership team (or mentor) develop a list of the priorities your school has in terms of improving teaching and learning.
  • How will you ensure that your teachers feel supported as well as challenged as you pursue the changes to school practice that you have identified as necessary? Relational trust is a key component in this as Jacqui Duncan suggests. What processes do you have, or can you put in place to develop a trusting environment in your school?
  • Board, community and student participation are key to successful school-wide review. On her sabbatical Jacqui thought about a number of ways to ensure broad based buy in to the process. How will you manage this aspect?
  • In preparation for developing her approach to school review Jacqui drew on evidence-based research, resources, and a number of external experts to develop her own knowledge. Many of these are mentioned in the article and even more detail is available in her original sabbatical report. Use her references and suggestions (including approaching her for some summaries) to help prepare yourself as you embark on this kind of process for school improvement.
  • From your review you will come up with further priorities that you need to build into your action and annual plans. How will you decide what to do first?

References

Ministry of Education. (2008). Kiwi Leadership for Principals: Principals as educational leaders. Wellington: New Zealand.

Ministry of Education. (2008). Ka Hikitia. Wellington: New Zealand.

Duncan J. (2010) Principal Sabbatical Inquiry: Critical school-wide self-review.

Robinson, V., Hohepa, M., & Lloyd, C. (2009).  School Leadership and Student Outcomes: identifying what works and why. Best evidence synthesis iteration (BES). Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2007). Teacher professional learning and development:Best evidence synthesis iteration (BES). Wellington: Ministry of Education.

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