Transformative Educational Leadership Program | ISSUE: Spring 2020It is not always easy. But it is work that matters. And, as the stories in this paper highlight, the reasons why Spirals is so effective in changing outcomes for learners in England is that the process goes far beyond surface level inquiry and interventions. By Rosie Leonard-Kane
IntroductionWhole Education is an English schools network organisation established in 2010. Member schools are connected by a simple mission to deliver a ‘whole’ education where young people develop the skills, qualities and knowledge needed to thrive in life, learning and work. Whole Education initiates values-led, school improvement. This is facilitated through networking, programmes, events, partnerships and leadership development designed to improve school leaders’ capacity and capabilities to deliver a ‘whole’ education and change outcomes for all learners. Leaders in the network identified the Spirals of Inquiry as having the potential to address the ‘seemingly intractable problem’ of narrowing achievement gaps for disadvantaged students in England. Following a promising pilot in 2014 and with Whole Education as the central organising body, over 250 schools in England have been introduced to the Spiral of Inquiry in the past five years. The network of inquiry has evolved over time based on learning from the particular English education context and international links. For schools who have engaged with Spirals there are significant changes in practice and outcomes for both student and adult learners. This paper outlines how Whole Education has developed a network of inquiry in England, reflections on what makes Spirals work in English schools and examples of its application in practice. It is not always easy. But it is work that matters. And, as the stories below highlight, the reasons why Spirals is so effective in changing outcomes for learners in England is that the process goes far beyond surface level inquiry and interventions.
Understanding the particular English contextSince 2010 virtually every aspect of the education system in England has been subject to reform – the national curriculum, assessment, qualifications and inspection systems have all been revised in an attempt to raise standards (Worth et al., 2018). There has also been significant structural reorganisation in the same period – ‘academisation’ has seen thousands of state schools (72% of secondaries and 27% of primaries) transferred from local government control to be operated by (and transferred between) independent charities, single or multi ‘academy trusts’. School leaders in England face considerable public scrutiny through performance league tables, high-stakes standardised tests and a top-down accountability regime. Network members speak of the intense pressure they face to “have the right answer” and “make swift improvements” in multiple areas. A ‘requires improvement’ inspection grade often results in headteachers losing their jobs, and a rebrokering of the school into a new academy trust. The consequence being that educators in England work longer hours than other comparable countries, doing more ‘things’ in an effort to drive up progress. This is unsustainable. Something highlighted by the high turnover of educators from schools, with a third of new teachers leaving the profession within the first five years (Foster, 2019). But most concerning, the system still isn’t working for the most vulnerable learners and the attainment gap for disadvantaged students remains as wide as ever. Current estimates predict that it will take more than 500 years to close it (Hutchinson, J. et al., 2019). Outcomes are still closely linked to student background, with significant variation by demographic (e.g. white working class boys) and region (greater disadvantage gap in the north of England than the south). This remains true despite a range of government initiatives over the past two decades aimed at closing this gap, including dedicated ‘pupil premium’ funding. Disadvantaged students and other vulnerable learners not only do worse academically, they are also more likely to be excluded from mainstream education (Timpson, 2019; Gill et al., 2017). PISA league tables consistently show that young people in England have lower student wellbeing and satisfaction than other OECD countries (Sizmer et al, 2019).
A Different Way?In 2014 school leaders in Whole Education were inspired by the evidence of sustained improvements that the Network of Inquiry was demonstrating across British Columbia (BC) (Halbert & Kaser, 2013). Not only did local evaluations in BC demonstrate attainment gap-reducing impacts (McGregor et al, 2013), it was a collaborative model which supported system-wide change – a feature which resonated closely with Whole Education principles of networked learning. This led to the decision to pilot the Spirals of Inquiry methodology in order to test whether the framework was transferable and would lead to positive changes in outcomes for learners in England as well. Evaluation of the Whole Education pilot (Stoll & Temperley, 2015) summarised the impact: Considerable impact for student learners such as:
- better progress in reading and an increase in the ‘love of reading’
- more pupils feeling their teachers believe in them
- increased engagement
- greater awareness of how and why they learn
- better self-assessment
- more accommodation of challenge
- collaboration and
- having a shared focus
Growing an English network of inquiryFollowing the successful pilot, Whole Education committed to growing an English network of inquiry. The structure of it is distinctive to the particular education context here but has been influenced significantly from international links with BC. Annual visits to BC as well as regular visits to England from Dr Linda Kaser and Dr Judy Halbert have inspired and shaped the development of the network. Below we list some distinctive features of Spirals in English schools:
- Termly network meetings: Explicit time carved out to “be inspired by peers” and “share ideas” helps Spirals teams to complete a cycle of inquiry. “The opportunity to come out of school and get feedback and ideas from peers was so helpful.”
- A triad working on an inquiry, one of whom must be on the senior leadership team: The Spiral often reveals features of school-wide culture or practice which becomes the focus. Senior leaders ensure that this can be acted upon. “We started with a small group of pupils but soon realised that their experience was representative of many more. The learning from pupils in one classroom has quickly spread across the school and now our whole staff are engaging with the process.”
- Local inquiry network hubs: Some are grassroots, others sponsored at a local government level. Whole Education is currently partnering with eight local authority education teams to build local inquiry networks. “The local authority recognises the value and importance of developing strong partnerships which provide sustainable networks…Spirals is a way of working to achieve [this] and not another project or gimmick!”
- Spirals coaches: Each new inquiry team is offered coaching from an experienced Spiraler. The coach offers support, guidance and advice. This role offers progression for individuals who have embedded Spirals in their own school, and helps Whole Education to support more schools as the inquiry network has grown. “The coaching conversation was a turning point in our inquiry. They asked really insightful questions which helped us a lot.”
- Shared, complex inquiries: Schools dealing with complex challenges need what Helen Timperley has called ‘adaptive expertise’ (Timperley, 2017). A key feature of developing this is looking outwards, seeking new learning and welcoming new perspectives. Complex challenges such as closing the disadvantage gap, reducing exclusions or improving special education provision are all shared inquiries which groups of Whole Education schools have worked on together. “It has been so helpful to know that we are not the only ones – there is no single answer – but hearing other people’s ideas and learning from them has been really useful.”
Why is the Model so Effective?It is sometimes difficult to explain to school leaders in England why the Spiral framework is so effective in changing outcomes for learners. The six stages are deceptively simple. They are accessible to all but are underpinned by best evidence of what makes great professional learning for educators (Timperley et al., 2007) which means that it is an artfully sophisticated model. In the particular English context there are a few trends which have emerged that help to explain why Spirals is so impactful.
- It challenges adult assumptions, promotes student voice and supports schools to get to the real root of an issue
Case Study 1A small primary school in the north of England started with a hunch that their writing curriculum was not engaging enough. Progress in writing was a whole school concern and the Headteacher was considering introducing a new writing curriculum for all year groups. Scanning conversations revealed that the issue was not in fact with the actual curriculum. Rather, the real problem was that students had no idea how to improve their work. Despite thinking that they gave high quality feedback on writing, students had become “over reliant on the teacher to tell them how to improve, and struggle[d] to take ownership of their own progress.” This realisation led the staff to reflect that “we focus too much on results and outcomes rather than on the learners’ needs. Sometimes the way we give feedback isn’t helping pupils as we are giving them too much rather than encouraging them to reflect and identify how they can improve.” New learning followed and the staff were able to make adjustments in giving effective feedback without the need for a whole school curriculum overhaul. Initial evidence of impact is very promising with improvements in standardised test scores in writing progress. “I found the process allowed us to focus on specific issues. This was enlightening! Without this level of enquiry, it would have taken a lot longer to get to the real crux of the problem, if we discovered it at all. My advice, don’t settle for your first hunch! Dig deeper if you need to.” (Headteacher)
- It supports the development of an inclusive and cohesive whole-school culture.
Case Study 2
We had undertaken action research for a few years. However, we always felt that some of our staff hadn’t engaged. There had always been a small number who had and got a lot out of it but the majority didn’t. We were hoping that the Spirals of Inquiry model would help stimulate and further develop professional enquiry culture & ultimately develop leadership and change capabilities in our staff.Staff were able to join one of five inquiry teams based on school-wide areas for development. Supported by middle leaders, each team asked students the 4 key questions and undertook new learning and collaborative action based on what they learnt from their pupils. Final presentations at an event in summer term helped to disseminate learning across the strands. “The impact has been a better buy-in and understanding of the importance of research because this time round it is driven by the students and not by the teachers. I am surprised by the fact that [this year] the Spiral groups wanted to continue with the chosen foci from the previous year as they felt that had only scratched the surface and wanted to delve deeper into understanding and contextualising those key inquiry questions.” (Assistant Headteacher)
- It encourages educators to look at their own practice which is where they have agency to make change.
Case Study 3One Spirals team was hoping to find a solution to a lack of engagement with learning from a class of ‘difficult boys’. “The class was universally judged to be difficult to teach and a large proportion of the boys are judged to be disruptive and to have poor attitudes to learning.” Through the scanning conversations, staff were shocked that “no pupils could talk in depth about how their learning was going.” New learning led to the team to explore research into how boys learn and the impact of labels such as ‘difficult’ or ‘failure’ on pupil self-belief. Their Spirals team developed a hunch that the boys’ behaviour was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. How the boys were perceived and talked about in the staff room by the adults was negatively impacting how staff then supported the boys to engage with their learning. The Spirals team became ‘Ambassadors for Boys’. They aimed to get to know the boys as people, find out how they enjoyed learning best and to make sure that “opportunities are provided so that they can shine, instead of fail.” “We agreed that we would challenge any negativity about this class in a bid to lift the labels that had been given and we vowed to drop the focus on changing our boys and to try instead to do more to help them learn naturally.” It has required an entire “culture shift around boys” across the school and not only did it improve the boy’s engagement with learning, staff felt more positive about teaching the class as well. This insight was only possible because the team were encouraged to reflect on what they, the adults, were doing to contribute to the situation and start with making changes there.
- It improves communication and collaboration between adults in the school.
Case Study 4A primary school in one of the most disadvantaged areas of England knew that they wanted to focus on pupils at risk of exclusion, and in particular one class with a small number of students exhibiting consistently challenging behaviour. Their project team represented the adults who work with these students; the classroom teacher, the special education needs coordinator and the senior leader with responsibility for safeguarding. The Spirals launch was the first time these adults had sat together to talk about the particular students who were causing concern. The recently qualified classroom teacher was feeling out of her depth. Having scanned the pupils and analysed all other data she had on the group, she still couldn’t identify any commonalities. It was only when working together as a team at the Spirals day that connections began to be made. The safeguarding lead had additional information that all of the identified children had been exposed to domestic abuse at home. It was an ‘ah hah’ moment for the team. This sort of information is not commonly shared in English schools except on a need-to-know basis. The inquiry supported the team to explore attachment theory and trauma informed practice which the teacher was able to apply in her classroom to support these learners better. The safeguarding lead recognised the importance of having “regular conversations with staff about their students and supporting newer members of staff more.” “I can’t believe we hadn’t made the connection before now. I was so worried about their behaviour that I hadn’t thought to ask. I feel much better now that we know this and I can research and do something about it.” (Classroom Teacher)
Next StepsIn spite of the many challenges facing schools in England, there are also many reasons to be hopeful. Whole Education membership continues to grow as school leaders continue to seek more effective ways of making sustainable improvements. In 2019 Whole Education launched a project for schools to find out more about their pupils at risk of exclusion using the Spiral of Inquiry; demand was so high that three times the number of schools initially planned for were recruited to participate. The potential of Spirals to change outcomes for learners in English schools is significant and the many examples of changes in practice, culture and mindsets over the past five years attest to this. The impact on adult learners cannot be underestimated. In an education system facing a recruitment and retention crisis, a model which inspires and motivates staff as well as effectively addresses complex challenges should be highly valued. Whole Education, like the schools, is continually learning and improving how it supports school leaders to engage with the Spirals methodology. Experience and feedback from schools has given Whole Education a considerable understanding of the conditions which are needed for Spirals to be successful in English schools and how to run a network of inquiry in this particular education context. This will continue to evolve as new learning emerges from ongoing evaluations. Increasing links with international friends also using the Spiral of Inquiry has provided additional learning and opportunities to reflect together on what makes an effective network of inquiry at a local, national and international level. Whole Education looks forward to continuing these professional networks and friendships over the coming years.
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