Maurice Dimmock, Chairman, ASIC Accreditation
QA in times of crisis: a health checklist for school leadership
Effective, internal quality assurance has never been more critical to the successful governance and running of a school. In a time of crisis, as normal daily challenges are compounded and new ones are seemingly never-ending, the foundations a school is built and run on are crucial in maintaining a strong sense of community and in achieving desired outcomes for pupils. From what I have witnessed in communicating with our schools, and in undertaking remote inspections throughout the pandemic, there are three key characteristics which signal a school is weathering the crisis better than others.
Adaptive. The schools who were already champions of innovation, and who actively nurture this attitude in their operations, have found the shift to online teaching and governance the easiest.
Collaborative. Those with established links and partnerships with other schools and sector networks (with whom to share best-practice) have found much-needed reassurance and support throughout the pandemic.
Robust and healthy leadership. Schools who have strong leadership and governance, with clarity of vision, ethos, and direction have been able to draw upon their defining characteristics and maintain both purpose and effective communication with pupils, parents, staff, and their local communities.
It is a difficult time, and with much being outside of a school leaderships control, it can be tempting to assert and direct to get things done. However, though it may seem easier to pull rank and dictate (often done with good intentions of improving accountability and streamlining processes) this method breeds dissatisfaction and eventual distrust in leadership. Over time this erodes the school’s sense of fellowship, harming pupils, staff, and outcomes. Instead, we find that schools who have continued to operate with the guiding principles of quality, equity, and collaboration have found it possible to continue to work efficiently in pursuit of their goals, whilst also strengthening their school’s community.
While it seems hard to take time amidst chaos to sit back and take stock, it is a far greater task to battle against the consequences of lost time and opportunity. The health of your school’s leadership and operation needs attention now. ASIC does not believe in busywork, and all the questions we ask below, if acted upon, have proven benefits for a school’s operation and reputation. The areas covered below are by no means exhaustive, nor will one school be facing identical challenges to another. My advice is to reflect on which areas may have been overlooked or need raising with the schools governing board.
School Leadership health check:
Governance and Management, Quality Assurance and Enhancement
- Are you ultimately operating and making decisions in line with pupils’ best interests and outcomes?
- Do you continue to govern inclusively, welcoming feedback and input from a diverse range of voices and experiences?
- How is the leadership and governance of the school continuing to set and safeguard high standards and expectations?
- In your response to the pandemic, is the school’s vision and mission reflected consistently in both its policies and practices? If not, why? What are you doing to address this?
- Have you taken the time to review your risk assessment, learning from the current difficulties to ensure the school meets future challenges with knowledge and hindsight gained from this experience?
- Do not neglect self-evaluation; the pandemic will have shed light on both areas of strength and areas in need of improvement. Are you continuing to evaluate the impact of decisions made? Is this being fed into the school’s self-improvement plan?
- Parental engagement (in addition to representation on the governing board) can have a sizable positive impact on children’s learning. Is the school continuing to communicate and seek the views of parents and caregivers, including disadvantaged families, ex-pat families, and families where the school’s language of instruction is not the family’s first language? How are you demonstrating, and feeding back, that these views are acknowledged?
Student welfare, learning, teaching, and systems management
- There are inherent challenges in remote learning, particularly for vulnerable, SEND, and disadvantaged children. Are these pupils and their caregivers being catered for (as best you can) in decisions made?
- Have you re-assessed your safeguarding policies and arrangements?
- With more learning being undertaken online, and often without supervision, how is the school ensuring that it keeps pupils safe from bullying, harassment, and online grooming? Is your school aware of the risks of extremism/radicalisation; how are you building awareness, and resilience, to this in your pupils?
- Are global citizenship activities still taught alongside the curriculum?
- How is a sense of community being fostered?
- Are international students at risk of isolation; if so, how are you making sure that this is not the case?
- How have you adapted your record-keeping of attendance, behaviour, and bullying? How are you monitoring behaviour, progress, and attainment of all pupils?
- Which groups of pupils are the highest and lowest performing? Why is this? The achievement gap is growing for the most disadvantaged pupils, do you have credible plans for addressing this? How will you know if current approaches are working and how will the impact of decisions and interventions be monitored?
- Is the school still encouraging a healthy, active lifestyle for its pupils and staff? There are many extra-curricular activities and sports which may not be practical to run at present, but can you share materials to encourage additional learning and engagement at home? Are you using your networks and partnerships with other schools and bodies to full advantage?
Staff welfare and resources
- Whether you are still teaching remotely or are back in the classroom, you can use these experiences to assess how you holistically teach soft skills and digital skills alongside the curriculum. Do you have staff who have been previously reluctant to embrace technology? Encourage them to see that they are helping to teach and shape the attitudes of a generation who will need digital skills as standard in their futures. Can you provide more support and training?
- Are you continuing to hold all staff, including leadership, accountable for their conduct and professionalism?
- Are teachers and support staff being used as effectively and efficiently as possible and in line with best practice and guidance?
- To what extent are staff reporting a positive culture? If they report dissatisfaction, are you taking steps to understand why this is so and change your approach if necessary?
- Are you continuously seeking feedback about work/life balance and understanding that this can change for individuals over time?
- Conversations with parents to alleviate concerns and to assess the impact on individual pupils are more important than ever. Do staff have time to do this?
- How are you reviewing workloads and ensuring tasks are completed to a high standard, whilst streamlining and dropping unnecessary activities?
Strong leadership and governance set the expectations and standards of a school. Quality assurance involves the systematic review of all areas of educational provision to maintain and improve its quality, equity, and efficiency – this is more important than ever in times of crisis. Schools must also look past the current pandemic to the future. The skills and capabilities which their pupils need for fulfilment and development, for further study and employment, and for social inclusion and engaged citizenship, must not be compromised by the challenges of the present.
I urge school leaders to ultimately concentrate on what matters – making decisions regarding safeguarding and outcomes in the interests of your pupils and their futures. Communicate effectively with staff, parents and caregivers, and your pupils about how you will achieve this (alongside explaining the limitations that you face) and ask for their help in trying to address any problems you encounter. At ASIC, we work on the premise that quality assurance is about people and attitudes. If, in your leadership, you take people along with you, nurturing collective responsibility and accountability, your school and its pupils will make it through this period of uncertainly stronger, quicker to adapt, and more resilient. Traits the world needs from its citizens more than ever.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maurice Dimmock is the Chairman of the Accreditation Service for International Schools, Colleges and Universities (ASIC) and the ASIC Group of Companies. He has 40+ years of experience of working in education, with this expertise grounded in working at all levels in the sector throughout his career. He has taught at schools, colleges, and universities as well as leading institutions as both Head of Sixth Form and College Principle, before becoming more involved in development and project management in his role as Director of International Development and as International Project Manager at universities in the UK and overseas. He has a diverse and comprehensive consultancy portfolio, having worked as a consultant for universities, governments, the World Bank, and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS World University Rankings.)