Future-proofing your school: do you need your own ‘Sigmoid moment’?

The Key

With current uncertainty over education policy after the general election, I was interested to hear what Teresa Tunnadine, headteacher of the Compton School in Barnet, would have to say to us at The Key in her talk on future proofing through school leadership.

To give some context, the Compton School has been graded as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted three times, and its results are in the top 1% of schools in the country for the amount of progress students make. Initially set up as a ‘Fresh Start’ school in 1992, The Compton serves a diverse community; it is situated on a large housing estate in north London, with just under 50% of pupils eligible for free school meals, and somewhere around 50 languages spoken by the pupils.

Teresa initially joined as a deputy headteacher when the school reopened, before becoming headteacher. Impressively, she’s now in her 16th year as headteacher.

She spoke a lot about the ‘Sigmoid Curve’ developed by Charles Handy, as adapted in the image below, and how the time when you’re approaching the top of your game is the time to start doing things differently – what she called a ‘Sigmoid moment’.

Sigmoid Curve

The ‘Sigmoid curve’

For Teresa, school improvement is partly about reinvention and knowing when to do something different and what the new development should be. “At The Compton we needed to reinvent ourselves as a newish school or risk becoming ordinary.” This got me thinking about some of the stories we hear about ‘coasting’ schools – perhaps they need their own ‘Sigmoid moments’?

What were some of Teresa’s Sigmoid moments then?

1. Improving teaching and learning

Teresa’s first Sigmoid moment came soon after she took over as headteacher. Although the school was already successful by this time, she decided what was needed was to focus on improving every element of teaching and learning to help raise standards further in the school. 22 lesson observations a week were introduced to provide feedback to teachers and help them refine their skills step by step. And across a decade or so each aspect of the lesson has been dissected and improved.

She said that by drilling down into the detail of teachers’ practice, and keeping to this focus on teaching and learning, the school has seen big gains in pupil progress (this year its value-added score was over 1,060).

This isn’t too surprising – after all, the Sutton Trust’s report on improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement suggests that good quality teaching is one of the most effective ways of improving outcomes for pupils, especially disadvantaged pupils. To quote Teresa, “Good teaching is what works for all pupils including those in receipt of pupil premium.” What struck me, though, was how long it takes to focus on improving teaching. And this focus needs to be continued – the job is never done.

2. School expansion

The next Sigmoid moment for the school was when Teresa with her senior leadership team decided to increase the size of the school, and through doing so obtained significant funding for expanding the buildings. At the same time, they decided to restructure the school day by staggering lunch breaks into five sessions. This helped the school to manage an increase in pupil numbers, ensuring calm breaks and lunchtimes, and therefore, calmer lessons afterwards.

3. Supporting other schools

Having already made such huge improvements to the Compton School, it somehow seems obvious the next step would be to broaden out to supporting other schools. Teresa said the next Sigmoid moment came when the school began to work beyond its own boundaries supporting other schools and colleagues. The “moral purpose” of helping other schools was and continues to be very compelling.

Having become one of the first 100 teaching schools nationally, Teresa explained that The Compton began running a wide range of teaching and learning and leadership programmes for London Schools, while at the same time working alongside some of the best schools in the country.

This had advantages for the Compton School too, in that they could “magpie” good ideas from other schools. These ideas then fed back into their own school improvement, as we’ll see below.

4. Reorganising the leadership team

Teresa’s idea for reorganising the leadership team came from another teaching school, Outwood Grange Academy in Yorkshire.

Inspired by its model, the school reorganised its leadership team into four teams, each with an associate headteacher leading it. She described this as “getting people in the best seats on the bus for them”, so that they could focus entirely on what they’re good at.

Similarly, by having a dedicated team for support and intervention, this team could focus on the daily and immediate problems that come up when you’re leading a large secondary school and the teaching and learning team could really focus on exactly that: improving teaching and learning, thereby improving outcomes for pupils.

5. Succession planning

Another Sigmoid moment Teresa talked about was when the senior leadership team with governors started thinking about succession planning. With three senior leaders due to retire within several months of each other, they knew they had to think about ‘future proofing’ the leadership succession “so that the school isn’t thrown into turmoil which can happen with a change of head”. We’ve all heard about the projected recruitment crisis for headteachers, and the Compton School’s solution is to grow its own leaders and to ease its most experienced leaders out more gently over a period of several years. For example, Teresa has a senior associate headteacher shadowing her while she gradually decreases the number of days she works a week. Other members of the team due to retire in the next few years have a similar arrangement.

I wondered if this could work for other schools – having a gradual transition allows someone to gain experience of headship before potentially moving on to headship herself, and surely must make the prospect of headship less daunting.

Similarly, Teresa makes sure middle leaders have the opportunity for career development in the school, so they can potentially move up to senior leadership roles when the time is right.

Answering the question, ‘Has the school future proofed?’, Teresa said, “The proof will be in eating the pudding”. Whatever happens to the school next, I am sure its Sigmoid moments continue to ensure the school reinvents itself as and when it needs to, thereby ensuring its future success.

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