Targeting school improvement

An external audit can help principals and school leaders zero in from the big picture and focus on areas for future development.

In 2010, Coralee Pratt was appointed principal of one of the largest government primary schools in Queensland – Helensvale State School, on the Gold Coast.

In her first year the school underwent an external Teaching and Learning Audit, carried out by the state department of education. The audit framework was based on international research and developed by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

It covered eight interrelated domains: an explicit improvement agenda; analysis and discussion of data; a culture that promotes learning; targeted use of school resources; an expert teaching team; systematic curriculum delivery; differential classroom learning; and, effective teaching practice.

Two external principals, from other regions, spent three days at the school to look at its teaching and learning practices in relation to each domain. Their visit included interviews with staff.

‘Before the external auditors came in I had the whole staff self-assess, because I knew it wasn't going to be good and I didn't want them to feel bad about it, so we did a self-assessment,' Pratt says. ‘As a staff team, the overall rating was quite low in all the domains, so when the external auditors provided the same report it wasn't a big surprise or shock.'

Coralee Pratt.

Coralee Pratt says there's often untapped talent in schools. Her task was to identify that staff expertise and make the best use of it.

Pratt describes the audit as a ‘real enabler' and a vehicle that helped her to drive the school improvement process. ‘[When I arrived] it was just one of those coasting schools, it was coasting along,' she recalls. [After the audit] we had an idea of what we were aiming for … we had the success criteria, like you do in the classroom.'

In 2012, a ninth domain (school-community partnerships) was added to the audit framework. It was renamed the National School Improvement Tool and endorsed by federal, state and territory education ministers.

The external audit recognises that, in each domain, schools are at different stages in a developmental continuum, providing them with a road map for improvement. ‘As a school you decide on your journey from there,' Pratt says.

‘We used the tool domains and the performance levels as our framework for our Strategic Plan, and the key improvement strategies in the classroom, what they looked like. So, we were aiming for consistency across the school.'

Pratt and her team set about looking at research around school improvement and decided to focus on differentiated teaching and learning, supported by formative assessment. ‘We liked the work of Dylan Wiliam in that area, and so we developed a very strong culture of using data.

‘[Prior to that] there was very little testing or assessment done, apart from NAPLAN, and there was no consistent whole-school use, so we started with [reading and maths assessments].' Staff then created a data wall – something Pratt singles out as a ‘turning point' for the school.

‘We had 1140 students and a big wall with every child's name and face on that wall under their particular levels, so teachers, at a glance, could see within their classroom that they probably had five or six levels.

‘The message was “You can no longer teach to the middle, teach to the whole class - you have to differentiate”. It was a very visual way [for teachers to see where students were].'

Another important step was the building of professional learning communities. ‘Because, I knew if we didn't do that nothing would be sustainable. So, we looked at the work of [Richard] DuFour, that was really important … Michael Fullan too, guiding us.'

The aim was to encourage teachers to teach at the student's level of need. ‘From my perspective, that meant building the teachers' capacity to do that. It's okay to talk about it, but you really have to invest in them, identify what resources you need external to the school, locally and then in the broader educational community, then also finding the expertise that resides within your own school.'

Pratt says there's often untapped talent in schools. Her task was to identify that staff expertise and make the best use of it. ‘The following year was a whole new [staff] structure ... so we could use those people with those strengths better (in roles outside their classroom), and we did that.

‘I always say school improvement doesn't have to cost a lot of money, it's just about the way that you can address it strategically. Creating a data culture, understanding where the children's point of need is and how to get them there by building the teachers' capacity to do so - and we did that also by creating another level of leadership within the school.'

The principal invested in learning leaders - a middle leadership level bridging the gap between vice principals and teachers. Pratt admits there were a few ‘speed bumps' along the way. Having never been told in such an explicit way that there was need for improvement, some of the staff felt uncomfortable.

‘'I've always been part of a culture where improvement is just accepted and expected - high expectation of yourself, your colleagues and students. That was missing, it was a very teacher-centric school, so we were trying to change that culture to a student-centred culture.

‘I like to use analogies with the medical profession - you go to the doctor, they diagnose you, you get testing done, and then they talk about treatment. Well, we should be doing the same thing in learning issues, and in everyday growth. Every child has to have learning goals.'

The changes built into the three year Strategic Plan had an immediate impact. In 2013, Pratt proudly shares that Helensvale was identified as the most improved government school in Queensland for NAPLAN Years 3, 5 and 7.

However, she cautions against relying on one piece of evidence, preferring instead to see it as just one piece of the puzzle that creates a bigger picture. After three years in Queensland, Pratt moved back to Victoria, where she is now Principal of Camberwell South Primary School and using the National School Improvement Tool.

As a classroom teacher, do you know where individual students are in their learning?

As a school leader, is the staff expertise in your school being fully utilised?