Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Building Capacity

This month I have been thinking about how we “build capacity”. For many years I’ve thought about making processes more efficient – refining them – “making the most of what you’ve got”, but now I’m contrasting that with the idea of ‘getting more’, i.e. building capacity.

Building Capacity v Refining Current Processes
The rigour brought about by Ofsted, SATs and the national curriculum over recent years has undoubtedly refined processes in all schools, some more than others, depending on the outcome of inspection. The pressure to ensure rigour is greater than ever – if standards are low and cannot be justified then the school will be placed into a category – inspections will become more frequent and if insufficient progress is made the school will close. In addition, the new SIPs (or School Improvement Partners as opposed to School Improvement Plan, just to confuse us with acronyms) are bringing about a LEA led inspection regime ensures the rigour is maintained on a half-termly cycle.

Schools have become very good at improving processes – Afl, ISP, ITS, PPMs, MSC, RAP are just some of the things I have been involved in over the last three years to improve the processes at my school and I’m sure that any colleagues reading this will identify some of the TLAs above, or have a whole list of their own. Children deserve the best out of their school and it is important for us to use all our resources as efficiently as we can to educate our children to the very best. However, I suspect that we have so focussed on using our current resources to the very best that we have neglected to look for new ones.

It is unfair to say that we have neglected to look for new resources – projects are always coming our way – little pots of funding for this and that – but what is the long term impact of them? And how do they tie in to what we’re already doing well? Is it possibly to use short term projects and funding to permanently alter the education we offer?

Pat Thompson on Day 1 of the creative partnership programme talked about the different ways school have approached change. She gave an example of a school that had so bought into the idea of long term change that they had forgotten to ensure their current processes were sharp enough and so Oftsed had failed them. On the other hand, a school that is only involved in short term improvement will never move beyond a certain point, because they are not changing the underlying fundamental perceptions of education held by their community.

The Big Education Ambition
And we are engaged in such an ambitious project…

In some ways, I am surprised the government has not made more of it. Education, education, education was Tony Blair’s message ten or more years ago, but I am only now understanding the magnitude of the task set before us.

Education until 18, for the majority of children. What a job.

Most adults in our country left school at 14. Only in the past 30 years have children been asked to stay to 16 and only in the last 10 has it been raised even higher. Years of history stand against us. We have an education system that was set up to give the basics to a majority and some more academic skills to a few; now we have begun to ask everyone to gain those higher academic skills. What an exciting task! And what a legacy we might leave…. What if we could change the culture of a nation?

The Halberd Returns

This is why I like the picture of the halberd I used last time – its axe blade representing the processes we need to keep sharp – to do the ‘best we can with what we’ve got’, whereas the pointy complicated bit on the back of the axe represents the underlying perceptions of education that we need a special tool for (more long term, more tricky to use).

Therefore, while it is vital to improve processes within the capacity of our schools, ‘building capacity’ does refer to that aspect of school improvement. It is something more long term, something bigger, something transformational.

What is Building Capacity?
So, if building capacity is not about improving processes, what is it? Pat Thompson talked about the first stage of change being getting ‘stuff’. What is that stuff? I think it is comprised of three things and all three depend on money:
1. People
2. Time
3. Technology

When the change school programme money lands in our school, we have several choices what to do with it, but they will involve all three of the above in some measure. Firstly there will be new people – the creative agent and the creative partner. Then there will be the time we spend in conversation and refection. And finally there will be some technology – whether we buy different shaped paint brushes, build a giant latex beehive or purchase dictaphones so the children can record their reflections upon seeing a work of art – we will buy something.

Using More Capacity

Teachers are the keystone.

Instantly then we have more capacity – we can do more. But the key to getting this capacity in place is the class teacher. This is the structure we have chosen to use at our school – a class of 30 children is taught by a teacher. The performance of that teacher (and therefore their pay) is judged by the performance of their children. One teacher only has so much capacity – there comes a point where you can’t throw any more projects at a teacher, because they just can’t organise any more and class teachers have to organise everything because then they can integrate their projects into the rest of the classroom practice for the benefit of the children. Children can be withdrawn for certain groups and projects, but this can become a drain on a class, because it alters the dynamics within a class.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that when you offer more capacity in different ways. If somebody had a stainless steel bucket of water you could offer them a glass of water and they would have more water. But that glass would never be part of that bucket.

Or, if you could give them the glass of water, but somehow (through bad communication, bad planning, or something) that glass got dropped into the bucket, then you would actually diminish the amount of water they had… (that’s when Archimedes principle bites you in the proverbials)
Or what if you just gave them some stainless steel. Then you gave them the skills to weld that steel onto the bucket. It’s a difficult job , but you would have a bigger bucket at the end of it – hence more capacity!

The conclusion I’m coming to here is that the planning phase of the change school programme is the most vital part. And for that planning phase to work we need to reflect honestly on how our organisation actually works. Where are the tight bits in the pipe work and the bits where the water just flows through easily? I think I might have just said that having a Reflection Phase even before the planning phase is even more important. Phase Zero we could call it.

This is Phase Zero.

I think as a postscript I’d like to remember that we may have bits of capacity that we currently have but don’t actually use… like the two parents are active members of local re-enactment societies, like the huge grounds we have, like the Weoley Castle just next door – the oldest place in Birmingham and no one from our school has even visited it…

Hmm. Food for thought. I will think on.

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