Originally from Wales, UK, Jeff Evans brings to the table 26 years of teaching and professional leadership experience in the international education sector across Europe, the Far East, and the United Arab Emirates. Having massive experience working in collaboration with a diverse range of stakeholders such as school owners, investors, regulatory bodies, local government agencies, inspection teams, parent and student councils, and, of course, principals and school leadership teams, he has his finger in every pie. For instance, he has direct involvement with many aspects of school licensing, policy and regulations, assessment and evaluation, business development and the UAE federal school inspection framework.
- Teachers and capacity to improve
Teaching quality is the single most important aspect of educational provision in any school. An astute leader will maximise the consistency of better-quality teaching using quality assurance strategies and mechanisms to share best practice. One less publicised discussion is related to teacher professionalism, quality and capacity. Every school has three groups or categories of teachers.
- The better and more motivated teachers are those who should lead subjects and share their practice and ideas across and within teaching teams. Ideally, you want to promote and retain the top 10% of teachers. A middle leader, head of subject or year/grade coordinator should be one of the better teachers in your school.
- The second or middle group will be formed of teachers who may not be as accomplished in the classroom, however, have the motivation and interest to improve their teaching and learn from colleagues. Any school who successfully coaches, mentors and supports teacher development will become more consistent in delivering good or better learning experiences. If a teacher works on targets and manages to improve aspects of their pedagogy or organisation, everyone is happy. For some teachers who are not ticking the majority of desirable outcomes in lessons, this approach can yield results over time. The pace of development is an important factor. We need to see fairly quick and consistent improvement.
- The challenge is the third group of underperforming teachers. Hopefully, this is a small minority of colleagues. Support, guidance and regular achievable targets should help each teacher meet expected levels (say of effective questioning or differentiating instructions to cater to the needs of different groups). As an educational consultant working to improve schools, I have a duty to explore this area with principals and headteachers. Some challenging and difficult conversations may be needed, as there is an even smaller group of teachers in many schools who will not manage to make required improvements (or will do so at a pace which is too slow). Each year when contracts are to be renewed, a school as an organisation must take decisions which are in the best interests of learners. At times, this could mean deciding not to renew a teacher contract. If a teacher is either incapable or not really motivated or interested in improvement, then they need to move elsewhere, the sooner the better. Although unpleasant, often removing the weakest teachers and hiring professionals with better classroom practice can rapidly improve the quality and consistency of teaching across a school.
- Keeping all stakeholders happy – who wants what?
A private school is both a centre of education and business. The delicate balance between these priorities and viewpoints is always important, and successful governing boards and investors recognise that offering good value for money and the best possible quality of education will ensure a school is popular or over-subscribed. Maximising enrolment, especially in higher grades or exam classes, is desirable. If you have the pleasure to serve as a teacher or leader in a “well-balanced” private school, you should be part of a rewarding and positive work environment. On the contrary, some schools run with purely profit and maximum return on investment in mind. Any opportunity to make money is not missed. These institutions can be soul-destroying for teachers or leaders and offer poor value for money for parents. I once worked with a “white elephant” school with a big flashy campus on the outside and sadly too much weak teaching and leadership inside the walls. Although the place looked very good on the outside, when deciding on priority areas in which to invest, the company had not chosen wisely.
- Quality of leadership (at all levels) is a “game-changer”
A strong head or principal can work wonders, but not on their own. Some school owners or investors fail to understand or appreciate this fact. In a larger school, the most senior leader sets strategic direction while heads of phase or departments manage and run the operational, academic and pastoral aspects smoothly. Highly effective schools have strong leaders at all levels who have a shared vision, and all understand what is meant by “best practice”. In the unfortunate scenario where you have weak links, a poor department head, for example – this colleague will act as a weight or anchor and can drastically limit the performance of their team. If a school does have one or middle leaders who are in place for the wrong reason (often length of service or friendship with a previous head) then this can be a major issue. Your leaders need to be the best at what they do, so if they are not then replacement is the best option. Exactly the same applies to leaders as teachers, so a school should strive to attract, develop and retain the best quality of staff to lead teaching, learning and logistics/administrative areas.
- Resources and Facilities (focus on the basics first)
Of course, these are both important and should support learning effectively. Higher fee schools will or should have well-equipped specialist classrooms, spacious indoor and outdoor sports areas and enough technology and internet access to facilitate online research. Low fee or affordable schools should have the basics to enable student collaboration (such as mini whiteboards and desks/chairs arranged to support discussion and group work). Effective learning spaces and centres for KG or early years are vital. Recycled and teacher/school made resources and games can provide a low-cost alternative to commercially sourced options. Many schools spend a fortune on interactive whiteboards or smart boards, and these can be helpful but are expensive. Do not waste money on smartboards unless most of your teachers will use them regularly and to full effect. At best, invest in some portable ones to share among subjects, grades or year groups. Huge sums often hurled into IT can be better off spent elsewhere.
- Keeping the peace vs. rocking the boat
Which group of stakeholders are the most important in any school? As senior leaders, we must drive change and improvement, yet somehow keep everyone happy and onboard the ship. Change can be turbulent and sometimes difficult to sell to the community of teachers, parents or students. If a school has a major change to implement, some element of consultation and “buy in” is desirable. Surveys before and after, parent committee discussions (with a small and positive group ideally, not the professional moaners) and regular clear communication is helpful to smooth the waves.