MAT Development: 7 pillars of improvement at scale: No. 5, Process

Before reading this section, please refer to MAT Development: 7 Pillars of Improvement at Scale; 1 – 4


  1. Processes underpinning scalable improvement models


“We are expected to act with swiftness and consistency, even when the task requires marshaling hundreds of people – from laboratory technicians to the nurses on each change of shift to the engineers who keep the oxygen supply system working.”


So says Atul Gwande in the introduction to his book ‘Better’, which considers how clear and well understood processes and procedures can create the right behaviours and habits; enabling hundreds, thousands, or indeed, millions, of human beings to do things, well…. better at scale. Good processes and routines can make effective practice, including the process of school improvement, an organisational habit. But it’s hard work and few leaders are yet succeeding at this at scale…

Scalable school improvement models depend on consistent processes that enable the swift and informed marshaling and mobilization of resource described by Gwande. Few academy trusts are at such a stage where they can truly say this is a reality – yet. This is partly because it requires renewed thinking from former executive headteachers who are still making the transition to CEO – a shift from a dependency on (often their own) talent, individual expertise and relationships – important as these things will remain; to bringing improvement under an overarching umbrella defined by organisational knowledge, protocols and systems that enable improvement to become part of the fabric of the organisation.

Leaders of small organisations (and trusts) are able to lean on personal and proximate relationships to set expectations and guarantee ongoing behaviours and communications that drive improvement. These leaders can – to an extent – drive the process: personally challenging the data, undertaking the co-ordination and planning of improvement, modelling the behaviours, and providing the quality assurance as they go. In larger organisations, that simply isn’t possible. It is the quality of the improvement process – reinforced by the other six pillars of improvement at scale – that will ultimately determine the success of the improvement model. For so many leaders – as we have too often seen, this is a step change (and a personal step away from the frontline) that they struggle to achieve. It’s not about leaders delivering improvement, it’s about them enabling it.

Improvement at scale requires a model where people at all levels and across a wide number of sites have a clear and shared understanding about the improvement model they are operating within, are confident in their own role in contributing to the improvement process when required, and know how to act accordingly when the process ‘kicks in’. Both swiftness and consistency in behaviour is imperative if we are to ensure that the intelligence we are acquiring in ‘real time’ (see pillar 4) is acted upon in a way that then contributes to timely and well-considered improvement initiatives. That requires improvement to be the habit of many, not the few.


Confronting the brutal facts – the learning mindset

It is important at this juncture – as we look at systems and processes – to  consider the influence these can have on culture and mindset. What mindset does an effective improvement process encourage?

In his book ‘Black Box thinking’, Matthew Syed talks about the aviation industry as a ‘growth mindset’ industry: “they hire talented people but they’ve realised that talent is not enough. They have to learn, they have to engage with the data, with the opportunities that can drive them towards a better safety record.” In aviation, when a near miss takes place clear standard operating procedures fall into place. “Both pilots voluntary submit a report and the totality of these reports is statistically analysed to understand the weakness that lead to these accidents and to make the relevant reforms.” Concerning (and indeed positive) data and intelligence is not simply taken at face value but is instead subjected to the significant scrutiny and interrogation of a wide range of experts, who then prescribe a suitable way forward. This is the important transition from pillar four into pillar five.

For scalable school improvement this means ensuring that follow up diagnosis becomes a standard operating procedure (SOP) where our robust and real-time intelligence demands it. Such a SOP should ensure the right people are immediately deployed to review the issue in greater depth rather than making assumptions that may lead to the wrong course of action. Those reviewing the data should immediately be able to show that the risk has not only been identified but that its causes are – as a result – being carefully understood and that an evidence-based course of action is being prescribed. We would also add that a system should be in place for enabling the findings to be diseminated to other leaders and practitioners across the MAT, ensuring that others can learn the lessons and prevent further issues elsewhere.

So, what has driven improvement in aviation safety to the point of record levels in 2017? According to Syed, it is this:

“Decades of institutionalised learning – driven by a responsibility to learn in a complex world, a recognition that talent isn’t enough, has driven an incredible safety record. At the beginning of the last century aviation was the riskiest form of transportation – but in 2014, for the major airlines, there was one crash for every 8.3 million takeoffs”

The message here is that relying on talent is not enough. What is also needed a culture (underpinned by a process) that makes it a non-negotiable to confront the brutal facts – the concerning intelligence as it arises – quickly. Processes can ensure that we are identifying risks and engaging numerous professionals in providing their perspectives in securing a diagnosis of the issues that lie behind the data (good or bad). Indeed, successful organisations will not only seek to provide an accurate diagnosis of risks and challenges, but also of success. As Sir Michael Barber says:

“If the data comes in fast enough for the system to be able to respond in time, and if those using the data have the right ‘can do’ mindset, then problems can be solved before they become crises or outright failures.”

Sir Michael Barber, Instruction to Deliver (2007)

Peer review within MATs can be an excellent way of providing that initial diagnosis of the issues behind concerning intelligence. Many MATs are now building the peer review process within the front-end of their school improvement processes, ensuring that the focus of review is driven by what the intelligence is telling them is an area of concern. In any case, MATs should be able to deploy people with the skills and experience to provide the necessary depth and rigor of diagnosis. The process of diagnosis itself should be clear and evidence based. (There is a growing body of evidence around what effective peer review looks like as reflected in our 5 C’s here: MAT Peer Review (designed and facilitated by Forum Education)  )

Some key questions:

  • Does your MAT put sufficient onus on diagnosing the issues and practices that lie behind concerning or positive data? Are there standard operating procedures in place to reinforce a commitment to undertaking sufficiently detailed diagnosis?
  • Are you dependent on one or a small group of leaders to engage in diagnosis, or are you able to consult multiple professional opinions and encourage sufficient challenge – potentially through peer review?
  • Are your heads, SLEs and other expert practitioners sufficiently trained in diagnosis and review in order to provide the capacity and skills for diagnosis at scale?
  • Do you have standard operating procedures for sharing the outcomes of a diagnosis to ensure other schools, leaders and practitioners can learn from mistakes made or excellent practice in other schools?

N.B. Diagnosis is not simply what is done before a school joins a trust. It should be an in-built aspect of the improvement process, reinforced by the necessary skills and capacity to deliver it whenever the intelligence pillar demands it. 

The delivery of improvement

The process for all improvement activity must then ensure that diagnosis translates into a plan of action. In his book, Instruction to Deliver, the former head of the Prime Minister’s delivery unit, Sir Michael Barber, discusses some of the crucial elements to delivering improvement, including the following four:

  • Setting Goals;
  • Plans
  • The delivery chain
  • Stocktakes

Goal setting is crucial. It ensures that there is a clear focus and success criteria for improvement activity and it remains sufficiently ambitious. This is where the influence of vision (pillar 1) is so important.

Goal setting must be carefully informed by a number of factors, not least the diagnosis, but also by benchmarking with other schools within the trust and through dialogue with all those who are likely to be involved in improvement activity. Indeed, it must involve all parties, those providing leadership, those providing school improvement delivery, those providing quality assurance, and, of course, the school’s headteacher and local governing body.

Too many goals can be dangerous. Trying to change too much at the same time can lead to a lack of focus, to leaders and practitioners being overwhelmed, and to an ability to pinpoint what may be driving improvement or continued failures. So goals, as well as being SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-limited) and ambitious, should also be tight and focused.

Goals should also, where possible, be publicly stated – at least amongst staff within the trust, to encourage a sense of shared understanding, commitment, accountability, and transparency around the improvement process.

Key questions:

Does your school improvement process encourage and expect leaders to clearly articulate the desired outcomes and when they will be achieved by? Is this expectation built into the process from the outset? And, of course, are those goals SMART enough for those holding school improvement to account and to be able to judge its success or otherwise?

The plan itself is the key driver of delivery activity. Again, it should be clear, with specific details in terms of a timeframe of actions and reference to who is responsible for which aspect of delivery (with reference to costings and interdependencies). It should also have detailed SMART objectives that clearly link to the overarching goals so that the school improvement work can be readily reviewed for impact through the stocktakes and quality assured.

In Instruction to Deliver, Sir Michael Barber explains how the expectation that government departments would have plans to drive particular aspects of improvement was, at the time (early 2000s), so revolutionary, yet also so fundamental to improvement initiatives carrying momentum: “There was nothing original about what we wanted. We were simply asking for standard practice in the management of programmes and projects, a discipline that emerged from engineering in the twentieth century and became second nature across most of business. Applying programme and project management does not guarantee success, but it does ensure, if applied rigorously, that crucial details will not be missed, and emerging problems will be identified earlier.”

Barber judged the improvement planning of each government department by asking the following questions?

  • Did they have a credible plan?
  • Did they have arrangements for overseeing the implementation of their plan?
  • Would they know soon enough if insufficient progress was being made or if something was going horribly wrong?

So how are trusts building standard programme and project management practice into the processes that underpin their school improvement models? One of the most impressive we have come across is that of The Flying High Trust and it is encouraging to see some other trusts adopting similar models. Flying High ensure that their school improvement delivery is driven by a document called the The Individual School Action Plan, which sets out the level and nature of school improvement that each school requires (informed by a wide range of data and intelligence), and provides a clear overview of who is involved and responsible for achieving improvement and by when.  The action plans evolve in response to the information gathered through regular quality assurance visits and other data/intelligence, and are the key documents ensuring that everyone involved is clear about a school’s improvement priorities and plans. A copy of the ISAP proforma can be accessed here: FH ISAP Template.  The school’s headteacher, Director of QA, and the Director of the Teaching School Alliance are all involved in writing and agreeing the ISAP (together with setting key targets and agreeing costings of school improvement).

Key questions:

Does your trust provide clear planning documentation that clearly sets out the timeframe of actions? Does the plan set out (and attribute responsibility for managing) the costings, any key interdependencies that need to be considered, and SMART targets encapsulating the desired outcomes for each stage of the improvement process?

It must be noted here that the Delivery chain is an important aspect in setting out the plan as it encourages leaders of school improvement to consider all those potential influencers on the improvement process and how they can seek to ensure that each has the necessary capacity, expertise, support and/or information to help secure improvement.

From the improvement delivery perspective, this clearly involves engaging appropriate school improvement specialists from across the trust’s schools (and potentially beyond) and ensuring that they understand the goals and the plan and are well supported to deliver and to collaborate with other colleagues and stakeholders involved. An important thing to consider here is talent auditing – understanding where expertise sits within the trust and ensuring that data is up to date. This data should sit in a database so that trust leaders can rapidly identify those individuals who can bring about improvement. (Pillars 6 and 7 considers the important of training, research and quality assurance of experts providing school improvement – which is also a key consideration here).

However, beyond the identification and deployment of experts, the plan should consider all those levers – hard and soft – that can be maximised to increase, as far as possible, the chances of the improvement initiative being a success. This can involve considering any need for training of staff, investment or engagement in research, for additional resources, informing the focus of performance management objectives, and, indeed, seconding staff or engaging external consultancy where appropriate. Of course, missing one element may be enough to overlook a key driver of improvement.

Key questions:

Does the process ensure that the key influencers and appropriate deliverers of improvement  are rapidly engaged, identified and deployed? Does the trust have processes to support this – such as a steering group for specific improvement initiatives?

Is the entire delivery chain reviewed and engaged where appropriate – such as through the ability of school improvement leaders to commission trust-wide investment in research and development (particularly where it’s a common improvement issues), determine CPD, inform performance management, and invest in additional resources?

Of course, throughout the improvement process, real time, robust and triangulated intelligence must be continually sought (see detail with reference to pillar 4 – intelligence). Barber describes the use of real time data as being crucial to maintaining sufficient momentum and challenge – highlighting the work of celebrated Police Chief Bill Bratton who dramatically reduced crime in New York through challenging and informing the learning of his precinct commanders through weekly data from precincts across the city. Indeed, the ongoing reference to robust, real time data is key to the use of stocktakes throughout the process.

We will cover Stocktakes in more detail under quality assurance (pillar 7 later), but they are a key element of the improvement process and should be a routine and non-negoitable operating procedure. This is because they ensure that momentum and accountability is maintained throughout the improvement process, and that key barriers and risks can be identified in a timely manner. Again, this is something many trusts are now developing as part of individual school improvement plans, ensuring trust boards and senior leaders are regularly and routinely monitoring specific improvement priorities throughout the year, rather than waiting until the end of the process to judge its success.

Indeed, the quality assurance visits and regular submission of ISAP form ensures that the Directors of QA at the Flying High Trust are able to determine the next steps to enable all schools to be able to move to the next level. Those next steps can involve bespoke school improvement and CPD  provided by Heads + 1, the teaching school, and other trust experts such as SLEs and Lead Practitioners. The documents are also used by the Flying High Trust’s Pupil, School and Strategic Party to analyse each school’s progress and to hold leaders (including Directors of QA and the CEO) to account. Headline information on the progress of each cluster and key schools is also shared at the termly meetings of the trust’s Directors.


Articulated to all

So, goal setting, planning, engaging the whole delivery chain, and stocktaking is key to a robust process within a scalabale and improvement model.

There is one final point to add around process. The school improvement model should be clearly articulated to all. A school improvement model that is too complicated or inaccessible is going to lead to disengagement. People need to know where they fit in to the process. They also need to know how others fit in to facilitate the sharing of information and to encourage a culture of support and collective commitment. This can be achieved in the obvious ways, through clear illustrations of the model and through informative induction for all school leaders and key staff. However, more engagingly, the use of case studies and showcasing of improvement practice can also help to raise awareness and bring to life the MATs improvement so that staff can both relate to it and also embrace it (rather than be fearful of it!). An excellent example of how a group of schools has showcased its approach to area-wide improvement is the Kyra TSA, through its case studies of school improvement practice:

The final two pillars of school improvement at scale, school improvement knowledge and innovation, and quality assurance, will be covered shortly.

You can read more about Forum Education’s support for multi-academy trusts at: MAT development resources


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