Marginal gains & school improvement: Big changes in small steps

Written by: Matt Tiplin | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Schools don’t need a big-bang approach to change or improvement, writes Matt Tiplin. It is far better to focus on small, realistic and sustainable improvements in teaching and learning…

Have you noticed the problem with new year’s resolutions is that we think too big?

We promise to transform ourselves with ambitious aims to eat a healthy diet, get fit, or completely reorganise our lives and then wonder why our resolutions start to flounder before January is out.

Instead, it would be better to cut out one sugary snack a day, do an extra yoga stretch, or sort and discard our paperwork once a week. These are the small but winnable goals which lead to sustainable improvement.

It is the same for schools. When it comes to improving teaching quality, it is all about doing a bit less – but a bit more often – rather than trying to solve everything in one go.

As Confucius said: “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” It is a principle which rings true when there are long-term challenges to address.

School and trust leaders are under constant pressure to drive positive change, so understandably they seek a solution by thinking big – launching a whole-school specialist training programme perhaps or on-boarding a new phonics scheme.

But these initiatives often turn out to be unsustainable, expensive and time-consuming.

So much more can be achieved by focusing on small, manageable improvements which schools know they can sustain. That is the key to lasting change.

This little-by little approach, known as marginal gains, allows teachers to keep developing as professionals day-in, day-out.

Good CPD keeps talented teachers in the classroom

Schools are recognising that professional development needs to focus more on helping teachers boost their own individual practice in more measured, attainable steps.

This might mean moving away from the traditional five INSET days a year where a sage on the stage sets the scene for the next term’s CPD. Instead of announcing that all teachers need training in how to incorporate numeracy into every lesson, a more effective approach could involve smaller, more frequent sessions. This could give teachers the opportunity to share best practice based on the genuine, lived experience they had last week in their year 5 maths session.

This seems to me a far better way to strengthen the link between professional development content and practical application in classes. Teachers can take on learning in manageable chunks and apply that learning gradually in a way that suits their pupils, rather than making big changes to their teaching all in one go.

If you apply marginal gains to CPD by putting the teacher at the centre of their development and allowing them to go at a pace that suits them, they will identify ways to improve their own teaching.

Less pressure means more progress

Another traditional feature of school CPD which can put teachers under pressure to make big and rapid changes to their teaching practice is the lesson observation.

All too often, a teacher finds themselves trying to tick all the boxes in a lesson which is being observed in order to meet a one-size-fits all evaluation of what a “good” or “outstanding” lesson looks like. In doing so, a great teacher loses their authentic voice.

When lesson observations don’t go well, what should be a positive and supportive aspect of CPD becomes a cause of stress, everyone in the classroom feels uncomfortable, and nobody learns anything.

However, if teachers have the opportunity to self-reflect, either by considering whether a number game worked well for a particular group of pupils, or by reviewing a video recording of a warm-up session in the lesson, they can see where they can take small but specific steps to improve their practice.

Step-by-step progress

Of course, there are times when there’s a greater need for rapid school improvement – when a school is downgraded following an Ofsted inspection, for example, or when a school in difficulties joins a multi-academy trust.

In these situations, school staff may feel there are mountains to climb and setting the goals too high will make people feel even more daunted by the challenges which lie ahead, particularly when time is tight and the next inspection looming. There can often be a mismatch between expectations and what is realistically deliverable within a given timeframe.

Another unintended consequence of rushing through big changes is that teaching staff may not feel they are part of the thinking behind the changes and could respond with frustration, cynicism, or apathy.

If there is not enough explanation behind new initiatives, staff may not even recognise the need for change and their role in making it happen.

That’s why it is important that teachers buy-in to positive change.

By focusing on marginal gains, schools can support staff, so they are fully engaged in the school’s improvement journey without feeling besieged by the extent of the work required.

Small steps over time lead to big changes down the road and if school leaders set realistic objectives these will ultimately lead to significant improvements.

Sometimes less is more

When exploring options for improvement and managing change, school leaders have a wealth of data to inform their decisions. There’s more data available to schools than ever before, ranging from pupil information and SATs results through to MIS data and evidence-based research.

All this data is useful, but there is a tendency to over-complicate teaching and learning if you try to make use of all this information simultaneously. And that’s when changes start to become too ambitious.

One of the pitfalls of data overload is that the link between the information and what’s happening in the classroom starts to weaken. A CPD initiative based on a previous cohort might not be quite so effective for the current challenges. Perhaps there were gaps in maths for last year’s year 5, but this year’s children have dips in writing.

Fortunately, most brilliant primary school teachers tend know their pupils very well. They naturally take a child-centred approach, and they teach their pupils in a way that’s tailored to the children’s needs.

Positive change can come from focusing on those small, incremental improvements which really matter on a day-to-day basis in the classroom. What led to that lightbulb moment which sparked an interest in adventure stories for the quietest child in the class? When teachers share these experiences with each other, that’s when real progress happens.

A positive environment shapes great teaching

Teachers do best when they are able to focus on those small but important improvements through guided self-reflection rather than a rigid CPD framework built on a well-intended attempt to drive change on a grand scale.

Schools which adopt the marginal gains approach will achieve lasting change and in doing so they create a culture where teachers are trusted to teach according to their individual flair and enthusiasms, but within a structure which supports them along the way.

When teachers see the progress they make by taking small, purposeful steps towards agreed aims, they will feel valued as professionals – and that’s when they can truly move mountains.

  • Matt Tiplin has been a senior leader in a MAT and an Ofsted inspector. He is vice-president of ONVU Learning. Visit

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