No Silver Bullets: Day-in, day-out school improvement

Written by: Paul K Ainsworth | Published:
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School improvement is not about silver bullets. Rather it is about making small incremental gains day-in, day-out. A new book is offering 89 such gains to help focus the mind. Author Paul K Ainsworth dissects four of them here…

There are no secrets to school improvement, there are no silver bullets and no magic answers. Unfortunately, it is far less glamorous. It is a matter of looking at all the systems in your school, asking how we can make them better and then applying continual effort to improve them.

What are silver bullets?

We have all worked in schools where the leaders have felt under pressure to find the next big idea which will transform the school.

Some colleagues smile wryly at the thought of one of their senior leaders attending a course, presentation or reading a book and returning to school confident that they have found the education elixir which has all the answers.

Depending on how long you have been in education you may be able to think of such ideas. It could be a certain rewards scheme which will transform behaviour. It may be a certain phonics programme which would help “outcomes” to rocket. It might be a maths scheme which would not just improve maths, but will transform teaching and learning across the school.

These are what I call “silver bullets”. I can certainly remember being sucked into this style of thinking and looking at those schools graded as Ofsted outstanding, or the schools with incredible outcomes, or the multi-academy trusts (MATs) that are feted nationally, and believing they would have all the answers.

There is no doubt that such strategies have had a positive impact on some schools, but they are not the magic answer for all schools. It could be argued that the same group of staff could see the same positive impact with a different strategy if they threw themselves into it with an identical passion.

Day-in, day out

Over the last six years, I have worked across four MATs and have been charged with supporting heads to improve their schools. This has helped develop my thinking about the “no silver bullets” approach and how effective school improvement is something that is actually done day-in, day-out.

This approach has been seen across a range of professions and industries. Mike Hughes wrote about “tweak to transform”. Clive Woodward, the England Rugby World Cup-winning coach, memorably talked about finding 100 things and doing them one per cent better. David Brailsford, the British cycling supremo, described it as the aggregation of marginal gains.

When I work in primary schools, now for the Infinity Academies Trust, I have a range of tweaks and actions which I suggest to school leaders which over time will develop teaching and learning, raise external outcomes, improve behaviour and ensure high attendance.

They are not silver bullets, instead they will create marginal gains which, when enacted day-in, day-out, can transform schools.

This way of working can reduce stress upon teaching staff and leaders. The “tweaks” are considered carefully to ensure no-one suffers from overload. Those experienced in school improvement will think carefully about the order in which such improvements are made so that colleagues develop their skills at the appropriate pace and no-one is left behind.

So I would like to share some brief summaries of four of the 89 actions from my book. Each on their own is certainly not ground-breaking, but if leaders choose from the list carefully, apply themselves to a small number, and make them work before moving on, they will have the power to transform in a sustainable way.

The actions

Section 1: Developing quality first teaching
Action 7: Book is King!

Pupil books present the story of school effectiveness. One of the most effective ways I have seen for raising the profile of high-quality learning is the idea that “book is king”. The best outcomes of a student’s learning are what is in their books. If you wish to see progress you should be able to turn the pages and see how the pupil’s work improves.

This is not about marking, with teachers spending hours on books. In fact, with effective verbal feedback, individual or conferencing, progress will be seen. One of the unimagined consequences has been the skill which teachers have developed, especially at key stage 2, to use conferencing to give feedback and help children progress.

There needs to be an attitude in the school that there are no excuses and everybody has to show care in the books. When it is not shown, this needs to be addressed.

Coupled with this will be simple expectations about how books will be presented which is agreed and used across the school. Some schools implement their own system of “cold” and “hot” tasks which capture the steps that children are making in their learning.

Section 2: Raising External Outcomes
Action 38: Address weaknesses at the start of the school day

In most primary schools there will be a key area of children’s learning that is being worked upon across the school. It could be an issue that has been highlighted as an area for improvement by Ofsted, it could have been highlighted in a school review, it could be seen in a dip in the data, or in current times it could be something seen as the children have returned from lockdown.

In such a situation, address this as a whole school issue, something that every teacher and teaching assistant is working upon. The school could decide to practise it at the beginning of each and every school day.

It could be the “Start of the day activity” (SODA) for when the children are arriving in school prior to the register being taken, or it could be the first task that the children are completing after the register.

If maths is low, the teachers could agree that in every morning registration all children will complete five maths questions. For many schools post-lockdown, handwriting is a concern so as a SODA activity every class in the school could complete an age-appropriate task to support this.

Of course, it does not have to be at the start of the day, it could also be an activity during afternoon registration. The real power is that it is an issue which is being addressed by the whole school at the same time. It’s always best to solve problems together.

Section 3: Improving Behaviour
Action 57: Are there rewards or treats for the always-good?

Often the biggest group of children in school are those who are always compliant. Within this group there are often two sets of pupils. There are those who gain good marks and consistently produce high-quality work and those pupils who may not always shine in the quality of class work.

The danger is that these children can be forgotten and not rewarded. The children who are trying really hard are sometimes not rewarded because the teacher begins to always expect high standards from them and as a result can forget the effort and time that has gone into those pieces of work and homework.

Look for methods of rewarding pupils for their basic adherence to the school rules. Some primary schools have “always” wristbands or badges that are given to pupils at the start of the half-term, which they keep while they are always following the school expectations.

In other schools, children who have not received any behaviour points or incident entries over the half-term receive a certificate or postcard home to show that they have followed the expectations over the half-term.

For those pupils who are really giving of their best, leaders need to encourage teachers to ensure that they are still praised and told how hard they are working. It is vital to ensure the reward is valued by the children.

Section 4: Ensuring High Attendance
Action 75: Which strategies work with which children?

When we are teaching our classes, we are aware of which intervention strategies have the most impact upon which children. There are some children who require a second explanation, some children where pre-teaching makes the difference, and other children who respond positively to interventions outside of the school day.

The same is true when we are trying to improve behaviour, we know which tactics will improve a child’s behaviour and which will have the opposite effect. At a very basic level we know which child will heed warnings and which children will alter their behaviour as a result of a sanction. We also know which children will actually behave worse as a result of different interventions.

The same intelligence needs to be gathered as to which attendance strategies will have the biggest impact for individual children. So, when you use an attendance intervention such as rewards, phone calls, letters, home visits and so on with a family, consider the impact that it has.

Try not to use multiple attendance strategies at the same time so that you can identify which has made the difference. Use this information to help your actions for different children and families.

  • Paul K Ainsworth has held director of school improvement roles in four multi-academy trusts and currently works with Infinity Academies Trust in Lincolnshire and The Blessed Peter Snow CAT in West Yorkshire. He has supported leaders of small rural primary schools to large urban ones, working intensively with those in Ofsted categories. No Silver Bullets: Day-in, day-out school improvement is Paul’s ninth book following Get that Teaching Job, Middle Leadership, and The Senior Leader’s Yearbook. He is also a TEDx speaker.

Further information & resources

No Silver Bullets: Day-in, day-out school improvement was published in January 2021. Visit

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