School improvement: The patchwork quilt approach?

Written by: Jonathan Cordiner | Published:
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Best practice cannot become a patchwork quilt – stitched together from ideas, approaches and interventions seen elsewhere. We must always remember that context matters above all else, says Jonathan Cordiner


As headteachers, we love to gather best practice, don’t we? We don’t get the chance to do it as often as we would like, on account of how busy everything is within our own settings, but when considering next steps in our school improvement journey, we relish the opportunity to experience what is going well elsewhere.

Sometimes this is about attending an event where good practice is shared at a local or national level, sometimes it can be about working with other schools or settings, sometimes it is through our professional learning endeavours or even a “Learning Festival” or “Conference”.

But it comes with a warning, doesn’t it? Too often we arrive back to our schools, ready to plug in what we have seen, and too often this eagerness to replicate what has been viewed as good practice elsewhere results in an investment of time and money which has very little impact on our children and families.

Have you been guilty of this? I know I have. I remember coming home from the Scottish Learning Festival one year having bought fabulous resources which I had seen put to great use in other schools. Six months later, I was scratching my head wondering why these resources were now gathering dust.

Too often when we try and plug something in, without taking account of our own contexts, we find that what we introduce is no more than a flash in the pan, absent of any sustained impact.

This is what I mean by the patchwork quilt – we cannot go around stitching together good practice and expect that to hang together in such a way that it will best meet the needs of our unique school communities. The best practice for our schools must be harvested within our own school communities.

For example, at our school’s inspection last year, we were observed to have things that were going well and things that were part of our on-going improvement journey.

Something considered very good practice was cross-stage working and the positive impact this was having on our children, on the relationships throughout our school, and on our wider ethos of togetherness.

The catalyst for this evaluation from the inspection team was a science lesson that was being led by a P7 and P3 class, and at a snapshot, it was easy to see worthwhile learning opportunities for all involved, and very high levels of engagement.

On the surface, this looked like something that could be easily replicated, and a colleague could be forgiven for observing the lesson and thinking “that is something I want to try in our school”.

But the reason this was considered very good practice, with high impact on the school, was because the of three years prior. What was happening here was a result of a whole-school approach and was directly representative of the core values in our community. The togetherness of our school, the strength of the relationships within, is an absolute cornerstone of our community. It is deeply sewn into the soil bed from which our school community grows.

Over the years, you would see a million little things which contribute to this particular value of ours and the way children work together in our school across stages has taken a long time to cultivate. Furthermore, this has been extended recently, where teachers across stages are planning together for specific learning opportunities for “paired classes”.

So, a few years ago you might have seen fairly simple positive joint class working with things like paired reading, or joint technology challenges. Now teachers are planning collaboratively together for progress, to meet the needs of all learners in the paired class experience.

Therefore, were someone to walk into this science lesson, and clip off this particular flower, and try and plant that flower within their school, it might look nice for a short period of time, but it will not bed in and become part of that school’s growth, as that particular seed has not been sewn into the soil bed of that community. Best practice for our schools must be harvested, stemming from the values and the strengths in our own foundations.

So yes, we should be looking outward, and we should be gathering best practice, but we do this for inspiration. We do this to challenge what is going on in our settings and to help us consider how we could begin to move and develop approaches in a manner consistent with the needs of our local context. We do it not with the intention of picking someone else’s flower, dropping it into our school, and expecting it to flourish.

The real question is this: “What are the core values and ingredients within your school’s soil bed?”

What makes your school unique? Every school is completely different, with different attributes, different expertise, different professional capital which can be harvested in different ways.

We should be inspired by others. But because your school is unique, it has capacity that no other school has. What is that unique capacity in your school community? What does your school stand for?

Many schools have spent much time over the years establishing what their core values are, with impressive and time-consuming stakeholder engagement activities. We like to create nice pictures which bring together these values don’t we? We love to display them on all our documentation and proudly on our school websites. But how obvious are these core values during the school day? How visible are they? And if that is going well, then how can you take that to the next level? By asking ourselves these questions, we can be more aware of the ingredients in our soil bed, and we can help our school communities flourish from the ground up.

So by all means, let us keep our eyes and ears open, ready to gather the best practice out there, inspiring us, but while always remembering that with regards getting the best for our school community, greatness lies within!


  • Jonathan Cordiner is the headteacher at Meiklemill School in Ellon, Aberdeenshire.


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