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“Everyone and everything” – How to devise a holistic school improvement plan

Abstract illustration depicting work colleagues and a jigsaw puzzle

It’s possible to treat issues in isolation, but genuine school improvement becomes much more likely when you adopt a holistic approach, says Rebecca Leek…

Rebecca Leek
by Rebecca Leek
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In education, we’re quite good at coming up with ambitious, all-encompassing canned phrases.

When facilitating a leaders’ strategy meeting recently, I heard many examples bouncing around the room – ‘High expectations’; ‘no excuses’; ‘opportunities for all’; ‘no child left behind’…

However, there was one phrase that really stood out: ‘Every child matters’.

The emergence of that phrase originally marked a historic policy shift in this country’s approach to safeguarding. Assorted policies and papers may have since superseded what it originally referred to, but it persists as a tagline we still hear frequently, and rightly so. Every child does matter, but I’d take this further.

A phrase you’ll often hear me use is ‘Everyone and everything’. This is my starting point when explaining what I see as a genuinely holistic approach to school improvement, and how crucial it is to ensure that schools are dynamically improving all the time.

Recognise the whole

The word ‘holistic’ is one weighed down with lots of connotations. When I asked a few colleagues what images the word conjured up for them, the replies variously included ‘incense’, ‘salon’, and ‘treatments’.

Yet the concept of holistics is one that’s played a serious role in social and medical sciences throughout history, and more recently featured in systems theory, ecology and permaculture. It asks us to recognise the whole, the constituent parts that make up that whole, and the often complex interplay between them.

We’re all becoming better at doing this, thanks in part to increased knowledge around mental wellbeing, the links between physical and mental health, and how you can’t have one without the other.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is, in a sense, a holistic model – one which recognises that in order to unleash a learner’s potential, that child will need to be supported in other essential ways. It’s not enough to give a scared child a pencil and simply tell them to learn.

Stepping back

In the context of a busy classroom, ‘taking a holistic approach’ is, put simply, a reminder for us to step back and look at those things we perhaps don’t pay enough attention to. Midway through yet another frantic week, we’ll be largely focused on delivering lessons and getting through the hour ahead of us. Taking the time to notice and reflect on the patterns around us is usually something we have to force ourselves to do.

One of my favourite system thinkers, Frijtof Capra, once observed that “The understanding of life begins with the understanding of patterns.” By scanning some of the wider forces at play in our professional lives, noting the areas where different groups intersect and considering the differences between those groups can prompt some important insights, and trigger small changes that ultimately deliver valuable rewards.

But what does this look like in practice? Here are five ways in which you can start practising a holistic approach.

1. Classroom layout

The layout of the classroom itself is a pattern that has a tangible impact on learning. We can start with a seating plan that we go on to tweak over time – but what would happen if you were to completely rearrange the seating to create more space, or provide opportunities for different student groupings?

Post-COVID, we’re all now veterans at shuffling tables into rows, so this might not seem particularly novel. Yet sometimes, even just changing the distance between rows, or adjusting how far desks are from windows can have a measurable impact.

Where is the teacher’s desk positioned in relation to the class, and what’s on it? Assorted clutter, books, neat piles, healthy food? These are all environmental details that your students will see and react to.

2. Interior infrastructure

There may seem little point in thinking about more significant classroom alterations, but it’s always worth raising any concerns or queries. It might take a year or two – perhaps once your school’s next desk order or technology review is due – but there won’t be any change at all unless you prompt it.

Does the placing of certain cupboards facilitate learning or disrupt it? Are the blinds adequate, and what happens to them when the windows are open? Be mindful of problems and potential solutions that no one else has previously identified.

3. Teaching assistants

As a former SENCo, I remember how much I valued the TAs that provided care and support for our students, but also how they could be sadly somewhat neglected by teaching colleagues.

Consider what you can do to help your TAs beyond the standard routines that should be in place already, such as sharing advance information about upcoming lessons and key students. If they’re often carrying equipment between rooms, could you set aside some dedicated storage space? If they roam during lessons, check that there’s enough space between desks for them to do so. Train yourself to notice such details and make changes if needed.

4. You

When we say ‘everyone matters’, that includes yourself. I began the year by talking to staff in our trust about the importance of wellbeing and was very straight with them. I explained that fostering wellbeing isn’t dependent on employers providing comprehensive ‘life support’, but is actually a two-way process which starts with a commitment that has to come from each individual.

In my case, I’m highly sensitive to the space around me, but it took me a while to realise this when I first started teaching. A messy desk with piles of clutter would cause me stress, which in turn meant I missed opportunities to use classroom space effectively – because everything matters.

After taking the decision to change my habits, the impact was significant. I resolved that the last five minutes of each day would now be spent clearing and resetting my desk. Subsequently, I worked faster during PPA time, could provide students with what they needed more quickly, and was soon putting objects and books on display that made for positive additions to the learning environment. Overall, I just felt calmer.

5. Valuing diversity

‘Valuing diversity’ is a key permaculture principle, stemming from an awareness that ecosystems are always stronger when they contain variety. When did you last visit the classrooms of a different department? A maths teacher will probably find that their school’s art studio functions very differently from what they’re used to, but it’s still worth taking a look, if only to see what works for them. Every teacher has their own way of working, which is why I’ve yet to visit a new classroom without gleaning something useful from it.

There’s also the possibility that you notice something your colleagues haven’t seen themselves. Maybe a board partially covering a window that’s only there because someone absent-mindedly left it there a decade ago.

If the eyes and brains of staff at your school are all busy observing, reflecting, seeking out what works and what might work better, then a school can only improve over time, holistically.

Rebecca Leek has been a secondary and primary classroom teacher, head of department, SENCo and headteacher; she is currently the CEO of SEAMAT – a trust of three schools in South Essex

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