An inclusive approach to school improvement

It’s been two years since Edurio started working with United Learning on their Learning from Learners project — a focused effort on collecting and using pupil feedback to improve schools. We value our partnership and look at United Learning as an example for others to follow — regularly using stakeholder feedback across different roles and for different purposes at every level of the trust to continuously learn and improve.

We recently had the chance to talk to the team at United Learning to learn more about how it all got started and the impact of the project so far.

One of the principles of our Framework for Excellence — continuous improvement — is fundamentally about the belief that everything we do we can do better, and one very powerful way of improving what you’re doing is by getting good quality feedback and acting intelligently in response to that feedback.

Feedback for continuous improvement

United Learning is a multi-academy trust made up of over 60 primary and secondary schools all across the UK, connected not only by a common leadership team and curriculum, but also a set of guiding principles and standards that shape their work — their Framework for Excellence. The framework is made up of the following 5 principles:

  • Best from everyone,
  • powerful knowledge,
  • education with character,
  • leadership in every role and
  • continuous improvement.

“The challenge in an organisation like United Learning isn’t fundamentally different from the challenge in any one school. You have to understand the priorities, you have to understand what needs to be done, you need a clear view of where you are, where are you trying to get, and what’s going to get you from A to B. We, then, as a wider organisation have to make sure that we’re resourced properly to do the job that we have to do. That we have a good understanding of each of our schools, that we have the capability, the capacity, to do this kind of improvement work… we need to understand what’s going on in the schools. Some of that will be about being there in person and visiting and so on, but there need to be systematic ways of knowing what’s going on as well.”

— Jon Coles, Group Chief Executive at United Learning

United Learning started surveys first with their staff in an effort to better understand how they were feeling and what their unique experience was like working both for their school and for the trust — how well-managed they were, how satisfied they were with professional development opportunities, if they understood what the organisation was trying to achieve, etc.

This insight from the people on the front lines — those teaching the pupils every day, seeing how policies and programmes actually work in practice — is critical for leadership to understand in order to make those decisions and changes that lead to continuous improvement.

And once they had a good process of collecting and using this staff feedback, it was time to go one (big) step further and add feedback from the pupils themselves.

You will never create a sustainably excellent organisation if you aren’t prepared to listen to people, respond to what they’re seeing and feeling and adapt accordingly…

“We have seven and a half thousand staff, we have 40,000 pupils — that’s a whole lot of sets of eyes and ears to give us information about what’s going on which should be useful to us in improving. I think one of the principles of our Framework for Excellence — continuous improvement — is fundamentally about the belief that everything we do we can do better, and one very powerful way of improving what you’re doing is by getting good quality feedback and acting intelligently in response to that feedback. So introducing the staff survey first and then moving on to look at other stakeholder groups has been about trying to build our level of information and intelligence and understanding so that we can do something about it.”

— Jon Coles, Group Chief Executive

Why is stakeholder feedback important for United Learning?

There is a risk that if the only data that you’ve got, that you’re really thinking hard about, is the set of data which is used for accountability purposes, then you are in a kind of “what gets measured, gets managed” situation and you have to try to make sure that what’s really important is getting measured or considered in a powerful way for your improvement.

Learning from Learners

So United Learning wanted to begin taking the same approach with pupils — asking them about what it’s like to go to their school, their personal experience during lessons and other elements of the school experience outside the curriculum.

“Students spend so much of their time in schools and it’s absolutely right that they get to have a say in the education they receive and I think we will see improvements in relationships between pupils and staff, and just that sense of feeling heard and that you influence the way your school is run is hugely powerful.”

— Anna Cannizzaro, Technology Project Lead at United Learning

Adding pupils to the survey process, however, was a huge undertaking.

When it comes to understanding pupil feedback, there are a lot more angles from which you can look at the data, so the whole process becomes much more complex.

There was a need to keep pupil responses completely anonymous and private, while at the same time being able to understand each pupil’s responses in a very detailed context. This was done in terms of demographics but also important subgroups such as pupil premium or SEN status to make sure that every child is getting the education they deserve.

“We’ve had in our vision for technology at United Learning for a couple of years now, the desire to create new knowledge based on a greater understanding of what pupils actually experience, rather than what we observe as adults, what is reported, or what we have proxies for in terms of measures. We’ve never really found a product that would allow us to do that because the starting point of that has got to be understanding who those pupils are, being able to then capture their opinions in an anonymous way, that is safe and that they feel happy with responding in, but which we can then track back to how they go on to perform. And through tying up all those sources of information, make very clear inferences about what’s working, what isn’t and where we might want to consider change.”

— Dominic Norrish, Group Director of Technology at United Learning

How does Edurio improve stakeholder feedback?

Teaming up with Edurio

We were excited to get the chance to work with United Learning first and foremost because we share the belief that feedback has the potential to have an enormous impact on school improvement and it was obvious that they wanted to take a new forward-thinking approach to pupil feedback surveys.

And on top of that, the timing was perfect — we could keep building the survey technology as they launched the Learning from Learners project, responding to the problems that cropped up and learning with them along the way. Rather than forcing them to create a process that would fit with the technology we had built, we could adapt the technology to a process that actually made sense for them.

With a small pilot group of volunteer schools, United Learning kicked off their Learning from Learners project with the first pupil surveys using Edurio in Spring 2017. While the first round of the pilot was successful, there were improvements to be made before it would run smoothly across the whole network. We scaled up the pilot with each following round of surveys until everything was working just as United Learning had envisioned and all of the schools were on board.

“We started with a group who wanted to be involved in the pilot, who could see the benefits of it, who for one reason or another wanted to do what they were doing more systematically… At the next stage I presented some of the results back to the wider group of heads after we’d done the first round of pilot and showed them what was coming out of it. We shared some of our analyses and graphs and data and so on, and showed what would come out of it … and that was all that was needed really to persuade the heads. People could see actually — that’s going to be very, very useful to us.”

— Jon Coles, Group Chief Executive

Two years in, they’ve already been able to see the evolution of responses within the original pilot group, allowing them to better evaluate the impact of changes they’ve made directly in response to that pupil feedback. And very soon (after this year) they’ll be able to start tracking year to year feedback across all the schools.

You can try and measure how good a school is in a hundred ways, it’s only when we start doing it in this way, combined with other data that we get these kind of unique insights that we just hadn’t suspected.

How United Learning is using pupil survey data

With this new level of fine-grained detail and analysis of pupil feedback, both school and MAT leadership at United Learning can now compare results and identify opportunities for collaboration between schools, while also looking within a school to see what is going on with specific classes, subjects or small groups of pupils. They have a level of information and understanding that they’ve never had before that allows them to react and solve problems much more quickly and effectively.

What’s been really interesting is that sometimes it’s given us an insight into an issue we thought we understood very well.

When the United Learning team would visit a school they would get one perspective on an issue, then they had a second layer of feedback from the staff, but then once they added a new perspective from the pupils — they realised they hadn’t really been seeing the whole picture after all.

Take behaviour, for example — the last thing anyone expected was for staff to have a more positive view of behaviour than the students themselves, but in some cases that is exactly what happened. The pupils sparked changes in behaviour and discipline policies because they knew what was negatively affecting their learning.

Schools are also using the Edurio survey data to evaluate specific projects, shape new policies, communicate with pupils and parents, learn from other schools facing similar challenges and make strategic decisions both large and small every day.

One example that came up in our interviews was how the surveys were used to evaluate the impact of a new reading project in primary schools:

“We had a question set of 8–10 questions on some of the outputs we were expecting to change, such as, how often do you get read to by an adult, and how often do you read to an adult in your school. Those were key metrics that would indicate how far along the continuum the school was moving in its practice with reading. And that’s given a very clear picture of the impact of that specific project.”

— Dominic Norrish, Group Director of Technology

And the pupil feedback surveys are merely one element of the Learning from Learners initiative — albeit a very important one. The schools that are making the best use of the data are combining it with face-to-face conversations, with information that they’ve gathered traditionally in the past as well, through committee structures that might have existed already, and through all of those sources of information they are making decisions about how to improve that school.

“I think because we’ve been able to triangulate it quite well with other data and information that we’ve got, it’s really helped to target and pinpoint quite precise questions which have got to the heart of what even very good schools have needed to do next to improve.”

— Jon Coles, Group Chief Executive

“I think it’s immeasurable. It’s really exciting that — yes, it’s really important that we look at assessment data and how well our students are doing — but it’s also really important how our students feel about the education they receive, and I think the fact that we’re at this point now where we’re recognising that and this data is appearing alongside very important assessment data, that’s really exciting and I think it will take us to the next step in terms of improvement.”

— Anna Cannizzaro, Technology Project Lead

How have the survey results been valuable to United Learning?

Transparency and teamwork

The team at United Learning has worked towards creating a culture of transparency that encourages them to both challenge and learn from each other. Whether it be among staff within a school, between leadership teams and the central office or with parents, transparency is valued at every level and it has been no different when it comes to learning from feedback. As they intended from the very beginning — the United Learning school improvement leaders have access to these survey results in whatever way is most relevant to them and their role.

“So, it’s increased that challenge, but also the praise because we’ve been able to say: Wow, this is really strong in this school yet we’ve got some schools that are quite low in this area. How can we build those connections across our collaborative approach with our schools, so that one school can learn from one school’s strategy and we can increase that ongoing provision across our schools and get that continuous improvement.”

— Darran Ellison-Lee, Director of Primary Education

“If you think somebody might be doing something you can learn from, you should feel that you can pick up the phone to that person and say: “Can I come and see?”, “Please, can you tell me what you do?”, or “Can my head of maths come and see your head of maths?”. That open sharing of data and information in order to inform peoples improvement planning, collaboration and so on, what we think is really powerful.”

— Jon Coles, Group Chief Executive

What is the impact from using Edurio across the MAT?

Student surveys are nothing new, but they have long been a source of untapped potential and it is very exciting to see an organisation like United Learning stepping up to the challenge and taking the lead when it comes to harnessing that information for strategic school improvement.

Thanks to their transparent culture and progressive approach to improving their schools, United Learning has seen firsthand how stakeholder feedback can lead to more collaboration, easier sharing of best practice and identifying what’s working and what’s not, more targeted interventions and a wiser investment of time and resources.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020SME programme for open and disruptive innovation under grant agreement №733984.