The tanker is turning

Almost eight years ago I began work at an international school in Addis Ababa.  When the newly appointed Head told the assembled students he expected the school to become the best in Ethiopia they laughed at him.

They were right to.  The school had undergone a troubled few years.  Admissions were low. Staff turnover was high.  A hard-core of older students ran riot through the corridors.  Behaviour was feral and embarrassing exam results were at the bottom of everyones’ priorities.  The school would have collapsed the previous year had it not been for a handful of committed teachers who were perilously close to burning out.

The first year was tough.  The Head worked tirelessly to establish routines and discipline, clashing with students, teachers and parents to win arguments as basic as an end to free periods.  In those early days improvement was hard to see and when exam results came in, they weren’t much better than they’d been the year before.

Despite all this I accepted promotion to Head of Upper School.  In one of our first meetings the Head used an old metaphor that I’ve had cause to fall back on again and again.  He said “it might not look like it, but things are getting better.  The tanker is turning.”

Schools, even small ones, are big and unwieldy.  Actions rarely result in immediate change, just as turning the wheel on the Titanic didn’t cause it to miss the iceberg that sank it.  But when the turn does begin momentum builds and, once the entire mass of the ship shifts, the change in course becomes unstoppable.

My old Head, now a close friend, was right.  The tanker was turning.  At the end of the second year IGCSE A*-C results went up by a third.  At the end of the third year they’d tripled.  Just as importantly, the entire atmosphere of the school had changed.  Classes were purposeful.  There were sports, music and drama clubs, annual plays and talent shows.  Ethiopia’s first ever Duke of Edinburgh Club was thriving.  Admissions rocketed.  When the Head, in his farewell assembly, said he expected the school to go on being the best in Ethiopia the students applauded.

Being part of this remains a career highlight of mine and recently I’ve been thinking about it more and more, in light of the changes I see in the faculty I lead.  I’ve been wondering how my old Head knew that changes he’d made were turning the tanker.  I’ve been wondering whether I’m right to feel that way now.

What are the early signs of improvement?

The most obvious measures, such as exam results, can be unreliable because changes often happen too late to have an impact.  At my old school in Ethiopia, results did not improve to begin with because the exam classes had experienced years of poor education and these unfortunate children couldn’t make good the gap in nine months.

In the absence of improved results my old Head had to look for other signs to be confident the school was getting better. He embedded himself in the fabric of the school.  He was rarely in his office but frequently on corridors, in lessons or speaking to students.  I remember him being particularly pleased that complaints from parents had gone up because that showed confidence in the school’s ability to deal with them was rising.  He was pleased when teachers stopped complaining about the behaviour of students and began complaining about their laziness.  He was pleased when students began complaining about particular lessons, because that meant their general satisfaction with the school was better than it had been.

A memorable example happened one afternoon after a serious playground argument.  The investigation revealed it had happened because a new student had bad-mouthed the school’s reputation and offended another, who said “he shouldn’t say that.  It’s not like it was.  It’s a proper school now.”

Of course, all this would have meant nothing had results not improved, but they did, dramatically.  My Head had spotted that the tanker was turning before anyone else had.

Why do I feel we’re improving?

This year I was disappointed by results.  While they had risen significantly they were weren’t where they should have been. Despite this disappointment, I think our tanker is turning and that next year will be better. I think in the years to come, they’ll keep improving.

Along with my regular quality assurance, I hope I’ve also learned enough from my old friend to draw accurate conclusions from the unquantifiable evidence I pick up day-to-day.  Our children don’t say “everyone fails humanities” anymore.  They behave well and don’t find it funny when others don’t.  They revise for assessments at home, at lunch and break and they write them in silence.  They ask to borrow textbooks and other resources.  They stay behind after lessons to finish work.  They come to lessons with extra facts and ask their teachers about extra material they found at home but don’t understand.

I’d like to finish with a seemingly counter-intuitive example.  Likeable, mouthy Lilly was in detention when I asked her how much revision she’d done.  “Hours!,” she bragged.  “It’s all in my folder at home!” I asked her to bring it in to show me and, after the detention, she ran in a panic to her class teacher to say, “I told Sir I’ve done loads of revision, and I haven’t done that much, and now he wants to check!”

In the privacy of my office, I fist-pumped because, when I started, students didn’t know they were supposed to do three hours revision a week.  If I’d told them I was checking they wouldn’t have been as bothered as Lilly was.  I’m calling in all folders after half term and, while I’d be surprised if Lilly had done as much as she’s supposed to, I’d be shocked if there was nothing at all.  (Lilly, there better be..)

When spring comes to Narnia and the ice begins to thaw, it begins with just drips on icicles, but drips turn into drops, drops turn into streams and streams become rushing rivers.  In our school, Aslan is on the move.  Our thaw has come.  Our tanker is turning.