Improving the skills of middle leaders to bring about improvements in teaching

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Leaders at King Henry Vlll Comprehensive School have successfully embedded a peer review programme that has enabled middle leaders to strengthen significantly their skills and capacity to bring about improvements in teaching and standards. Through their involvement in a comprehensive range of self-evaluation activities that focus clearly on the relationship between effective teaching and pupil progress middle leaders now, make an effective contribution to school improvement.


King Henry Vlll Comprehensive School is a mixed 11-19 school in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire with 950 pupils on roll, 155 of which are in sixth form.  Around 11% of pupils are eligible for free school meals.  The school identifies that around 27% of pupils have additional learning needs.  Most pupils come from a white British background, and 1% of pupils speak Welsh at home.

The headteacher took up her post in September 2014, just a few months before the Estyn inspection and after a period of instability in the school at senior leadership level.  Although the inspection team did not leave a specific recommendation on teaching, it was clear to the headteacher that the school would not make progress against its recommendations without a clear focus on improving the quality of teaching.   

The school is currently a pioneer school and is working with the Welsh Government and other schools to take forward developments relating to the curriculum and other professional learning.

Strategy and action

On her first day at the school, the new headteacher communicated to all staff her vision for the school as one in which every pupil received the best possible education available, regardless of their background or gender.  To achieve this, she was clear that teaching and learning needed to be at the heart of everything the school did.  Improving teaching required a resolute focus on developing the capacity of leaders across the school to establish robust self-evaluation processes that linked well to improvement planning and informed a meaningful programme of effective professional learning for staff.

The headteacher also shared the draft school improvement plan with staff on that day, which identified a number of priorities to improve the quality of teaching in the school.  These included:

  • establishing a whole-school teaching and learning structure to share and develop best practice
  • establishing consistent approaches to formative assessment across the school
  • ensuring that all lessons provided appropriate challenge for pupils
  • establishing networks of professional practice with a clear focus on improving pupil outcomes and reducing in-school variation

The school undertook a number of actions immediately to address these priorities.  For example, leaders established networks of professional practice to address aspects of practice that they had identified as areas for development in the school’s previous round of teaching and learning observations.  In the first year, all teaching staff participated in networks of professional practice that focused on literacy, numeracy, group and pair work, effective questioning, self and peer assessment, marking, assessment and feedback, or planning for differentiation and challenge.  As part of this work, the school introduced teaching and learning briefings to enable the dissemination of the most effective strategies researched by members during the year.

The school also undertook a systematic review of its key policies to support the development of consistent practice across the school.  For example, the marking, assessment and feedback network reviewed the school’s assessment policy.  Senior and middle leaders worked together to construct the school’s teaching and learning policy.  Out of these discussions, the school’s key strategy to identify and develop good practice in teaching and learning across the school took shape, namely the development of a whole-school peer review programme.

The school introduced the first cycle of the whole-school peer review programme between September 2015 and June 2017.  It has proved effective in improving the quality of self-evaluation at the school, raising the quality of teaching and driving sustained improvements in pupil outcomes.

The peer review programme aims to evaluate standards of teaching and learning across the school through a focus on the experience of a small group of selected pupils.  Each peer review focuses on a sample of six pupils across the ability range from a particular year group.  A further peer review samples a group of pupils with additional learning needs from across the school. 

For each peer review, senior and middle leaders work together to evaluate the progress these pupils make based on evidence from a wide range of relevant sources.  This includes a robust analysis of progress data, interviews with pupils, auditing schemes of learning,  scrutiny of pupils’ work and lesson observations.  This joint working has enabled senior leaders to challenge and support middle leaders’ evaluation of the quality of provision and standards achieved by pupils much more effectively.  Over time, it has led to the development of much greater consistency in the work of senior and middle leaders across the school.

Senior leaders collate the outcomes from each peer review and share them with staff and governors.  The peer review report provides a detailed evaluation of the strengths and areas for development in terms of pupils’ progress and standards in each year group.  Crucially, it also provides an analysis of how effectively teaching is supporting pupils’ progress and how consistently teachers are addressing whole‑school areas for development in their teaching.  For example, in the first cycle, this included information about how well teachers had provided opportunities for pupils to develop their literacy and numeracy skills or on the quality of assessment and feedback.

At the end of each year, senior leaders summarise evidence from all peer reviews in a final annual report, giving comprehensive information based on the observations of all staff and the experience of more than 13% of pupils across the school.  As a result, leaders have rich information about the strengths and areas of development in teaching to inform the planning of professional learning activities.  A further level of analysis is available for leaders of subject areas, enabling them to evaluate the performance of their own department against benchmarks for the whole school and to plan priorities for development within their own department.

Leaders use the information provided by the peer review programme effectively to plan purposeful professional learning opportunities for staff.  As well as ensuring that these address whole-school training needs, the school uses the information from peer reviews to ensure they meet the individual needs of teachers at different stages of their careers.  This includes coaching and mentoring for teachers who need to improve aspects of their practice, as well as facilitating opportunities for staff to improve skills relevant to the specialism they teach.  A few teachers benefit from valuable opportunities to acquire higher-level qualifications in educational practice or leadership and management.  In addition, the school’s role as a pioneer school for the curriculum since January 2017 has ensured that teachers have increasing opportunities to develop their knowledge through their involvement in wider networks of professional practice.

A key feature of the school’s approach to professional learning has been ensuring that staff have had suitable opportunities to work collaboratively across departments at all stages of the school’s improvement journey.  Leaders plan professional learning days well to enable teachers to lead or participate in professional learning communities, and to work together on whole-school work scrutiny activities.  This has ensured valuable opportunities for staff across departments to work together, share best practice and reflect on subject-based approaches, as well as helping to build capacity for leadership through the school.


The school’s peer review programme has enabled the school to strengthen significantly the skills and capacity of middle leaders through their involvement in a comprehensive range of self-evaluation activities that focus clearly on the relationship between effective teaching and pupil progress.  It has provided school leaders with a clear sense of the school’s strengths and areas for development, and allowed them to plan professional learning activities to address these.

In June 2016, the school was judged to have made sufficient progress against its recommendations and was removed from the category of schools in need of significant improvement.  The inspection team noted in its report that the school has developed regular and systematic monitoring of teaching and assessment through focused book scrutiny and lesson observations.

It also noted that the school has implemented a comprehensive range of strategies to support the development of leaders.  This includes targeted coaching and mentoring for individual leaders, and planned involvement in the school’s professional learning communities.  The improvements in the quality of leadership and management have contributed to suitable progress in most performance indicators at key stage 3 and key stage 4, and in improving provision for developing pupils’ literacy and numeracy skills.

Since the core inspection, pupils’ performance has improved considerably in comparison with similar schools.  In 2017, performance in most indicators at key stage 4 placed the school in the upper half of similar schools based on pupils’ eligibility for free school meals (Welsh Government, 2017c).

Next steps as identified by the school

As the school plans the next steps in its improvement journey, staff have also played a key role in reviewing the first round of the peer review programme and recommending changes to its focus and remit.  For example, the second cycle of the programme will no longer consider year groups in isolation from each other, but look at two year groups together to focus on transition and progression between year groups and key stages.  In addition, lesson observations will no longer give individual judgements for lessons or teachers, but will focus on the impact of teaching on learning to inform more precisely, the school’s strategic planning to improve both these areas.