Understanding what needs to be done to improve a school
The purpose of this research is to discover different ways of understanding what needs to be done to improve a school, with particular reference to secondary school head teachers. The variation within those understandings, and how the understandings are logically and hierarchically related, are also of interest. Contributions of theory and knowledge to the quality of head teachers' thinking, in terms of negotiating personal and collective meanings, and implying interventions based on interpretations, are suggested. It is argued that the place of thinking (feeling and awareness) within school improvement is supreme, as thinking determines action, and we can only act in relation to how we perceive, experience, or understand a situation. The relevant literature offers indicators of effective schools, helpful descriptors for aspects of the school improvement processes, suggestions for leadership actions, examples of expert practitioners, and a wide spectrum of theories of organisations and education management. What it does not consider is how this knowledge might combine and interact with experience to form different ways of understanding what needs to be done to improve a school. This research addresses the identified gap in the literature, and deepens our knowledge of the inner aspects of school improvement for both theorist and reflective practitioner. The distinct understandings are derived from two sources, a range of literature that can be related to school improvement, and some empirical research consisting of a simulation exercise undertaken by 18 secondary school head teachers. A particular type of critical analysis is applied to the literature, and a phenomenographical approach is adopted for the scrutiny of the empirical data. Phenomenographic principles are utilised throughout the research, as they represent the only approach concerned directly with the different ways of understanding a phenomenon, and the relationships between understandings. From a range of literature, four abstracted understandings of what needs to be done to improve a school are discovered. They are based on reflecting on excellence, adapting leadership, interpreting the organisation, and developing the inter-dependence of active learning. Each understanding offers a framework through which specific aspects of the relevant literature can be interpreted, applied and integrated, within a given context. From the empirical research, five ways of understanding what needs to be done to improve a school are discovered. They consist of increasing knowledge diagnostically, encouraging a dynamic environment, involving stakeholders in the re-establishment of priorities, enforcing expectations, and co-ordinating initiatives through development planning. Our understanding of our work is an appropriate point from which to increase our competence, as it determines both what competences we develop, and how we develop them. Competence is increasingly concerned with how a situation is understood, what is required according to that understanding, and taking the necessary action. Competence is a consequence of the interaction between our understandings and the extent to which our work context empowers or controls us. For secondary school head teachers, it is argued that competence is dependent on how they understand what needs to be done to improve a school, and the extent to which their environments enable them to act on their understandings.