The PDSA improvement model, originally developed for industry and now widely used in health, involves bringing about improvement through small tests of change. These tests stem from a clear ‘stretch aim’ and are continually adapted, fine-tuned and measured for impact. If successful during these early stages, the tests are gradually scaled-up to involve greater numbers of pupils, staff, parents or schools. An important principle of the model is that the specific, local needs and context of each school provide the starting points for improvement. It is very much a ‘bottom up’ approach rather than initiatives or ‘solutions’ being imposed on schools from above.

St Bartholomew’s identified low attainment in writing amongst a group of Primary 7 pupils as an area for improvement. Research on formative assessment over the past decade tells us that quality, focused feedback has a very high impact (potentially +9 months advantage over the course of a school year for an average pupil) for little, if any, financial investment. St Bartholomew’s asked a simple question: If quality feedback within the classroom setting has such a major impact on pupils’ progress, what would be the impact of a weekly one-to-one coaching session (focusing on feedback and target-setting) on the progress of an individual pupil?

In line with the PDSA approach, a single pupil was identified for the initial small test of change. A ‘stretch aim’ was set (By June 2014, all pupils ‘causing concern’ in writing will meet 90% of the marking criteria at their level), clearly outlining an ambitious, measurable goal. A baseline assessment of an extended piece of writing was carried out in January 2014 using marking criteria already in place across the school; the pupil achieved 7 targets out of a possible 14. The pupil then embarked on weekly one-to-one coaching sessions with the Head Teacher. These had a set structure:

  •  Reviewing, self-assessing (traffic-lighting) and discussing targets.
  • Looking closely at a recent piece of writing and identifying one area for development.
  • Agreeing on a single strategy to work on over the coming week.

A simple line graph was kept of the pupil’s weekly self-assessment and the lengths of coaching sessions were also recorded. After only four weeks of coaching, the pupil was self-assessing no targets as red, the amber targets were showing a steady decline and, in contrast, the number of green targets were increasing week on week. The length of coaching sessions had levelled out at a very manageable 12-13 minutes. An extended piece of writing was assessed in March 2014 and this mirrored the pupil’s self-assessment remarkably closely, with 13 targets being achieved out of a possible 14 (92%). The ‘stretch-aim’ had been achieved!

The data gathered from this successful small test of change gave the green light for the initiative to be scaled-up. The school’s two Principal Teachers have trained in the coaching technique and coaching has now been extended to Primary 3 pupils causing concern in writing. A new tracking system has been developed to provide a manageable method of recording and measuring pupil attainment at an individual, class, whole-school and even gender level over a period of time. This will allow the school to measure the impact learning and teaching is having on pupils achieving their expected milestones and will also safeguard any pupils from slipping through the net and ensure coaching (and other types of additional support) is directed to those pupils who need it most.

St Bartholomew’s involvement in the Scottish Government Self-Improving Schools Pathfinder has been instrumental in reinforcing the importance of bringing about improvement through small tests of change. Use of the PDSA improvement model has also helped staff across the school recognise the importance of being able to measure change in order to inform next steps, make adjustments to practice and provide evidence of improvement.

Graeme Young, Head Teacher

St Bartholomew’s Primary School, Coatbridge

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