The Strategic Sequence

When I was working with English departments across Lincolnshire we were regularly asked to conduct departmental reviews. Following time spent with the department team, watching them teach, looking at books, scrutinising schemes of work and talking to learners it would usually fall to me to write up the report. After a time I began to realise that these reports often repeated the same messages. This wasn’t because we lacked imagination but because the departments were genuinely falling short in similar ways. It struck me that, rather than continuing with this deficit model of continuously telling people what they were not doing very well, our time would be better spent proactively telling departments what they would need to demonstrate in order to show that they were successful. This was the genus of what was, at that point, called the Strategic Rainbow.

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The Rainbow was conceived by me, with guidance from colleagues, particularly @janinlincoln, as a sequence which departments needed to be constantly focusing on in order to be successful. The aim was to have sections which were sufficiently specific for teachers to find them useful but also sufficiently generic for them not to be stifling of originality. We also wanted to create something which could be used to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of either a single teacher, a department or a whole school, independent of whichever inspection framework happened to hold sway at the time.

Additionally, the aim of the Rainbow was to place the emphasis firmly on teaching and learning as the central function of schools. Thus, there is no explicit reference to leadership and management as these are implicit in the effectiveness and efficiency with which the whole cycle works within the school. Other secondary features such as parental engagement are also not mentioned as we deemed them to be means towards the end of improving teaching and learning and not aspects intrinsically important in their own right.

One of the key aspects of our approach was never to produce any grading criteria for the Rainbow. Instead, we thought it would be more appropriate to trust teachers to identify for themselves the strongest and weakest aspects of the Rainbow sequence. This involved probing and careful questioning to help teachers to clarify their ideas but had a clear advantage in that it was not an external judgement but an internal process. What we began to ask teams (whole school staff, departments) to do was to discuss all the areas and then, once a clear understanding of each have been reached, to rank them in terms of which was the strongest down to the weakest.

The discussions which flowed from this process were very rich. The ranking judgement was made by the teachers concerned and thus owned by them. They could also see that it was all about improvement rather than punishment or reward as inevitably, all teams would have an area which was ranked as their weakest. As a result of the discussions, the team we were working with was often in a very strong position to devise a clear action plan to improve their own practice in those areas which they themselves had identified as their weakest.

Subsequently, perhaps 6 months or a year later, these teams were then able to repeat the process in order to identify the new strongest and weakest aspects of the sequence. Hopefully the steps that had been put in place to improve the previously weakest area of the sequence would have resulted in improvement and thus a new, higher ranking second time around. What was clear to all was that this was a genuine school improvement cycle, not a punitive process, as each segment of the sequence strengthens the entire sequence, resulting, all importantly, in improved teaching and learning.

I thought this idea had legs back in 2007 when I first developed it and nothing has subsequently convinced me otherwise. This morning I spent a bit of time revising it for use as the basis for a new and, I hope, more strategic approach to departmental work scrutinies. I think the strategic questions in this document could be used to get both a wider and more detailed picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the work of a department or a year group. We’ll see how it goes.

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