Improving from WithIn: A Rationale for a New Approach to School Improvement

Today I had the privilege of visiting a new headteacher, 5 weeks into headship. I observed his joy and excitement in anticipating the challenge of what lies ahead. We got into a conversation about how to get under the skin of a school and community, its complexity and richness. How do you change a culture and take the school on to where it now needs to go? We acknowledged that there is no one model or process that provides the answers and that leadership and school improvement is multi-faceted. Consequently each leader needs to skilfully choose the right tools, processes and initiatives as they respond to the particular dynamics they face.

So with all the rich resources at the disposal of the 21st Century Head with the plethora of guidance, research papers, programmes, NLE’s, SIP’s available, how does this new headteacher  steer his course and find where to start?

As an educationalist I too have wondered if there is too much out there, do we get lost in the depth and breadth and complexity of it. Or can we draw together the strands of wisdom from existing practice and thinking and produce a simple model that combines these strands in a logical format. Improving from WithIn is a model for school improvement that seeks to do just that; present a logical model which is flexible enough to tailor to different contexts but that contains key dimensions and an underpinning philosophy to guide the leader.

Improving from WithIn came about from considering the new Ofsted framework and the challenge of producing learning experiences that are both motivating and engaging and during which progress is made. What support do teachers need to do that consistently and how do leaders invest in developing that same motivation and engagement for the teachers? Teachers who are motivated and engaged are far more likely to be able to motivate and engage their pupils.

Underpinning Philosophies

I believe the journey begins with identifying your philosophy of education. I have noticed that there are 2 prevailing underpinning philosophies of education, the first that children are empty vessels and as educators we pour in knowledge and fill them up, the second that children come with huge potential and existing strengths and preferences, here our job is to draw out of them those unique gifts and facilitate their learning and development. They are, of course, not mutually exclusive but if, like me you favour the second this will have implications about the job of a teacher.

The next fundamental consideration relates to what do we know and believe about how adults learn and improve their performance. Here, there are two key theorists that have shaped my thinking. Firstly Richard Boyatzis work on Intentional Change Theory. Boyatzis argues that for adults to make change that is sustained they need to be motivated and that motivation is created by a pull towards an ideal. His model provides a series of discoveries that support the individual in achieving change.

The second is Daniel Pink. In his book Drive, Pink argues that when you take basic human needs out of the equation, there are 3 key drivers that motivate us; autonomy, mastery and purpose.  These motivators are intrinsic and more effective than extrinsic ones such as money or negative forces, the threat of punishment.

These theories along with the wisdom gleaned from the discipline of coaching and the emerging field of positive psychology demand that we reconsider how we lead school improvement. School improvement cannot be ‘done to’ but needs to harness the energy of intrinsic motivation within its community and be driven by its members. Leaders need to create the climate within which motivation and engagement are likely outcomes for the adults as well as the children.

The Improving from WithIn Model

The 6 dimensions provide a logical way of approaching school improvement applying this thinking.


Starting with Alignment, the task of clarifying the core mission, developing a vision and identifying the values so that all practice can be aligned is the foundation on which to build.

Climate Creation

The climate is created by consistency of adult behaviours (firstly leadership behaviours) Consistency of behaviour becomes, ‘the way we do things round here’ or the ethos of the school. Members of the school community continually receive unconscious messages about how they should behave from the norms they observe around them. In relation to school improvement, how critical it is that those norms create the ‘pull’ Boyatzis refers to.

Copyright Forward Partnership 2012

Leading Change

How do leaders bring about change so that the community is pulled towards the ideal and not demotivated by external drivers? Leading change is well researched but to do it well requires effective leadership skills and behaviours. Shaping adult behaviours to create that positive climate will demand self-awareness, honesty and an ability to reflect on and adapt one’s own leadership behaviours accordingly. In order to do this well many leaders need a safe sounding board or coach to confide in.


We now come to the ‘outcomes’ side of the model.


Innovation when truly effective arises out of a desire to make things better, to solve problems or to master new skills. It is a creative process which needs to be owned by the innovator. It is often a cycle that requires experimentation, trial and error, revision and refining. Despite the prescription education has experienced teaching remains a creative profession; in an environment where fear of failure or blame is eliminated teachers are free to innovate and take risks.


Encouraging intrinsic motivators or developing the ‘pull’ will mean changing the narrative that drives the school. Do the stories told in staff meetings or on teacher days reinforce the perception of ‘done to’ or do they harness the drives of autonomy and mastery that Pink refers to?  One way companies are doing this is described in Drive, the concept of ‘FedEx Day’s. Developed by the Australian company Atlassian, workers are given a day to work on anything they want to, as long as it is not part of their regular job. The next day they have to report back to their colleagues with what they have created. What would happen if teacher days were like this and what would be achieved?


On such days would teachers lose themselves and become so engaged in their non-commissioned work that they achieved the state of ‘flow’ or ‘completely focussed motivation’ (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ) Having experienced such engagement, what learning or higher level of performance might result. Just take a look at twitter and see how many teachers are engaged in passionate debate about their work or look to number voluntarily sharing their resources and ideas via the TES. There is evidence of an engaged profession. How well does the school encourage this engagement, or celebrate the climate of meaningful purpose along with behaviours associated by going the extra mile and a generosity of spirit that arise from it.

And finally, what of the new headteacher who inherits a school in crisis, for whom there is so much that has to be done quickly. Pacesetting, authoritative and sometimes coercive leadership styles seem the obvious way to begin? Just a word of caution, how many of the teachers in those schools have been de skilled and lost their professional self-confidence by negative messages and differing advice from external experts? Whilst it might be appealing to believe that the only way to improve the school is to refer to extrinsic drivers, the latest Ofsted framework or targets; it is worth considering the impact of extrinsic drivers on motivation and understanding that compliance is not real and embedded change.

I have come to the conclusion that it is not what we do that needs to change but how we do it. The spirit that lies behind what we do needs challenging. We also need to develop a strong belief in the profession to find its own solutions. Improving from WithIn offers a model for school improvement which requires a different approach and leaders who are brave enough to loose the reins and let the creativity and resourcefulness of their staff flourish.

Sue Iqbal © Improving from WithIn October 2012



Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, (2009)

Richard Boyatzis, Intentional Change Theory, Richard E. Boyatzis, (2006) “An overview of intentional change from a complexity perspective”, Journal of Management Development,

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, (1990)

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