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Updated: Jun 20, 2023

This post is accompanied by a priority matrix handout you may find useful to use with colleagues.

In the last post, we looked at the implementation equation:

Most of the ‘Making Change Stick’ programme focuses on the ‘how’.

In the next two posts, we’re going to look at the ‘what’.

It may be that you already have an idea as to which area of school improvement you wish to focus on. You may also have some ideas about how to go about this.

If this is the case, try to think of this as just one possibility among several options, some of which you may not have considered.

It may be that you go with your original decision. But park it for now, and remain open to the idea that your thinking may change once you have completed the exercises in this series of three posts on choosing your focus.

Let’s get into it!

Choosing your focus

There are two key aspects to thinking about the ‘what’ of school improvement:

  1. Which aspect of school life do you wish to improve?

  2. What should you do to address this area of school improvement?

We’ll explore the second of these questions in a series of future posts on ‘building your intervention’.

In the next three posts, we’ll explore three exercises that will help you decide where to focus your efforts:

  1. The priority matrix

  2. Weighing the evidence

  3. Values mapping

In this post, we’ll focus on the first of these.

The priority matrix

A priority matrix is a simple graph with effort on one axis, and impact on the other. If we bisect each axis, this gives us four quadrants, as follows:

To illustrate what kinds of activities might fall into these four categories, here are some examples:


Once, I worked at a school where litter was a serious problem. There was often food spilled on the floors in the school corridors - occasionally there would be sandwiches smeared up the walls - and there was lots of litter in the playgrounds and on the playing fields.

The senior team implemented a policy which stated very clearly that students were only allowed to eat in the canteen. Overnight, the litter problem was eradicated. There is research to suggest that litter affects people’s behaviour and their mindset, and so the knock-on effect of this simple policy was potentially quite significant. It took very little effort to implement the policy, and it likely had a significant effect on student’s behaviour. It certainly made the school a much more pleasant place to be.


Asking every teacher to check students’ uniform at the start of every lesson might fall into the low priorities section. It’s not a huge undertaking, but it’s unlikely to have a significant impact on the educational or life chances of the students, and it may even have a negative impact, since it takes up time at the start of each lesson.

That said, if standards of uniform are slipping and you want to nip it in the bud, you may very well be able to make the case that a short-burst, time-limited campaign to improve standards of uniform is called for.

In a previous post, we looked at some problems with top-down implementation. (LINK) But for things like having a drive on uniform checks, or introducing a policy that students are only allowed to eat in the canteen - in other words, for quick wins and low priorities - top-down implementation is well-suited to bringing about clear, decisive change.


In the lower right quadrant, we have things like requiring teachers to regularly change the display boards in their classrooms and corridors. Alternatively, we might think of onerous marking policies that require teachers to spend many hours each week providing copious written feedback to all their pupils. Such practices require a significant time investment, often for questionable very little return in terms of student learning outcomes. In recent years, promising new approaches to verbal feedback and whole-class feedback have been developed in an attempt to address this problem.


Finally, in the upper right quadrant we have high effort, high impact school improvement initiatives. An example might be implementing a new policy and set of practices around managing behaviour.

Broadly speaking, there are three criteria that a change initiative needs to meet in order to qualify as a ‘high effort, high impact’ significant project. It should be:

  • It should be a whole-school issue - something that affects almost everyone in the community in some way (teachers, leaders, teaching assistants, pupils)

  • There is good reason to believe that focusing on this area will be impactful (i.e. performance metrics are currently lower than usual, or lower than average)

  • It should be something substantial, that will take around 3 to 5 years to really bed in. *

Examples of suitable school improvement initiatives

Here are some examples of the kinds of high effort, high impact change initiatives that schools have successfully implemented using the ‘Making Change Stick’ approach:


  • New whole-school policy

  • Developing restorative practice


  • Developing the whole-school science curriculum

  • Decolonising the history curriculum


  • Improving the use of feedback

  • Developing dialogic teaching and learning


  • Developing a teaching and learning reflection tool

  • Implementing instructional coaching


  • Closing the disadvantage gap

  • Increasing reading for pleasure


  • Improving data collection and analysis

  • Moving from written to verbal feedback

To complete the priority matrix exercise, work through the following seven steps:

  1. Give each member of your ‘vertical slice team’ a piece of paper and ask them to identify the top three things they would like to change about the school. Fold these up and hand place them into a hat or similar. (This anonymises the process and allows people to say what they really think).

  2. Compile these into a list. If any of them can be grouped together under a similar theme, do so.

  3. Consult your current school improvement planning. Usually, the school will already have identified three to five areas of focus. Do these choices appear in the list you created in steps 1 and 2? If not, add them to the list.

  4. Write each item on a post-it note, and draw the two axes (effort and impact) on a whiteboard. If you wish, you may also add the four quadrants.

  5. As a group, agree where on the priority matrix to place each post-it note. This may involve people saying things like “I think it should be a bit lower down and to the right because…” or “Actually, I think that could be a quick win if we…”

  6. Take a short break and return to the priority matrix with fresh eyes. Is everyone happy with where each item has been placed? Is anything missing currently?

  7. Agree on your top three choices. Generally, this will be the three items in the 'high effort / high impact' quadrant that appear furthest to the right (i.e. those with the biggest potential impact on pupil outcomes).

So, you now have your top three options. In the next two posts, we’ll look at two activities that will help you whittle this down to one: weighing the evidence, and values mapping.

* When we talk about a '3 to 5 year implementation period', sometimes people’s eyes roll a bit. 3 to 5 years seems like a really long time - and it is. This doesn’t mean that we don’t start doing things straight away, or that we won’t see an impact straight away. However, decades of research in schools and other large organisations tells us that it takes 3 to 5 years to implement change in such a way that the benefits are embedded and sustained for the long-term, so that they become part of ‘the way things are done around here’. If you implement something and then take your eye off the ball after a year or two - something that happens all too frequently - the situation can quickly and easily revert back to how it was before - or worse.

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