Terminal Decline – the grip of short-termism, and how to avoid it

Education is the ultimate long-term endeavour.  Whatever our view of the true purpose education, we can probably agree that this purpose is only fulfilled years after our students have left our care.

Yet schools can easily fall prey to the grip of short-termism.   Ofsted can call at any moment, performance tables are released throughout the year, and with some schools losing 1/3 of their staff each summer, it’s no surprise that school leaders are preoccupied with the next set of outcomes in Years 6, 11 and 13.

Yet the dangers of this short-termism are obvious.  Obsession with these terminal years in our students’ education can lead us to overlook the foundational years; years which should allow students to develop a solid understanding of their subjects.  Get these foundational years right, and we can avoid the need for remedial intervention in Years 6, 11 and 13.

Take a student who arrives at secondary school without secure literacy.  If we can provide this student with a sound grasp of reading and writing in Year 7, we unlock the remaining 4 years of their secondary education.  If the same student drifts through to Y11 without these fundamental issues addressed, then the intervention he receives in Y11 will – at best – simply paper over cracks.

If we didn’t have performance tables to worry about, secondary schools would surely assign their most effective teachers to Years 7 and 8, rather than Year 11, not least because investment in foundational understanding in Year 7 unleashes a wonderful multiplier effect in the remaining years of the school, whereas investment in the terminal years reaps no long term gains.  Worse still, an obsession with passing exams in Year 11 can handicap the student and the school in their sixth form years, as gaps in understanding are exposed by tougher exams which respond less favourably to intense coaching.

Schools in challenging circumstances are particularly vulnerable short-termism.  Under the constant scrutiny of DFE, Ofsted and Regional Schools Commissioners, it’s no surprise that headteachers devote such energy to the year groups which show up on the next set of performance measures.  Conversely, schools with a stable set of outcomes can spread their attention more evenly across the year groups, ensuring a coherent, progressive 5-year journey for all of their students. Those of us who hoped that the Coasting Schools measure would divert some attention away from challenging schools and towards more affluent communities were left disappointed.

Re-calibrating our obsession with the terminal years feels a bit like trying to jump off a treadmill that has gradually crept up to full speed.  So how can we make the leap?

We can start by making a distinction between strategy and tactics.  Boot camps and booster sessions for Year 11 are tactical approaches which might be worth employing during exam season, but can easily absorb energy and resources which could be deployed elsewhere.  A more strategic investment of energy would be on the fundamentals that affect all students, like cultivating quality teaching through a CPD programme which provides coaching and feedback for all members of staff.  Eric Kalenze alluded to this at ResearchEd when he talked about struggling schools responding to accountability measures by doing exactly what they’ve always done, but doing it with more intensity, rather than taking stock, reflecting on why things might not be working, and investing in long term gains.

Secondly, we need to get better at spotting the difference between a school which has invested in long term growth (a coherent 5-year curriculum; excellent behaviour in all year groups; stretch in Key Stage 3; challenging homework throughout the school; investment in staff) and schools that chase their tale every year by throwing more and more resource at the diminishing returns offered by Y11 intervention.  Ofsted’s recent report “Key Stage 3: the Wasted Years” is long overdue, and I’m glad that the inspectors I’m in contact with speak of a heightened focus on Key Stage 3 in the inspections they’ve conducted since September (see this excellent blog from Alex Quigley on how the Ofsted process favours higher attaining schools, while the tweet below from Ofsted’s Sean Harford suggests improvements might be on the way).


Data can help us too.  If league tables focus solely on the most recent cohort to leave the school, then schools will prioritise these terminal years.  We would be better off looking at 3 year trends for exam results.  Throw in some data on attendance in Year 7, exclusions in Year 8, the number of lessons taught by supply teachers in Year 9, the range of trips in Year 10, and we would be in a stronger position to assess the 5-year journey that our schools provide for our children.

Stakeholders involved with schools should focus on the foundational years, safe in the knowledge that the terminal years will never be overlooked as long as performance tables and floor standards are around.  There’s a temptation for outsiders like RSCs, governors and academy sponsors to focus on Y11 and Y6.  We tend to feel comfortable talking about these year groups, and it’s easier to make comparisons and checks against other schools and historic outcomes given the amount of data that exists for these year groups.  We should resist this temptation though, and focus instead on the daily diet that students receive throughout their time at school.  If students in Year 7 follow a challenging curriculum, with high standards of behaviour and homework, for example, there’s a good indication that the fundamentals are in place.

Public limited companies avoid short-termism by seeking long term institutional investment, for example from pension funds.  This offers some protection from the quick wins sought by individual investors on the stock markets.  Perhaps this is one reason why stand-alone academies seek the support of multi-academy trusts.  The sponsor can be the school’s long-term cheerleader, buffering the school from the short-termism of DFE performance tables and Ofsted.  If the DFE contacts the school in response to a slight dip in results, the academy sponsor can provide reassurance with evidence of strong foundations lower down the school.

Listed companies also have to resist an obsession with their quarterly earnings.  This article in Harvard Business Review offers some solutions:  “Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Ford, to name just a few, have stopped issuing earnings guidance altogether. Google never did. IBM has created five-year road maps to encourage investors to focus more on whether it will reach its long-term earnings targets than on whether it exceeds or misses this quarter’s target by a few pennies.”  It would be remiss for a school to dismiss the outcomes of any single year group – our children only get one chance at success – but we should encourage school leaders to champion the ‘five-year road map’ that their students follow.

Ultimately, for schools in need of significant improvement we need to recognise that quick fixes will only get us so far (see this blog by John Tomsett on great schools not being grown overnight).  We need to be honest about the trade-offs that headteachers need to make when deciding which year groups to focus on, and supportive of headteachers who spread their strongest teachers across all year groups, rather than give priority to the exam years.

It’s the schools that invest all of their energy in these exam years that are most likely to find themselves in terminal decline.

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