Centre for High Performance

School Improvement for those who don’t believe in School Improvement?

Research produced by the Centre for High Performance has grabbed some startling headlines recently: “unruly pupils ‘excluded by failing academies to boost standards’” and “Superheads – the true cost to schools”.

The actual report How to Turn Around a Failing School is more nuanced than these headlines, and Alex Hill’s talk in Dubai provides further clarity, but even the full report contains some pretty blunt findings on what works with school improvement.  Take step 4 of their 8-step ladder: “Student quality – exclude poor quality students, improve admissions and acquire a local primary school.”  This 8-step ladder isn’t buried in an appendix – it leaps out of page 1.

The report’s authors – Alex Hill and Ben Laker – are keen to point out that they are reporting on what has happened, not what should happen.  They studied 160 academies placed in special measures, then tracked progress over 7 years and plotted this progress against the actions taken by school leaders throughout the improvement process.

I’ve described to colleagues the model proposed in the report as ‘school improvement for people who don’t believe in school improvement’.  It reveals the effectiveness of supply-side reforms (‘better’ students, teachers, leaders and governors) rather than securing better outcomes with the same personnel.  It’s no surprise that one of the authors comes from an engineering background; his previous work includes titles such as “How do you stabilise your supply chains?” and “Essential Operations Management”.

Alex and Ben were kind enough to meet myself and a few colleagues this week.  Here’s what I took from our discussion:

  1. Changes to personnel (students, parents, teachers, governors) are easier in urban areas than rural and coastal areas due to the simple fact that urban schools can draw on a larger pool of people in close proximity to the school. This means that isolated schools simply don’t have access to some of the key drivers of school improvement mentioned in the report.
  2. Genuine school improvement takes time and money. If we want quick wins, canny heads can achieve them, but proper school improvement takes time.  The announcement that Ofsted will give new leadership teams of challenging schools an ‘improvement period’ in which they are safe from inspection is welcome.   The report also makes it clear that purse strings may need to be loosened until standards improve.
  3. Schools can’t do everything at once, but should start with the basics such as leadership, attendance and behaviour. It’s fashionable to talk about marginal gains in education, but failing schools need to do more than tinker at the edges (more on this HERE).
  4. We know very little about school improvement. As the authors point out in their criticism of super-heads, school improvement is often based on the hope that individuals with a track record elsewhere can work similar miracles in a new context.  This fixation with personnel suggests that our knowledge of school failure, and the support needed to revive failing schools, is limited.  I hope that reports such as this one might fuel dialogue which deepens our understanding of real school improvement, and I hope that the introduction of new performance measures this year (Progress 8 etc) might enable us to peak under the bonnet of transformed schools to see if the reality matches the rhetoric.

I think there are flaws in this report.  The authors come from a business background, and the outcomes of this report are jarring to those of us who know that schools can achieve better outcomes with the same students.  We know that it’s easier to get better outcomes with kids from richer families, but we go into education because we believe that we can make a difference in the lives of our students whatever their starting points.  I wish the authors had spent time researching schools that did make genuine gains with the same students and teachers.

The Centre for High Performance has studied success in a range of contexts and seeks to apply this to education, but all of the organisations mentioned (New Zealand’s All Blacks, British Boxing, NASA, Royal Academy of Music, Royal Marines, Royal College of Arts and Royal Shakespeare Company) can select elite performers from a wide pool of talent.  If we want to learn how to transform challenging schools we should focus not on selective organisations but on those which have delivered sustained improvement with the same resources as they had when they were failing.

This report has shone a light on the stark choices that schools face if they want to rapidly improve student outcomes.  It is deliberately devoid of value-judgements and social conscience.  I am sure I won’t be alone in seeking to fuse the findings of this report with the moral purpose that underpins our profession.


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