Beyond Boom and Bust

It’s easy to be taken in by the quick fixes made by superheads, fixes which are often about changes to personnel (both pupils and teachers, as Dr Ben Laker’s recent Harvard Business Review article shows) rather than genuine gains in the quality of education.

We can also be duped by tips and tactics.  There was plenty of useful advice in a recent SSAT series “365 ways to improve a school” but I fear that our school leaders and the institutions in their care don’t need more ideas, more activity, more buzzwords – they need to refine the basic fundamentals that ensure sustainable success.

Last night Dr Laker (@DrBenLaker) published a second Harvard Business Review article.   This one identifies the things that leaders do that build lasting success.  I’m thrilled that we’re finally getting a glimpse of the infrastructure of school improvement, rather than the superficial trappings.  Dr Laker’s two articles are the first (and only) to appear in Harvard Business Review that focus on UK schools.  He told me that he wrote them because “we need to stop local authorities, academy trusts and governing bodies from treating their headteachers like football managers. We need to judge leaders on their legacy, as well as their tenure.  It’s time we celebrated our “Architects” and consigned our boom-bust “Surgeons” to history.

He and I agree that too many schools imitate the line-ups, the booster camps, the blazers and the Latin lessons of successful schools but would be better off investing in the hidden platforms of sustainable improvement: leadership, culture, curriculum, assessment and teaching.

We could do with some support from above here.  Appointed to a school with less-than-secure results, why should a newly appointed head focus on Key Stage 3 when she might not be there to see them through to Key Stage 4 unless she secures rapid improvement with the current Y11 and Y10?

One half of our accountability system – performance tables – will always be based on examined year groups, so what if the other half of our accountability system – Ofsted – turned its attention to sustainable school improvement?  Too messy?  Too arbitrary? Too unreliable?  There are no perfect measures here but with a few intelligent questions Ofsted might be able to reach some conclusions about the sustainability of a school’s success:

  • Curriculum continuity: Do students follow a stable and coherent programme of study, or does this change every year (indicating short-termism and leading to teacher workload and burnout)?
  • Allocation of teachers: Are experienced and established teachers spread throughout classes and year groups, or does the school place its most effective practitioners in Y11?
  • Behaviour: Is low-level disruption systematically tackled?
  • Supply teachers: What proportion of lessons are taught by supply teachers, and in which subjects and year groups?
  • Literacy catch-up programme:  Do students who start school unable to read fluently receive rapid support, enabling them to access the curriculum for the next five years?
  • Roll and reputation: Is the school full in all year groups?
  • Exclusions: What do exclusion figures tell us about behaviour and about the school’s long-term commitment to all students?  Do ‘challenging’ students go missing between Y10 and Y11?
  • Attendance: What do attendance figures tell us about basic expectations and systems?

Multi-Academy Trusts have an important role to play here in supporting school leaders in developing the infrastructure of school improvement, rather than throwing the kitchen sink at Y11.  We must never ignore the outcomes of our current leavers, but we can reassure our heads that it’s ok to distribute energy and urgency more evenly.

Take this line from Dave Levin, founder of KIPP charter schools: “we have 7000 kids in college”.  It’s rare treat to hear a school leader take pride in the long term success of his students.  Levin describes KIPP’s 20-year investment in his students, which means that they take just as much pride in their former students’ college graduation rates as current test scores in their own charter schools.  It’s a far cry from squeezing kids over the C/D threshold after intensive spoon feeding, then turning our attention to the next Y11 cohort as our leavers flounder in further and higher education.

Thanks to Dr Laker’s research we can begin to distinguish between the quick fix surgeon and the transformational architect headteacher who invests in the infrastructure that ensures sustainable success.  Writing today in The Times (with David Weston), he comments “Why do we celebrate inconceivably quick school turnarounds? And why do we judge the leaders of these schools by their tenure, not their legacy? Surgeons were given more knighthoods, damehoods, CBEs, MBEs and OBEs than any other type of school leader. But, as they take their halos with them, they can sometimes leave behind a trail of destruction as the miraculous improvements go into bone-crunching reverse. Is this the right way to improve our schools and our society? We need to stop this debilitating boom-and-bust cycle by fundamentally rethinking how we develop, reward and recognise our school leaders.”

Dr Laker is currently writing a third Harvard Business Review article. It focuses on school culture and is expected to be published in 2017.

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