If you are taking over at a failing school then you are probably wondering what you have let yourself in for. What’s your plan? It might be as clear as mud because you are probably bombarded with mixed messages about how to turn things around. You might have been advised that school improvement comes through raising teaching standards and reducing class sizes. Of course, there is no magic bullet but there is some research gold worth taking into consideration to inform and guide your thinking and strategy.
According to the Centre for High Performance (The Centre), a team of academics from the universities of Oxford and Kingston and the London Business School, low-performing schools could turn themselves around by following 6 specific steps. The two-year project looked at the changes made by 160 academies in the UK after they were put into special measures by Ofsted. Their findings are in many cases surprising and challenge the beliefs about what are commonly thought to work when taking over at a failing school.
The team analysed data, interviewed leaders, teachers and pupils, then compared each school’s journey to identify some common ’ don’ts and dos’, themes and practices.
The Don’ts and Do’s
- Don’t improve teaching first
The most common mistake to make is to try and improve teaching first: don’t! The Centre suggest that it is better to start first with governance, then leadership, followed by structures, behaviour and then teaching.
Myth: teachers can fix everything.
Reality: teachers are superheroes but they can’t do everything and they need the right conditions and a good environment to work in and have a fighting chance. Great teaching can be wasted.
The Centre suggest,
“Do improve governance, leadership, and structures first. Otherwise, you’re putting great teachers in a position where they fail — they’ll waste time doing or managing the wrong things.”
Schools need the right governance, strong leadership, dynamic structures and well-behaved students.
- Don’t reduce class sizes
Reducing class sizes can work but this isn’t the best use of resources because it is expensive. The Centre found that class sizes of 30 pupils performed as well as classes half that size when standards of behaviour had been addressed first.
Myth: class sizes will help solve the problem.
Reality: the same impact can be achieved by improving student motivation and behaviour.
Controversially, the Centre found that quickest way to create the right environment was to exclude poorly behaved pupils by paying other schools to teach them or build new, smaller schools for them. This might be a quick-win in the short-term but that’s all. The Centre noted,
“The better, more sustainable practice was to move poorly behaved students into another pathway within the existing school, so that they can be managed differently and reintegrated into the main pathway once their behavior has improved.”
- Don’t adopt a “zero tolerance” policy
Many head teachers think that by implementing a hard-line and zero-tolerance approach, standards will improve.
Myth: a get tough approach is the way to steady the ship.
Reality: in the short-term there can be positive impact but in some cases this grotesquely back-fires with some students revolting and evening rioting leading to deeper problems.
The Centre recommends that that what we need to create is an “all through” school so that pupils begin at 5 years and stay until they leave at 16 or 18 years.
“In this way, school leaders can create the right culture early on and ensure that poor behaviors never develop. It also makes teaching at secondary school level (age 11 up) much easier, as you don’t have to integrate older students with different views about standards.”
Consistency is king and an all-through school-wide culture can ensure that bad behaviours don’t start early or get confused with transfer and transition to secondary.
- Don’t use a super head
Parachute at the ready? Many academies parachute some sort of SAS surgical super head from a successful school which can produce short-term positive impact.
Myth: super heads can wave a magic wand.
Reality: super heads don’t really exist. Yes, a competent leader might make waves by diverting resources but in terms of sustainable long-term improvement generally this is rare. A school made around a single extraordinary leader never sustain their success. When Superman or Superwoman up sticks, a school can fall apart.
The so-called super head might come into a school and focus on a particular school year (Y11) and certain key subjects (English and maths) but it was found that exam results dipped in every case after the head left and then took 3 years to start improving.
The Centre suggests that all year groups require improvement and not just a quick-win to get better results.
“Although schools can improve short-term performance by cutting and reallocating resources, they will not create sustainable improvement unless they invest in all age groups and subjects.”
In a separate report, the Centre, recommend that the best type of head to take over a failing school is ‘the architect’, as this will be someone who has the most positive long-term impact on exam results:
“They are visionary, unsung heroes. Stewards, rather than leaders, who are more concerned with the legacy they leave than how things look whilst they’re there.”
An architect is someone who stops the rot, stabilises the situation and stays around to build long-term improvement.
- Don’t expect inner city schools to be more difficult.
It can be easy to assume that the inner city schools are the hardest places to turn around and are more difficult.
Myth: inner city schools are tougher to bring about change in.
Reality: urban schools can often be much easier to secure improvement because they have greater access to good leaders and teachers.
The Centre recommend that we need to invest more in rural and coastal schools as recruitment tends to be a much bigger problem and so acts as a stumbling block,
“It is more difficult to attract good leaders, teachers and students in rural and coastal areas. Improvement was much slower in these regions.”
- Don’t expect spending more money to solve your school’s problems any faster
Money matters and resourcing can definitely help to overcome certain challenges and obstacles but it isn’t everything.
Myth: throw money at the problem and you’ll get results
Reality: the overall speed of improvement matters more by making the right changes and in the right order.
The Centre recommends that operational performance has to be put before pursuing financial performance but recognises that spending more, at least in the short-term, will help make improvements.
“To improve student learning, schools must have the basic resources they need to improve student behavior, pay higher salaries to attract good teachers, and employ staff to manage parents so teachers can spend more time teaching and leaders can spend more time leading. “
The Centre notes that schools have to plan for a sag in financial performance before exam results improve and that a school either needs to part of a larger group (such as a Multi-Academy Trust) with access to the resources needed to get through the dip or obtain another school early on in your journey to increase revenue and spread costs across a larger number of pupils.
All the steps above have been found to be important but the Centre found that the most substantial improvement occurred, “when schools changed their students by excluding poor behaviour, creating multiple pathways for students with differing needs and creating a school for ages five through 16–18. This change consistently improved performance more than any other.”
To access the report and find out more then see https://hbr.org/2016/08/how-to-turn-around-a-failing-school
About the author
John is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books, and contributed over 1,000 articles and features to various educational bodies. John is Eteach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru, sharing insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.