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How To Transform a School for Good

Alex Hill, Liz Mellon, Ben Laker & Jules Goddard have followed up their work on different types of school leaders – architects and surgeons – with more insights into the work of these transformational headteachers.  A copy of their briefing paper is here (Secrets of the Architect Leader); these are my reflections on it.

The nine secrets (building blocks) include: challenge the system (stay at least 5 years), challenge the staff (30-50% turnover) and receive challenge from (30-60%) of the governors; engage with parents (50% attendance at Parents Evening), engage the staff (70% with no absence) and engage the pupils (95% attend all lessons) and finally teach better (100% capable staff); teach all pupils (<3% exclusions) and teach longer (extend the age range – add a Sixth Form; go all through).  The tipping point seemed to be getting six building blocks in place over the first three years; as the team explained:

“We found it wasn’t always possible to put all 9 building blocks in place in the first three years, no matter how hard you try … The good news is our research clearly shows there’s a tipping point in each transformation when 6 of the building blocks are in place – not all 9. The last 3 blocks help to sustain the transformation, but there are diminishing returns. Leaders who put all 9 blocks in place in three years increased test scores by 50 percentage points in the following five years. But leaders who put in 6 blocks increased results by 45 percentage points. In other words, test scores increased by 7 percentage points for each of the first 6 blocks put in place, but only by 1 percentage point for the 3 after that.”

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Certain things resonated not least the need to stick at it; the school system is so obsessed with quick fixes that perverse behaviours (off rolling pupils) and extreme short termism (sack a teacher rather than develop them) has become too prevalent.  We need to think about the five to ten year plan whilst doing the very best for students who haven’t got that many years of schooling left.  It’s a tall order.  Too often when another initiative/board/plan hit Blackpool that didn’t impress me, I knew if I keep my head down it would soon disappear and invariably did.  The same is true for the staff we lead; rapid turnover of headteachers or one initiative after another can lead to a bunker mentality.  Get into my classroom do my bit and ignore whatever flak is flying; isolation instead of collaboration and professional learning.  It isn’t simply sticking at it though; sticking at the right things for the long term is the necessity.  Many of these headteachers told how they were nearly sacked at the end of their second year because examination results weren’t improving quickly enough.

There were some obvious building blocks that leaders ignore at their peril; even if at times they are difficult to achieve.  It doesn’t matter how good a teacher is if s/he is absent from class; the pupils won’t learn.  Equally once you’ve got a 100% capable staff doing a great job; pupils won’t learn if they are not there.  Once the pupil returns not only has s/he missed the lesson but another gap in learning is created that makes future learning that much more difficult.  When first working in challenging schools/areas it’s too easy to make assumptions that the basics are in place.  Often they are not.

The staff turnover issue (30-50%) needs further comment; with a staff of one hundred people, five to ten staff leaving a year for normal reasons – promotion, retirement, career break, career change, they were on supply – is not extreme.  Ten staff each year over three years gets you to the 30% mark; if the school grows and new staff are appointed the percentage of turnover increases further.  It’s not about going in and firing staff; it’s about the culture change that follows.  This means the recruitment process is key; you need to appoint staff who align with the big picture of what you are trying to achieve.  Don’t forget the 50-70% of staff who have stuck around and intend to see the transformation through.  More and more schools, secondary in particular, where this research is based, are struggling as the pool of potential teachers is shrinking.  Professional development becomes a more realistic if longer term option and a critical lever.

The teach longer block (extend the age range of the school) with its focus on increasing resources available or having a greater influence on pupils surprised me.  Not that I would disagree with these elements but rather because there was no mention of cross phase transition work on curriculum continuity; stopping the wasted years of Key Stage 3.  My bias is showing here as that was one of the drivers that led to me helping form our cross phase multi academy trust. 

Stepping back from some of the detail, what I see is the explicit development of a culture by the school leader.  Schools that are in difficulty (all the schools in this study had been in special measures) can adopt a fire fighting, kick ’em out and keep the wolves at bay type approach.  I sometimes wish I could go back and start headship again armed with the greater experience and understanding I have now; I’d do a much better job.  This model potential distills some of that wisdom into our system really needs; it’s a part rather than the whole picture but a potentially valuable part.  School leaders using this as a model to guide their thinking and actions are arguably more likely to have impact than those using a hunch, their guts or simply thrashing around.

It’s important to note this is correlation type research rather than a randomised control test; the latter seeks to more accurately attribute causation; that is, this improvement was caused by X as opposed to Y.  The contributors and authors will both attempt to honestly identify the reasons for the improvements seen but biases and limitations of evaluation means they won’t always get it right.  Read it and be interested, would be my advice; then discern for yourself the lessons you can usefully take away and action.  There are some great lessons to learn about transforming a school for good.



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