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Rapid School Improvement

24 June 2016

New research report, launched by Steve Munby at our Inspiring Leadership Conference last week, shows the steps taken by a group of schools to improve the quality of education they offer

Around 360 schools in England, in recent years, have dramatically improved the quality of education they offer in a short space of time. We spoke to nearly 100 of them to find out how they had gone about this.  The findings are grounds for optimism and show commonalities in the approach taken by headteachers to bring about this change. Their stories also demonstrate the complexities of leadership in difficult school environments.

This research is an important source of knowledge on tackling school under-performance and is aimed primarily at  headteachers and policy-makers. Most headteachers conceptualised the requirements for school improvement in a similar way. This consistency feeds into a framework for rapid school improvement which emphasises the need for headteachers to:

  • urgently address teaching quality
  • be authoritative in driving improvement and building leadership capacity over time
  • motivate all staff and monitor progress closely
  • marrying personal resilience with technical skill
  • build coalitions for support and change, both within school and the community

One clear area of consensus among headteachers was that improving teaching quality was essential. Headteachers often found that it was a variability in standards across the school that was the issue, rather than universally weak teaching. The way to overcome this was not necessarily to replace all weak teachers, but to support and encourage growth where possible. Teachers were only moved on when they were non-responsive to support. Most headteachers believed offering in-house professional development was essential, with a number of headteachers also collaborating with other schools to improve standards.

"The first address I gave to the staff on the first day…[I said] there would be people in here who deserved to be in special measures and they are why the school is in special measures, but there are other people, other leaders, other teachers who do not deserve that because they are providing a good (and in some cases, an outstanding) education because I think it is very easy to type everyone with a brush of inadequate but there was real talent here. Sometimes it was hidden, sometimes it was just a beacon within the school, but I acknowledged that it is not all of their faults."

"I think it was very much characterised by establishing – and I even want to say 'imposing' – a consistency across the school… It was important to establish a sense of consistency… So, for example, where lessons weren’t well planned, there weren’t key objectives so we just insisted that every single lesson in the school started with a slide…that explained to students exactly what their learning was and how it fitted in."

Another area of consensus among headteachers related to leadership style. Even where strong 'emergency' leadership was used in the post-inspection period, headteachers agreed this was not sustainable in the long-term. Systems of distributed leadership were considered important in building capacity internally and preparing future leaders.

"I knew what I wanted but I couldn't get there initially…focusing leadership on one person is not healthy for anyone, least of all the organisation. I knew I wanted to distribute responsibility, but I had to get the right team in order to distribute."

Headteachers would not have been able to effect the above changes had they not had the authority to do so. Ofsted was often considered to provide the mandate to affect change, with school leaders accepting the fundamental accuracy of the reports.

"So what I had to do was build leadership capacity, draft in some good teachers, assess all the children and move it forward from there. It's a very strong position one because you have that leverage of, 'Well you’re a failed teacher because this report is saying that the teaching is inadequate, off you go' so to speak. […] it wasn't as hard as it would be if you had […] no, sort of, leverage of special measures, I think. That really helped."

A crucial element in instigating change was also about sustaining momentum and ensuring change was sustainable. It was a common theme among headteachers that once the emergency period of post-inspection has passed it was no longer about 'quick wins'; it became about implementing practices that were sustainable in both the immediate future, and can be carried forward by the next generation of leaders.

"It's sustaining it and reinforcing it and keeping them focused on the right things, and the quality of teaching continues now. I mean I think the last round of observations was about 80 per cent outstanding. We don't necessarily get the 6 plus across the board; that's always a bit of a fight. But you usually get some 6 plusses. It's keeping them going despite the fact that what we’re getting at the bottom end is a massive challenge. We've been flooded with some really SEN children, which is quite difficult. But I'm old now… so my priority is to coach up the next generation of leaders."