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Research report

Rapid School Improvement

Tony McAleavy, Anna Riggall and Rachael Fitzpatrick

This report looks at the experience of an unusually interesting group of schools in England, in which a dramatic improvement in school quality had taken place over a short period of time.

The research involved the following phases:

  • Analysis of the existing literature on rapid school improvement
  • Survey of headteachers
  • Semi-structured interviews with a sub-sample of the surveyed headteachers
  • School case studies – a ‘triangulation’ exercise with a sub set of six schools, this involved interviews with the chair of governors and focus groups with teaching staff

The headteachers who participated in this study clearly articulated the approach they had taken to improve their schools. Each headteacher appeared to have, in effect, a theory of how to bring about change based on what they saw as the key levers for school improvement. The shared framework could be summarised as follows:

  • Teaching quality is the key, with action required on several levels to improve the teaching quality in a school. This includes identifying the best teachers and those with potential, supporting poor teachers but encouraging them to leave if they fail, and bringing in new talent to supplement existing staff.
  • The momentum for improvement must come from the school’s leadership. Initially there is unlikely to be sufficient distributed leadership capacity in an inadequate school, so the headteacher may personally need to take a relatively directive role. This should change over time, with headteachers using a twin-track approach, initially prescribing new ways of doing things while building on the capacity of the whole school team.
  • Two core responsibilities for school leaders are monitoring and motivation. Leaders must monitor the performance of both students and teachers, ensuring that students are on track and that teaching is consistently good and complies with whole school expectations. However, monitoring on its own can be demoralising, and it needs to be combined with motivation and building of trust. This can be achieved through positive feedback, improved school climate and excellent professional learning opportunities.
  • Leading a school from inadequate to good is tough and can be lonely. Leaders require technical skills as well as fortitude, determination and resilience. School leaders also need support from both outside and inside the school.
  • Highly effective school leaders bring about transformation by building coalitions for change with the key stakeholders: teachers, students, governors and parents.