Schools have always been organisations which have a clear sense of accountability. Dependent on the country where the school exists there may be a variance of the social values that a school purports to meet, but, in being established so as to provide education in one form or another to its students, schools have always been accountable to them.
In the 21st century English education system this accountability to students has been formalized through the development of a range of external accountability measures and comparative judgments. The UK Government’s White Paper Education Excellence Everywhere (DFE 2016) was the latest in a number of policy proclamations, which identified how a schools accountability and effectiveness would be gauged. Using the now established educational lexis comprising of phrases such as rigour, high expectations and standards, this paper also introduced the idea of a School Led System which in “building capacity through supported autonomy’ presented the promise of Head Teachers and Trust CEOs having the opportunity to lead schools in the manner that they see fit, but counterpointing this with the threat that these methods must lead to student progress and attainment against a curriculum and matrix of judgements established through Government.
Working as a Deputy Head Teacher in a school that is currently in Special Measures, I have an individual interest in identifying factors which could enable the development of schools to progress, within that context to progress or move forward would thus be measured against the external accountability measures of Progress 8 and Ofsted Judgements with the acceptance that in achieving success against these measures, within the current context a school would also be moving forward and progressing with regards to its accountability to parents, students and its staff. This measure of progress would thus also indicate that a school is becoming increasingly succesful in them giving the students the academic currency that can be used to access a full range of opportunities in society.
In this regard my focus has been to look at the impact that leadership can have in achieving progress against such measures. By looking at the identified traits of successful leaders and their organisations its possible to propose a range of areas that must be prioritized and improved in order for a school to progress- and within current context, some situational decisions that should be made to give a school a rational chance to be deemed as such.
Harris and Chapman (2017) in presenting research on how to improve schools which find themselves in difficult contexts, note that in order to do this, it is necessary to reject a generalized view of school improvement or effectiveness as there are not only a range of potential definitions for underperformance (inadequate, coasting, not meeting floor standards) but there are also a range of external and internal variances amongst underperforming schools that distinguish their needs from one another. Not only does differentiation occur in this regard, but the organizational structures of schools that would be deemed to be underperforming can differ across federations and trusts and even within federations and trust (Chapman et al 2010). Accepting that this is true would appear to present a further acceptance that to identify a specific process for a school to absorb and utilise would not be possible. However whilst a school improvement process would need to be tailored situationally, research from Collins (2001), Hill et al (2016) and Lundberg (2001) indicates that certain commonalities in approach could be applied in order to show progress against the afore mentioned external accountability measures.
Hill et al (2016) in fact stated that within school leadership five types of school leaders could be classified and from these classifications it was possible to posit that only one would be authentically successful in achieving long term school success. This study referred to school leaders as either Surgeons, Soldiers, Accountants, Philosophers and Architects, and whilst on some immediate or superficial levels more than one could be perceived to be successful, in fact it is only those that have the Architect characteristics that can be credibly seen to have moved a school forward as they were the only group that had any real long term sustainable impact. To be successful in this regard, the Architect School leader was one with a strong understanding of social and economical leadership and worked within the educational sector out of a strong moral purpose to impact on society and also on communities. In order to make this impact, the Architect understands that to achieve true progress takes time, and therefore took a long term strategic view towards school improvement focusing on areas such as the school environment, student behaviour, teaching and learning development and community relationships. In approaching these areas this study found that impact did not tend to emerge until three years into the school leaders tenure, but it would then continue due to the Architectural foundations put in place, including leading to continued success even after the school leader had left.
This focus on the long term as a measure of success is agreed as being a measure of the most effective leaders by Collins (2001) in his examination of what took place in the most successful businesses. In his study he found that success was equally not reliant upon a ‘miracle moment’ (p3) but instead was the triumph of what he referred to as the ‘Flywheel Effect over the Doom Loop.’ (p3) The Flywheel Effect referring to organizational improvement as taking place through the metaphor of the Flywheel as a heavy metal disk that is difficult to spin, but, once moving is able to generate further pace through the momentum that is gained through continually spinning efforts ‘You aren’t pushing any harder, but the flywheel is accelerating, its momentum building, its speed increasing (p4), citing tangible examples from business he posits that this momentum is generated through the development and collection of quantitative and qualitative evidence that improvement is taking place and therefore that future plans will continue to deliver results on a similar trajectory. The contrast to this in the Doom Loop is a reliance on change programmes but these cause a continued change in direction meaning that momentum is not able to be gained following patterns of new leaders, new programs and ultimately disappointing results. Applying this logic to school improvement, it’s therefore possible to identify how the accuracy of self-evaluation and ensuring that a clarity of long term direction is of paramount importance. Taking into account the external accountability measures this direction would have to be structured in such a way as to meet the need of schools to meet this external criteria. In answering the question of why this Flywheel Approach is successful Collins states bluntly that it is because ‘people in real companies want to be part of a winning team’ (p5) and that when they feel this they build further and further momentum. However despite this assertation he also identifies that truly successful organisations and leaders start with ensuring that they are ‘getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats’ (p5) therefore starting not with an establishment of a direction or vision, but with the recruitment of people that they can use. Collins refers to this as three simple truths. One, starting with the recruitment of the right people means that you will able to adapt to changing contexts. Two, the right people are intrinsically motivated to do a good job and as such mean that they do not hamper the leader with the need to find ways to ensure that they are motivated. And three, that with the wrong people, even if they are headed in a clear direction, it will only lead to mediocrity: ‘Great vision with mediocre people still produce mediocre results.’ (p6) Further to this the clarity of vision of a great leader, who is leading the right people comes from brutal honesty. Within an underperforming school this would mean answering questions such as ‘What is it we are unable to do?’ Are we spending our time and energies on activities that are leading us to our ultimate goal?’ What can we be the best at?’ This honest self-appraisal is an aspect of what Collins found in great organisations, and it was continuous as the flywheel was continually turned. But, like the Architect school leader was not an approach that was focused on immediate success, to achieve true fruition took on average a five year period. However for schools to apply a process such as this and ‘just focus our attention on the right things – and stop doing the senseless things’ incremental improvement can be achieved within that time before the greatness is realized through any externally validated judgement.
Harris and Chapman (2001) also present true school improvement as being where the focus for school improvement is on a longer term transition of a school from one which has low capacity to one which has the characteristics of a school with high capacity. What is striking is that in their identification of the attributes of a low capacity school or an immobile school they present an absence of the brutal and honest self-evaluation that Collins identifies within high performing organisations. Instead Harris and Chapman show that a school that is immobile or with low capacity is reliant on external judgements and input to make progress, and their ability to develop their internal confidence and expertise is consequently crucial in order for them to progress to a stage of increased capacity.
Luneberg (2001) in looking at schools that underperform also identifies traits similar to Collins and calls for a clarification of purpose, in the manner of getting the right people on the right seats. However, in having a specific lens on education, Luneberg refers to a schools purpose as being one which ‘is a matter of public inspection and subject to direct measurement’ and that school systems have the potential to have ‘changing circumstances and needs.’ (p9) In that regard he is supporting Collins’ assertion that recruitment and retention of suitable people to drive the organisation forward is a priority as these people will be able to respond to the changes that there is such potential for within schooling. Harris et al (2010) refer to these changes explicitly, and also cite that within schools that are underperforming these changes are in fact more likely and therefore schools need to be organized in such a way so that they can best respond to them. ‘High staff turnover, poor facilities, lack of resources, failing pupil numbers’ (p410) but despite this ‘myriad of problems’ or ‘complex set of variables’ it was identified that notable school improvement could be achieved and that where this was the case none of the factors were accepted as excuses, but instead, simply factors that needed to be contended with. These schools also exhibited the qualities of exceptional organisations that Collins refers to in their narrowing of focus onto four key areas. The improvement of student literacy and numeracy, a clear focus on teaching and learning, the effective use of data, tracking and target setting and finally a focus on developing really effective professional development opportunities.
These areas of particular focus are rationalized as they all support and are clearly aligned to the schools overarching goal of improving student attainment. Students’ abilities to communicate verbally and in reading and writing alongside their ability to complete arithmetic were identified as being particular barriers to curriculum access, as a result ensuring greater curriculum coverage of these areas was designed and shown to impact upon student ability to do so. Similarly ‘an academic orientation has long been identified as a vital component of effective schools’ (p416) and focusing on student learning, the development of teaching capacity and the constant focus on these areas was shown to be a means to engender the school staff and students with this academic orientation. The use of data and target setting also enabled the reporting of incremental gains which indicated the emerging successes which create the important momentum required for the Fly Wheel effect to take hold. Alongside this, the accurate development of a data rich environment also contributed to the opportunity for the honest-self appraisal which is required to address or pre-empt potential barriers to momentum as they emerge. These collections of incremental data are referred to by Chapman and Harris (2004) as part of three phases of school improvement, again indicating an acceptance that real success is not immediate. These phases are when a school is catching up, consolidating and then ultimately moving ahead. Whilst against some external measures, catching up would not be perhaps be deemed enough to be presented as enough evidence to change a particular perspective of a school, it could be seen as enough to show that improvements are being made and that there would be the likelihood of an improved school judgement in the future.
Returning to the individual positioning from which I am writing, it appears that it is possible to suggest a broad framework to school improvement from the attributes suggested by Collins. Namely, that a school which is underperforming must first ensure that across the organisation, in areas of key importance or agency, has the correct personnel in place. In current organizational structures this would apply to the role of the Head Teacher and Chair of Governors, but also across key roles within senior management teams and middle leadership positions. Getting the right people on the bus with the intrinsic motivation to perform consistently to a high level and to achieve high outcomes. The direction of the organisation also needs to be established, but with a clarity so that gains in this direction can be measured incrementally as a means by which further and continued momentum can be progressively gained. As schools are measured against external accountability means, these should be used, but from a valued perspective, these measures referred to as a means by which schools can achieve a wider moral purpose such as ensuring all students are in employment or Higher education at the leaving age of eighteen. Finally, with the right personnel and aims in place ,the school needs to embark on a continued process of honest and frank self-evaluation so that it can be honest about it’s starting points so that they do not serve to be a block to improvement (Chapman and Harris 2001)
Perhaps where there is greater difficulty is in schools accepting that this direction, once established, will not be one that leads to great outcomes immediately. For a school that has a history of performing well below national floor standards to be expected to achieve at a level above national benchmarks within one year would mean that it is not taking a realistic outlook at its initial capacity or situation or in addition that its leadership approaches were not architectural or based on a premise of the Fly Wheel effect. Instead the incremental progress over a 3 year period under leadership should lead to a continued upward trajectory and improvement, which would ultimately be validated by external measures. True success would be that improvements within schooling are not fleeting, but are sustained. In that regard they would invite improved external judgements, but more importantly, would denote that a school was meeting its core accountability, and providing excellent education and experiences to the students and community that it serves not just now, but for years to come.
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Chapman C and Harris A (2004) Improving Schools in Difficult Contexts: Towards a Differentiated Approach British Journal of Educational Studies Vol 52 No 4 pp417-431 17:4, 409-424, DOI: 10.1080/09243450600743483
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