School improvement is complex. We all know that. Turning a school round is not easy and it takes time. An awful lot of time.
We are only as good as our previous twelve months – a slight dip in attainment, perhaps a difficult cohort or a stubborn long-term staffing issue and, bam – on a bad day we could end up in a category. It can feel like it could happen overnight. The problem of course, is that once the decline starts, it’s hard to steer the school back on course, and even harder to keep it there, especially if there’s a change of leadership.
It’s a bit like losing weight – it’s easy to quickly pile on the pounds but takes a lot longer to get rid of it. Keeping the weight off is even harder as it’s very easy to slip back into bad habits and the pounds soon start creeping back. Schools are the same.
As a headteacher I’ve had the privilege of turning round a failing school. It was relatively straightforward getting it out of special measures as I knew how to play the game. Being an inspector myself meant that I had a fairly good idea of the rules of engagement. Moving the school to outstanding though was a different beast. It took an awful lot of blood, sweat and tears along with the odd scrap with Her Majesties Inspectorate (read about it here).
It takes time to turn the oil tanker around. It’s not just as simple as yanking on the handbrake and screeching left. There’s the small matter of building up trust, sharing a vision, taking stock, building synergy, creating a success culture, seizing success. In a previous post I referred to a formula that might be helpful when embarking on systemic change. There is no quick fix, or more to the point, there is no quick-fix that will guarantee that the school will not slip back into decline.
Who knows what would have happened to the school had I walked away at the end of the first year as soon as we were removed from category. In this instance, I’m sure the school would have done very well though, as I was – and still am – blessed with exceptional teachers and leaders. What I do know as a result of me staying, is that it was the consistency of message and approach, day-in-day-out that got it to outstanding. It’s what Tim Brighouse refers to as having an ‘indomitable will’ – the winning of hearts and minds, and all that.
I’m acutely aware of this in my role as Executive Head in the school we sponsor. Technically, it’s still in special measures, although were Ofsted to come back tomorrow I am confident we’d get at least good. We are due our first inspection in Autumn as a new sponsored academy. If we do well, the expectation from the DfE will be that we move on to a new sponsored school. And so it goes on.
The point I’m trying to make is that creating a school that is sustainably viable as a high-performing going concern takes time. I’m very conscious of this as an NLE when supporting a school at a distance. It’s all well and good, but it’s simply not the same when it’s not your own. So why are ministers continually obsessed with this notion that by parachuting in headteachers from other parts of the country a school will automatically transform itself?
Market forces simply don’t apply to education. You cannot send in a hit-squad to reverse the decline in the fortune of a school in the same way as you can a Fortune 500 company. If that was the case, we would have done it years ago. Local authorities surely would have cottoned on to the fact that by sending in the best headteachers, the schools can be transformed. And of course they did, and in many cases it worked. But, too often, as soon as the supporting headteacher returned to base camp, the school risked slipping back into its default position of underperforming.
Surely, the most obvious solution is to simply make sure that we have in place a continual steady supply of competent, committed and highly skilled headteachers who can lead these schools as their own. For years we’ve known about the impending recruitment crisis and lack of headteachers but little has been done about it. So now we are having to rely on locums. I heard @miss_mcinerney, editor of Schools Week, talking on the radio last week making the point that we don’t exactly have a supply of spare headteachers stuffed down the back of the sofa.
One of the challenges that we face as a trust as we hopefully continue to sponsor more schools over the coming years, is keeping the rear doors closed. Our DfE broker made it very clear to us that our ability to continue to sponsor new schools depends very much on maintaining the outstanding judgement. At the moment though, the existing inspection framework cuts me no slack whatsoever.
Being an outstanding school means we’ve not been inspected for several years now. But when the inspectors do come back, are they really going to take into account the fact that my excellent leadership team are now working across several schools and that invariably we are not there five days a week anymore?
I sincerely hope that the new inspection framework takes this into account when judging the quality of school leadership, especially for those schools where the headteacher has been airlifted into another school to do the department’s bidding.
To help us protect our base camp, we’ve been working in partnership over the past 18 months with Bright Field Consulting. We’ve developed a series of scenarios based around the trust’s capacity to continue to grow in relation to our overall Ofsted inspection ratings. Best-case scenario is that all our schools are performing well and that the capacity to expand is high. Worst case is the opposite – that Ofsted judge us ineffective and that our capacity to grow is zero. This does keep me up at night.
The entire academies programme is at a crossroads. If an additional 1000 schools are to require a sponsor in the next five years then we run the risk of implosion. Quite where these are to come from remains unclear. Whether they have the necessary internal capacity is questionable. Finding another one thousand headteachers who are prepared to run these academies seems fanciful (back of the sofa notwithstanding).
So here is the challenge: As a multi academy trust, do we focus on keeping the front door open so that we can continue to welcome and support new (and often challenging) schools, or do we concentrate entirely on keeping the back door well and truly shut? I guess the answer lies in the ability to do both. Our future success depends on my ability to man the doors. Am I up to the task? Time will tell.