The number 1 principle that is secretly killing school improvement

One single principle has gained huge ground in our education system and it's wreaking long term havoc for our schools. It's the short term fix. 

There is no shortcut to improving learning in a school. You can achieve a short-term spike in results with quick-fix measures (often at the expense of long term success), or you can achieve long-term success with an in-depth, holistic approach. Nothing demonstrates the perils of the quick fix more clearly than the modern phenomenon of the so-called ‘superhead’. They are typically seen as having outstanding qualities as a leader and come well-regarded with a reputation that precedes them. Their ability to transform schools on the brink of closure into outstanding-rated beacons of success is certainly impressive, and has probably helped to save schools that might otherwise have closed permanently. The news headlines and Department for Education accolades do not tell the whole story, however.

Researchers at the Centre for High Performance observed 160 academies over five years, including twenty-one schools with a superhead. At first glance, the study appears to suggest that they are the secret to success: the academies with superheads in charge oversaw greater immediate improvements than the rest. However, what this research also brings to light is the questionable methods employed by the superheads employed during their tenures. All but one of the twenty-one superheads in the study moved their outstanding teachers into year 11, the GCSE year group, boosting the chances of that age group performing well, but also depriving younger children access to outstanding teaching until their final year. All of the superheads focused specifically on maths and English, often at the expense of arts subjects and extracurricular activities, and excluded poorly behaving students. Eighteen out of twenty-one didn’t enter low-ability pupils into exams unless parents agreed to educate them at home.

I find this troubling because I don’t believe that academically able children have a higher ‘value’ than those who find themselves on grade boundaries. likewise, I don’t believe that certain subjects should be given precedence over others.

The real cost of the short-term gains achieved by these methods becomes clear when you see what happened to these academies once the superheads departed. Results fell on average by 6%. The longer they stayed in a school, the worse the impact was when they left. Those staying for three years or longer saw results fall by an average of 9% when they departed. Not surprising when you consider that the schools’ resources were channelled towards the students that ‘mattered’ the most in terms of immediate targets, the GCSE year group. It cost the twenty-one academies in the study a staggering £11.8 million in consultancy fees to rectify the damage left behind by these tactics.

By contrast, the academies without superheads outperformed their counterparts at the five-year mark. Improvement was slower, but there were no exam result crashes or any need to bring in external consultants.

Superheads command salaries starting at £70,000 in primary schools and £100,000 in secondaries. The high premium that schools pay for this kind of leadership could be better spent, in my opinion. Focusing on targets helped these schools in the short term, but left them with a host of problems to unpick once those targets had been met.

The evidence is clear: you can’t achieve long-term success with a short-term mindset and we must refrain from thinking so. Schools are often at the mercy of education policy, and the sooner policy makers understand the mistakes they've made the better, but while that battle continues school must not get complacent in areas that they do have control over. Technology is one area where schools must begin thinking longer term.

It’s estimated that £900m will be spent on technology this academic year. Add this to the £1 billion racked up over the past five and we’re not looking at loose change here. Where is the long term planning for technology in our schools?

Schools are buying in tablet devices with no clear long-term plan, interactive whiteboards are purchased because ‘the school down the road have them,’ and every year countless school leaders are seduced in the supplier booths at education trade shows. Technology isn’t inherently bad, but neither is it inherently good. It’s inanimate, and the only value it will provide to your school is entirely dependent on what your teachers are able to do with it. If technology doesn’t become part of your long-term development plan, meaning that it aligns with your development priorities, you’ll find that not only will it drain your resources, but it will eventually led to a tangle of problems that are not easily unpicked. Like the superheads from the ATOS  research, technology without a long term plan is draining resources long after it has been brought in. The only difference? No one has caught on to it yet.


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Jay Ashcroft

Entrepreneur. Author. Speaker. Cofounder of LearnMaker