What the Harvard Business Review of ‘turn around’ schools can teach the head of department Part 2

business-team-woman-leaderThis is the second of a two-series blog looking at the findings of a study of 160 secondary schools in England and Wales published in the Harvard Business Review that defines the main ‘Dos and Don’ts of schools that had managed significant improvement. Of the 12 key common features of successful ‘turn around’ schools, this post considers points 6-12. The first five were discussed in this post here.

The key recommendations were written for whole-school management; these two posts attempt to translate their implications and advice for heads of department/faculty in ways they might develop new, or ‘in need of improvement’ subject teams.

#6 Do create an ‘all-through’ school

Clearly, not within the remit of a department or faculty. But, just before moving swiftly on to the next one, there are benefits from considering the messages and extracting the value. The HBR report suggest that behaviour is more consistent as children grow up in all-through schools, shaped by a common ethos without having to adapt to a change of expectations at age 11. I’m a bit dubious that this is all it is, given that most secondaries draw on a whole family of feeder primaries and rarely rely on a single primary school, even if a substantial one is encompassed within the academy structure. What other studies seem to suggest is that at least one of the transition factors is the expectation of secondary teachers of Year 7s, the pitch of the teaching and the standard of work deemed acceptable. This is where collaborating with feeder primary teachers is beneficial: watching Y6s at work in your subject if possible; certainly setting up a system such that portfolios of students’ best work is transferred to the secondary (electronically, would be best) and used to establish the pitch, sophistication and reach of work in Y7. There is a lesson here for heads of subject. Get into the lessons of some Year 6s, let them get to know you, familiarise yourself with their level of operation and plan Y7 and 8 accordingly. It would be good to see Y6 teachers invited into Y7 lessons in November onwards and asked to comment on the material they see their students from 6 months ago working on and the standard they are operating at. Short of being able to set up an all-through school, aim for an ‘all-through route map of subject succession’.


#8 Do improve all year groups

You can have short-term success by piling all your key resources into GCSE or A level courses but, says the report, you won’t get sustainable improvement unless you focus on all year groups equitably. Tricky, when you’ve got the head and chair of governors breathing down your neck to improve GCSE results and parents wanting assurance the best teaching will be securing their daughters and sons the grades they need to get into university. The response should be to develop all your team so they are groomed to become ‘the best’ teachers at GCSE and A level if they are not already, retain those who are and ensure that curriculum planning follows a careful cycle. GCSE and A level reform means that the focus of many departments is, right now – and for the next couple of years – clearly focused on getting the new courses in place. But, once that is done, give equal focus, time and capitation to making sure the KS3 years receive the same attention. Try to make Y11 ‘intervention’ unnecessary – because the foundations were laid effectively years earlier in what was learnt, how it was learnt, and the ethos of progression established.


#9 Don’t expect inner city school to be more difficult

The human talent pool of large cities, according to the HBR report, means that there is greater access to effective school leaders, teachers and students aspiring to learn. What can be taken from this by the subject department whether in a large city or beyond?  Teaching in a rural, coastal school (see below) we frequently had teachers moving to us from the large city 12 miles away. More than once you would hear a member of staff complaining about the behaviour of an individual student or group they’d just taught, to hear the response from a recent teacher arrival “Think that’s bad? Whoa – you should’ve seen what we had to contend with in …. (name of inner city school of previous employment)”. The message is: don’t expect teachers coming from other schools (inner city or otherwise) to have your departments’ expectations of student (and teacher) behaviour. Make it part of the tick-list of induction to set before them and exemplify the standards of behaviour, learning and performance you expect of your students in your department (as referenced in #4). The other side of the coin to this is that new teachers may have far better class-management techniques and strategies that they can be urged to share with your team. Their insights, training and skills are potentially a rich resource to be exploited. Don’t let them lie hidden behind their own classroom door when your full team can benefit from access to them.


#10 Do invest more in rural and coastal schools

Spending 28 years in a school that was both coastal and rural – I can only say this one burned deep when I read it. We were acutely aware of how much better funded students in the nearby city were, as well as students in southern counties. Just – yes.


#11 Don’t expect spending more money to solve your school’s problems any faster….

What the report suggests is more important than the amount an improving school spends, is changing the right things in the right order. You can’t spend yourself out into the sunshine. Spend your capitation wisely (goes without saying). Be sure the text books you buy can last the distance, won’t become outdated too rapidly and have decent questions and exercises in them (some of the most beguiling glossy text books have failed on this crucial score). Be careful over expensive ‘glitter’ for your department. I had a stockroom with a particularly dark corner for the follies that had as much lasting worth as cheap Christmas tree baubles that I had inadvisedly acquired over the years. Finding ways to pay certain teachers more to ‘retain’ is rarely cost-effective. Make the department live each day in such a way that your team members want to stay. And when they’re ready to be off – wish them well. Invest time in building an effective and honest social-media profile of your department to assist recruitment. One of our best ways of recruiting new teachers was giving them the best experience we could as students: I’ve lost count of the number of ex-students who are now – or have been – fully qualified PGCE teachers, both at the school and in others in the region. One started her career in the geography department this term. Growing-your-own has never been so necessary.


#12 …But, at the same time don’t expect to improve without spending more, at least in the short term.

The message in the report is be prepared to invest heavily at the start in an unsustainable way. Cut back later when the ‘lift’ has been generated. As a head of department the message here is: be prepared to invest time and thought at the start of the improvement process in a way that you need to find out what’s going on in it, do the day-job, set up the systems, plan what to keep, sustain the good, change what needs changing – and do it all while maintaining the ‘health’ of the team. Then cut back to something more sustainable for your own well-being. Departments go through cycles of ‘capacity’ (see my blog ‘Taking the temperature of your department’). Assess where yours is, match your plan to the capacity and modify it as capacity changes.


#7 Don’t use a ‘super head’

The HBR authors are disparaging about ‘super heads’ parachuted in to give a proverbial kick to a school. They say their impact is short-term, not sustained (nor sustainable), focuses on a limited number of highly visible outcomes that don’t lay the foundation for future continuing success, move on and leave a deficit of money and goodwill.  I’ve left it till the end as the most important point: know why you’re doing the job, do it for its intrinsic value rather than a stepping-stone to something else, (though if you choose to go on to something else, all well and good) and don’t beat yourself over the head if you don’t feel you’re doing a good enough job (compared with what?, who?, when?). You’re the best person to be doing this role, here, now and this way – it’s why you were appointed; cherish the opportunities you have to make a difference and give it the time sufficient to sleep soundly at night. You’re not aiming to be a ‘super-head of department’ but to do the job each day in the frame of mind that sees you laying long-term foundations for a building that will never be complete, but will stand as a testament that you’ve done the best you can with the means available for each cohort of students who pass through its gates. Play the long game with a consistent sense of relish. That will be heading for ‘super’.


You can read the full article – entitled ‘How to turn around a failing school’ – in the Harvard Business Review here, compiled by Alex Hill, Liz Mellon, Jules Goddard and Ben Laker

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