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


Just over a month ago a little-heralded report emerged from the Harvard Business Review concerning a major study of schools in England and Wales. It’s eye-catching headline was that ‘superheads don’t work’. Okay – so it came out at the end of the second week of the summer holidays when many were daubing sun-tan lotion and absorbing foreign wines. But I think its messages, drawn from a study of 160 academies put into special measures by Ofsted and eliciting the common features of turn-around schools, is worthy of a wider readership.

Its 12 recommendations, based on the effectiveness of school improvement strategies, can be read straight as guidance for school leadership teams. But I wonder if it also holds true (if adapted) for subject departments/faculties in secondary schools and colleges. There are far more people in these positions, and often it is what departments do that, collectively, determines the success of a school’s improvement programme. Not so much ‘top-down’, but ‘engine-room-out’. So for those who are driving particular subject areas, both new to role and those who are established in role, maybe there are some pointers to your priorities for action at the start of this academic year as the blur of the first couple of weeks begins to settle and you can begin to think strategically.

#1 Don’t improve teaching first

As a new head of department, or with new recruits to the team there may be a sense of urgency to direct the ‘how’ of teaching that you’d like to see, or that you consider is likely to be successful with your students. Restrain the temptation after a couple of lesson drop-ins in bringing the discussion around to ‘…maybe you could try to do it like….’. Your first priority is to provide (not ‘offer’) support: behaviour support, classroom management support, back-up – call it what you will. Make your priority supporting your team without hesitation. Help them feel you have their back and they have your unconfined faith in what they are trying to achieve. This is the foundation of granite on which you will build everything else. Work it day in, day out and be seen to give unconditional time and attention to this. (see #4 for this is more depth).

#2 Do improve governance, leadership and structures first

Okay – how does this translate to the department scale? Pretty straight-forwardly. Ensure you’re absolutely clear about the context of support ‘you’ operate in first of all (how much backing can you expect from SLT and in what manner), and then give time to thinking through, consulting and devising the plumbing of your department’s operation of systems. Then be explicit with your team about the department’s organisational structures for the twin pillars of mutuality: support and accountability. What are the routes when x,y and z happen? What does a member of the department do when their own tactics fail? And how will you develop a sense of what is taking place in classrooms across your department? Set out a clear calendar of how you keep a check on what’s happening so there are no surprises and your team knows what you will be doing, when, why and with what interaction. Make it clear the flow of trust goes both ways: you are there to ensure they can do the best job they can; you can’t do your job without being clear about what is happening in and out of all your team’s classrooms.

#3 Don’t reduce class sizes.

As a department head you will probably have limited influence over this. The report suggests that class size is independent of student performance; what matters is behaviour and behaviour support (see 1 & 4). Do, however, be aware of marking load on teachers in your department with large classes and don’t set expectations beyond what can be reasonably managed within a sustainable work-life balance. Keep a note of who has the large and small classes from one year’s timetable to the next and keep it as equitable as possible.

#4 Do improve student behaviour and motivation.

The key, the crux, the diamond in the mix. Harder to do if the school systems are not particularly effective, but not unachievable. It’s possible to construct a hermetically sealed ethos around your department that students recognise as they enter your zone of the school (assuming you have a distinct area). Strut the corridor and claim the ground: this is ‘your’ department territory and you will defend it to make the terrain a safe-zone like a first century Maiden Castle hill-fort.


Establish the faculty standards of behaviour you expect to see from your students and be unrelenting in embodying, reinforcing, restating and repeating them. The biggest investment in this is ‘time’ and ‘will’. The dividends generate a yield far in excess down the line.

State these, police these, breathe these inside every department classroom you are in, and in your corridors. Carry it in a bubble around each department member when you are on duty in playgrounds and comporting yourselves around the school. Each of you is the department on the move. Be consistent within and beyond your classroom area; for everywhere is your ‘teaching’ area.

Department meeting time is well spent on discussing behaviour standards and especially ‘what do we do when…..’ scenarios arise. This is a chance to reinforce #2; the structures and systems that live by repetition and replication.

Every time you visit classrooms (often), make it clear to the students they are in a ‘department’. They are not in ‘a’ classroom with ‘a’ teacher, but part of a family of classrooms and a team of teachers who operate collectively. Tell them how they’re doing compared with another class you’ve seen (better); show them some student responses from other classes and set the standard you want them to beat; let them know how what they’re doing will help in next year’s lessons that you’ve just seen – or how far they’ve come from last year’s, – the year class you’ve just been in. Give horizontal and vertical integration to each classroom to construct a breadth and depth of department experience that will encompass their time on the timetable with you.

Use your non-contact time to support students and teachers in managing behaviour issues:

  • Collect a student from other lessons just before the bell to come and discuss an earlier issue on one of your department colleague’s terms.
  • Cover a team member’s lesson for the last 10 minutes so they can go and collect a student from another lesson to establish the conditions for their next encounter, or to have a meeting with a pastoral/year head to investigate the finer points of a student’s situation in school and/or at home.
  • Accompany a department colleague as they meet with a student/phone parents/co-sign letters home – to establish a sense of department collective.
  • If your non-contacts don’t fall with the imperative of the situation, call on other department heads or SLT members to sit with your class while you follow through your support function. You’ll be prepared to do the same for them.
  • Find time to give feedback to a dept. colleague about how they have handled a behaviour situation – particularly to praise and reinforce good practice. If necessary suggest, and explain, why an alternative approach may be more effective.
  • Follow-up every removal of a student from a classroom in your department. Be relentless on this – to let them know this is a department-wide incident and that they face a response of extreme collectivity should they decide to behave in a similar way again. (Both my second-in-department colleagues I worked with over 25 years leading a humanities faculty enforced the same theme with students: ‘Take one of us on, you take all of us on’. That message could only have life breathed into it because they were selfless in supporting me when I needed it with my own students, and backing up their own subject teams).
  • Keep a short record on who you’ve seen to discuss a behaviour incident – and follow it up 2-3 weeks later. Let them know they’re still on the radar and that you’re pleased no further repetition has taken place, or disappointed if it has – and point out the scale of sanctions it will escalate up (that you have in your ‘systems structure’ of #2).

Oh – and ‘motivation’? That will come. Students will be motivated to learn in your department’s classrooms if they sense their self-confidence is encouraged to unzip and peel out in conditions of safety, security, good order with a focus on achievement. Your team will teach more naturally (ie effectively) where the behaviour is managed visibly and they know they are supported. Don’t sweat the motivation; sweat the behaviours that permit motivation to be irrepressible.

#5 Don’t use a ‘zero tolerance’ policy.

Basically – it’s unsustainable. It doesn’t last and can’t accommodate the changes students go through as their adolescence progresses, suggests the report. This is not to say don’t have clear boundaries and consistent expectations. Those are essential. But arm your team with a range of responses they should consider selecting from in particular circumstances. The boundaries stay consistent; it’s the response that has the flexibility. Your job is to set the expectations, make sure your team is aware of them,  interpret their implementation uniformly, and can then account for their response to particular incidents. If you sense their response was inappropriate – or misjudged, then use it as an opportunity for a professional development conversation. (Though, not in front of the student).


That is enough for one blog. I’ll leave this one there and in the follow-up piece (which you can find here), cover the other 7 recommendations of the report. They are:


#6 Do create an ‘all-through’ school

#7 Don’t use a super head

#8 Do improve all year groups

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

#10 Do invest more in rural and coastal schools

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

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


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

1 Comment

Filed under Behaviour, School management, Uncategorized

One response to “What the Harvard Business Review of ‘turn around’ schools can teach the head of department.

  1. Pingback: What the Harvard Business Review of ‘turn around’ schools can teach the head of department Part 2 | meridianvale

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