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School Improvement that Sticks

  • Leadership
  • School Improvement
Heather Leatt
Heather Leatt 20 November, 2018

School improvement is rarely out of the limelight these days.  Whether it’s Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman talking about schools placing too much weight on exam results to the detriment of offering a broad curriculum(as a result, she admitted, inspectors had not always placed enough emphasis on it) or the former National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, saying that schools cannot turn themselves around in a year.

The conundrum of what makes a good school and how to get (or stay)

there remains as thorny as it ever did.

A wise Director of Children’s Services once told me that only two things brought about school improvement: great teaching and the leadership and management which allowed it to happen.  Without these two things, a school would struggle to be good or better.  This may well be true, but underlying this is a range of things that need to be in place for this to happen.  Accurately identifying the barriers to improvement and then addressing them are key pieces in the puzzle and no two schools are the same.  It therefore stands to reason that school improvement is not an exact science and a ‘one-size fits all’ approach is unlikely to be effective. In some schools, the issues to be addressed may be relatively straight forward and improvement brought about reasonably quickly, but in others, particularly in those schools where there have been serious issues for a long period of time (years or in rare cases even decades), in my experience time will be needed to effect the changes required to move them forwards.

Over the past decade or so, the school improvement imperative, coupled with the accountability regime, has not really allowed for time – the necessity for change to be ‘rapid’ has been enshrined in successive Ofsted School Inspection Handbooks and featured in many school inspection reports.  It has also been something advisers from the Regional Schools Commissioners offices have looked for, visiting academies and expecting to see the holy grail of rapid improvement, forming judgements about leaders if key areas for action, especially with regard to exam results, were not improving quickly enough.

Over the years, I have worked with many schools in challenging circumstances and in my experience they need time to turn around and often expert support to not only make it happen, but to ensure that improvement is genuine and sustainable.  There is no evidence that turning a school into an academy automatically means that standards rise, yet in recent years the government has pursued this course regardless and while there have been sponsored academies that have improved, there are significant numbers that have not; re-brokering has become more frequent as time has gone on and the number of ‘orphan’ schools that no one wants to take on has grown.  Academisation has not been the golden bullet of school improvement that some in government expected it to be.  Meanwhile external pressure has continued to be exerted on schools deemed to be ‘failing’ or not improving rapidly enough; heads and teachers have lost their jobs and recruitment has reached crisis point in many organisations.

Therefore it was a refreshing surprise to hear Sir David Carter (the former National Schools Commissioner) say at the Global Teacher Development Forum, whichI attended recently, that school improvement does in fact take time.  Speaking at the Forum, he called for a ‘really intelligent, grown up conversation’ about just how long it takes.  He remarked that it is not a quick fix, nor is it linear or formulaic and he went on to say, “Any school that tells me they are turning themselves around in six months, and they have gone from special measures to good in less than an academic year, either the inspection judgement was wrong or you’re not being truthful to yourself.  That kind of deep improvement and change over time takes three to five years, in my experience of having schools that were in deep trouble in my trust and schools that I have seen as a commissioner.” (TES, 22 October 2018).

The key words in Sir David’s speech here are ‘deep improvement’.  If improvement is to be sustained, a quick fix will not suffice as the experience of bringing in super heads to turn around failing schools shows.  As Schools Week reported, researchers at the Centre for High Performance observed 160 academies over five years, twenty one of which had super heads appointed to bring about rapid improvements in exam results.  The research showed that although results increased while they were in post, scores fell by 6% when they left.  In fact, the longer super heads were in place, the worse the impact on results when they left – results declining by 9% if they had been in post for 3 or more years. (Schools Week, 15 April 2016).

Every child should have the opportunity to attend a school that can provide a good education, so there will always be an imperative to bring about improvement as quickly as possible. However, the pressure for this to happen rapidly can have both undesired and undersirable consequences.  We see it in schools ‘gaming’ the exam system, in pupils being ‘off-rolled’ to boost schools’ results, in schools not wanting to take pupils with SEN onto their rolls.  We also see it in the declining recruitment and retention figures.

Therefore, I welcome Sir David Carter’s recent remarks and look forward to being part of the intelligent, grown up conversation about how to bring about deep and sustained school improvement.  It has to be better than continually searching for the next golden bullet or quick fix.


Heather Leatt is a former secondary English teacher who has worked in school improvement for more than a decade.