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Save our schools Only one type of teacher has the qualities to turn around English education


Alex Hill & Liz Mellon illustration

Adam Quest

The link between education and the economy is strong. The better educated the workforce, the greater a country’s gross domestic product – a 50% increase in exam results leads to an increase of between 0.7-1.5% increase in GDP. Yet the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) shows that the UK lags behind its peer countries, despite investing more than them. Specifically, the 2012 Pisa study showed that the UK invested the eighth largest amount, but scored a paltry 19th in mathematics, 14th in science and 16th in reading. In our seven-year research, we studied the results of changes made by 411 leaders of English academy schools after they were put into remedial measures by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted). Our findings suggest that UK schools underperform because we’re appointing, rewarding and recognizing the wrong leaders, who do things in the wrong order.

Our research

Our study provided us with the rare opportunity to look at many organizations which are all regulated, documented and measured in the same way, provide a similar service and have made similar changes. This is research gold, as it’s possible to isolate variables and understand the impact of changing them. We could analyse the effects of 58 types of investment, on 18 performance measures over time, in 160 academies operating in 18 different regions. We were also given full access to the academies’ management information systems, and interviewed their leaders, staff and students.

So, what did we find? Like any turnaround, there is no magic bullet – a series of remedial steps need to be taken, and each step’s impact depends and builds on the previous steps in the sequence. We were also able to identify five types of leader and see which type was the most effective and why.

Dispelling myths

There are strongly held opinions in education about what improves a school and our findings challenge some of these. The most common mistake was to try to improve teaching first. This doesn’t work. Good teachers can’t teach students who aren’t there, or

Good teachers can’t teach students who aren’t there, or who don’t care, in an environment that doesn’t support them who don’t care, in an environment that doesn’t support them. Culture and student behaviour must improve first. Reducing class sizes helps, but it’s expensive. And we found that class sizes of 30 performed as well as those of 15, when students were well-behaved. A school that teaches children from fiveto 18-years-old works better, as good behaviour can be embedded from the start. Also, many schools tried to come down hard on poor behaviour with a ‘zero tolerance’ policy. Any short-term, positive impact doesn’t last and, in some cases, students revolted – students need to feel engaged, not excluded. We know that leadership matters, so understandably, many academies wanted to put a strong leader in place Q4 2017 Dialogue

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Dialogue Q4 2017