Whether it’s constructing a temple or creating a city, great things take time to develop. Architects and town planners know this. So, when Dr Ben Laker and the team at the Centre for High Performance (CfHP) shared their research last year on what leaders do that create sustainably effective schools, it was great to see an acknowledgement of how long that process can take. The widely-read HBR article contained several controversial elements, even prompting the authors’ appearance on BBC Newsnight, but there was a broad consensus around one key finding: leaders who focus on building long-term capacity over short-term fixes create schools where improvements gained are improvements retained. Perhaps not surprisingly, these leaders were dubbed by the research team as architect leaders.
On the face of it, this makes complete sense. The trouble is, our accountability system tends to push leaders at all levels in schools to seek out and implement strategies that will have immediate impact. It’s a brave middle or senior leader that decides to adopt a strategy that may take several years or more to bear fruit, even if there is a growing body of evidence to suggest this is the wise approach to take.
At the heart of this problem is how we measure improvement. The most robust data available to us is pupil achievement data. Which is why school systems around the globe use them. They are the most trusted measure of success. And quite right too. But relying only on such data runs the risk of short-termism. And it can drive leaders to focus on those curriculum areas and year groups most represented in the accountability measures.
When I was the head of a brand-new school back in 2002, this dependency was brought home to me. We knew we wouldn’t have any externally validated examination data for five years. Of course, we did lots to mitigate this with moderated assessments supported by external validation, but the situation did prompt us to think about other indicators that might usefully predict our future success.
We looked for things we could measure that might reliably tell us how well the school was performing. We created benchmarks that covered pretty much anything we could measure from pupil attendance and teacher quality to the number of parents turning up to parents’ evenings and staff turnover. The trouble was, we couldn’t really be sure whether any of these measures were reliable predictors of future success.
The great news is that there may now be a solution to this thorny issue. The latest HBR article from the CfHP team, based on further analysis of its extensive data-set, has identified nine key indicators that appear to reliably predict future success of a secondary school. They are extraordinarily simple to comprehend and very precise.
What is even more fascinating is that the data would seem to suggest that a school only needs to meet six of the nine indicators to be successful in the long-term. So, for example, if a radical turnover of staff isn’t necessary or desirable in a particular context, no problem. Many schools have been turned around without such a radical turnover of staff. So long as six of the nine are in place. And when it comes to primary or special schools, whilst this data is based on secondary data, and thus precise numbers for the thresholds might vary, I would be very surprised if the same broad principles don’t apply.
No doubt, researchers, statisticians and bloggers will pore over these findings. Robust debate is inevitable and welcome! But if we have moved a step forward in coming up with a set of performance indicators that can predict future performance, that must be a good thing. If this in turn helps us create an accountability system that is based upon leaders developing sustainable strategies rather than short-term fixes, then this should be welcomed too.
Such new measures won’t ever replace pupil achievement data. Nor should they. But they may provide an important opportunity for us to re-balance our school system in a way promotes sustainable leadership approaches, helps retain leaders and teachers in the system as well as giving the taxpayer a better long-term return on their investment.
Rome may well have not been built in a day, but at least we might now have a way of making decent judgements about how the work is progressing.