Many leaders disillusioned with school improvement 'zero-sum game'

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Knowledge and expertise around school improvement have become “commodities to be sold rather than insight to be shared” according to the School Improvement Commission.

Set up by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), the Commission has been investigating how to better support all schools to improve further.

In a report published on Wednesday (November 18), it says that “progress towards a self-improving, school-led system, founded on deep partnerships, co-creation and local solutions has stalled”.

It comes as NAHT research, also published on Wednesday, warns that nearly half of school leaders say that they are less likely to remain in leadership because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A key theme in the Commission’s report is the need for greater support and professional development for teachers and leaders to “make sure schools are well set up to respond to future challenges”. It warns that many leaders are becoming “disillusioned”.

It says that headteachers need the confidence to “reassert their role as leaders of learning” rather than being loaded with accountability pressures, forced to ensure their schools are “Ofsted-ready”.

The report warns that school improvement is too often seen as a “zero-sum game”, with competition still trumping collaboration in too many areas.

It states: “During the last decade, higher status schools have benefited from opportunities and resources available only to those with top inspection grades. Despite notable exceptions, too often these initiatives have simply reinforced local hierarchies and furthered the creation of winners and losers. Knowledge and expertise around school improvement have become commodities to be sold rather than insight to be shared.

“The current system encourages and incentivises competition over collaboration and there is too often a sense that school improvement is a ‘zero-sum game’. We need to re-examine incentives and structures within the system to redress this imbalance.”

Another theme in the report is that improvement takes time and often happens through “small incremental changes at the classroom level”. It adds: “The pressure to demonstrate rapid improvement has led to some schools adopting ‘drag and drop’ approaches, where they attempt to copy and apply effective practice from other schools. Emulating the observable features of effective practice without developing the underpinning expertise of teachers and leaders to deliver it will rarely achieve the desired impact. School improvement is not about a top-down, one-size-fits-all process.

“The commission believes that redefining school improvement away from short-term fixes and a search for magic bullets is important.”

The report recommends that the government “invests in place-based collaborative partnerships – bringing together multi-academy trusts, local authorities and maintained schools, to develop more coherent place-based improvement approaches”.

It also supports the DfE’s plans to further develop the Teaching School Hubs, calling for the creation of a “national network of high-quality teacher development providers, which are quality-assured in a transparent way”.

The report singles out the “increasingly limited, transactional nature of system leadership roles such as National Leaders of Education (NLEs)” as a problem.

It states: “The support these schools receive has become limited to a small group of government-approved initiatives. The NLEs assigned to work with these schools have become little more than ‘brokers’ who help signpost schools to choose solutions from a pre-approved list. This is a waste of the expertise that resides within the system.

“Yet the opportunity to apply one’s professional insight and knowledge to support colleagues should be seen as the pinnacle of a school leader’s career. There needs to be a fundamental change to the role of NLEs, with trust in professional judgement central to this change.”

This will include giving NLEs the freedom and power to establish “genuine professional partnerships” with school leaders, the report recommends.

The report also calls for the government to develop a fully funded support package to provide structured support for all new headteachers. It wants to see a new bursary fund to facilitate and incentivise participation in NPQs too, with more support and incentives for leaders working in the most deprived communities.

The NAHT research was conducted with more than 2,000 school leaders and has found that 70 per cent report being “less or much less satisfied in their current role than this time last year”, while 47 per cent said that the pandemic means that they are “now less likely to remain in school leadership for as long as initially planned”.

Nick Brook, the NAHT’s deputy general secretary and chair of the Commission, said: “It is abundantly clear that current approaches are not driving improvements in education in the way government hoped or intended. Before the pandemic hit, annual increases in standards had slowed and the attainment gap had stopped closing.

“The pandemic has compounded the sense of dissatisfaction with the state of education that had begun to grow among some leaders before the crisis hit. It has highlighted the importance of community, reaffirmed the importance of supporting student wellbeing as well as academic progress; and it has demonstrated that schools are not islands.

“When we emerge from the pandemic, there can be no sense of merely flicking a switch and returning to the way things were, with all the same fault-lines as before. A post-Covid revolution is needed to prevent a post-Covid exodus of school leaders.”

Other recommendations in the report include that the government should:

  • Extend the commitment to funded support for new and recently qualified teachers to all teachers and leaders by 2025.
  • Create a national network of high-quality teacher development providers.
  • Refocus the work of Ofsted to provide stronger diagnostic insight for schools that are struggling


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