Transforming Schools – Illusion or Reality

This is an important book for educationists everywhere.  It should be required reading for all those who lead schools and those who hold schools to account.  The in-depth story of a school trying to please OFSTED and get out of special measures, while at the same time its local authority was hanging a threat of closure over it, is a compelling and an enjoyable read.  However, perhaps the strongest feature of the book is Barker’s analysis of ‘leadership theory’ and how it has been used and developed in the policy and practice of government and government agencies.  He provides further evidence of the unique ‘unrepeatability’ of each school story.   Whatever the general policy might say ‘should work’, the political, social, professional and personal characteristics of a school community will all play their part in determining what actually happens.  What ‘works’ in one setting might not work in another.  Moreover because OFSTED/HMI are looking for progress in areas that they have recommended, then they assess whether progress has been made, there is a self-reinforcing internal aspect to the evaluation process.  Improvement is what OFSTED says it is, so if you do what OFSTED asks, you must have improved.   He has a healthy scepticism about the use of exam results and other statistical indicators to demonstrate improvement.  Schools, such as the one in this case study, can do all the things that OFSTED asks (and more) and results may remain stubbornly ‘stuck’.

The book is based, I believe, on his PhD study – multi-method but mainly observational study of a school (‘Hillside’) in Special Measures over two years in English midlands – very bad OFSTED, all Mgt Team left, temp HT drafted in from another school to put together an Action Plan, then 2 year temp HT apponted.  The new HT was a recently retired HT attracted by the prospect of a fixed term post.  He discovered just after he started the authority intended to close the school and was angry for himself (he expected 2 years) as well as the school, but fought with parents to get a county wide review and eventually the school was kept (but to be enlarged in catchment).

Barker has a brilliant chapter on ‘Improvement and Transformation’ in which he summarises much of the recent literature on how to improve and situates ‘leadership’ as the main force for change in a wider context of a steady evolution of the ‘improvement agenda’, from a fairly unquestioning acceptance that education professionals knew best what they were doing (and differences between schools were seen as largely a consequence of social/contextual factors) in the 60s and most of the 70s, through Rutter, Keith Joseph and the Baker Act of 1988.  He compares effectiveness and improvement, he describes the NCSL influence and summarises the OFSTED defn of what makes for an effective school (based on Sammons 1996).   So, given all this background, the key question is whether transformational leadership could turn round the school he studied.

The case study makes for a fascinating read, with the HT who came in for three months setting up the ‘action plan’ to address the Inspection and the temporary HT (2 years) carrying the work forward with a slightly different but also effective personal style.  There are differences in the detail of context with Scottish schools – the English HT has much more freedom to hire/fire on staffing, can develop a much  more active partnership with School Governors who can play an active role in things like exclusions, attendance, budget, appointments etc, while school enrollment is quite different.  The Scottish HT is likely to have a much more interventionist Ed Auth, looking for policies to be implemented.   However many aspects of the narrative ring true against the Scottish experience:  the urgent problems with staff cover, supply staff inconsistencies, ineffective support from finance/personnel Departments at the local authority, a significant number of staff not coping with high levels of absence, constant need to produce new papers/policies, the tension of the Inspectors’ revisit.  The impression is of an HT finding out what boxes they wanted ticked and making sure that the ticks were visible.  We get the impression of an experienced HT, focused on (1) getting the school out of special measures (2) ensuring that the school continue after the EA review.  Much of the focus was on creating stronger admin and improving the consistency of classroom teaching (with a standardised lesson template).

Barker had access to great sources – accounts of meetings, the Headteacher’s diary (some of the extracts quoted give a wonderful insight into the challenges of the job), the local press (there was a lot of coverage around the proposed closure etc).   He uses these to tell the story well.  It might not be a page turner for the average reader,  but all HTs will recognise some aspects of the story in their own experience.  In the end, the school did get out of Special Measures with a strong report two years on.   However the HT who had led that process was not staying on for the next phase and so a fourth head in three years would take up the story.  There is no account of how this is going now.

What Barker is particularly interested in is how the obvious improvement took place.    He considers the actions of the two headteachers who took the school on the road to recovery – they developed trust, they influenced the climate but were not satisfied with second best.  The second HT was determined in ‘getting the wrong people off the bus’.  This could create tension as he was simultaneously playing the role of inspiring leader, mentor (with a coaching style) and a source of pressure on the staff.   At what point might he withdraw emotional/coaching support and invoke capability procedures?  Once the future of the school was secure, he was able to make permanent appointments in key positions and the capacity of the school consequently improved.  This partic HT made a difference in the quality of t/l because of his relentless focus on that through direction, guidance, staff development and qa activities.

Barker considers that some pupils caused significant problems for school improvement.  He quotes Lupton (BERA Research Intelligence Nov 2004) to justify his view that ‘an unbalanced relatively disadvantaged intake can have a cumulatively negative impact on student outcomes… Social geography seems to limit what leaders can achieve and to exert a greater influence than an individual schools’ curriculum and internal organisation.’ (p150)     ‘When the balance {of intake mix} is negative, the quality of learning is compromised for everyone.’  (p151)

‘Hillside illustrates how the national agenda conditions the behaviour of heads at supposedly self-managing schools.’   (p151)  In one sense being given a clear set of tasks and priorities was helpful, but it also had negative effects – ‘many teachers perceived themselves as scapegoats for the former head and the systems that failed to hold him accountable. .. some were permanently marked by their sense of shame and injustice; other became ill and left the profession; almost everyone felt that an alien language and irrelevant priorities had been imposed on them.’ (p152).  Although teachers worked towards OFSTED objectives, they did not accept ‘the bureaucratic rationality implicit in the special measures regime’.  (p152)  The combination of local authority proposed reorg and school closure and OFSTED intervention had a considerable emotional effect on staff and some capable staff did not survive (Barker does not attempt to quantify this).

Ultimately, Barker argues that Hillside did improve steadily and significantly – with better leadership and mgt at all levels, clearer values, a culture of improvement, better organised curriculum structures, teachers committed to their students and intensive professional development.   The school delivered on Sammons characteristics of the effective school which raises student achievement (1996) and on HMI requirements.  Yet exam results did not improve (best year for GCSE was  immediately before the first OFSTED), nor did other statistical indicators such as attendance/exclusion.  There are several explanations for this. Barker argues that the most plausible one is that exam results etc owe more to social factors than the activities of staff, good or bad.  Some staff felt that many of the better off families had sent their children elsewhere during the ‘closing’ era. This is not quantified.

Barker concludes with a short chapter of purple prose, questioning the ‘transformational illusion’.

“Our ability to analyse and synthesise the characteristics of effective leaders and effective schools has created the illusion that the example provided by a small number of high-performing heads can be generalised across the system.. but there are reasons why this is unlikely’ (p161)  He gives several reasons for this. These, in my view, are the most convincing ones:

  • There are not enough good leaders to go round, with some evidence of recruitment problems;
  • Most senior managers do not get sustained leadership training of a level that would allow the average ht to aspire to reach the level of the best;
  • Evidence suggests that social disadvantage is the most important determinant of school attainment, not the leadership activities of the HT;
  • ‘The common elements of successful leadership featured in official models are less significant than the differences produced by the infinite complications of people and circumstances.   Generalisations based on surface similarities mask important variations between cases.  Advice from government agencies is likely to become less useful as leaders encounter a distinctive mixture of human problems and dilemmas’.  (p162)

Of these, the last is the most powerful and convincing articulation of my belief and experience.

‘Able leaders’, he concludes, ‘can make an important difference to the quality of organisational life.  Parents, teachers and children tell us so.  Schools can become richer and more fulfilling places when they are well led and managed and give everyone a chance to pursue success.. but heads remain enigmatic and unpredictable.  The awkward shaper (Belbin 1981) is as likely to succeed as the smooth master or mistress of style .. Transformations are likely to remain rare and to be achieved by those fortunate combinations of leaders and followers who find themselves in the right place at the right time.’ (pp162-3)

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