Researchers propose mechanisms for turning around a failing school/academy

9 Apr

I        The Global Educational and Skills Forum

The Global and Education and Skills Forum (GESF) held in Dubai on 12-13 March 2016, will be memorable for many reasons – not least for Hanan Al Hroub’s winning the Global Teacher Prize of $1 million awarded by Sunny Varkey Foundation.

Mrs Hanan Al Hroub, who was born in Bethlehem, grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp.   She has dedicated her life to teaching following an incident in which her children were left deeply traumatised by a shooting incident they witnessed on their way from school.  Hanan is committed to a “no violence” approach which is set out in a book she wrote, We Play and Learn.  She fosters trusting, respectful, honest and affectionate relationships with her students, emphasising the importance of literacy.  She has generously shared her philosophy and approach at teacher training sessions and in conferences organised by the Ministry.

The GESF this year will also be remembered for another reason.  Dr Alex Hill, Associate Professor at the Kingston Business School, Kingston University, shared his research findings on academies in relation to how to turn around a failing school.   The issue continues to be of growing importance.

While many aver that converting a school “going down the pits” into a successful one is “Mission Impossible”, the internet is awash with articles capturing the experiences of many who have been engaged in this exercise.  Accordingly, Professor Alex Hill, in collaboration with academics from Cambridge University, was commissioned by the government to find the secret of successful transformations.

II       What not to do

He started his presentation by positing what not to do when taking on the challenge of turning a poor school into a good if not outstanding one.

First, he said, do not improve teaching – especially when governance and management are poor and pupils’ behaviour dreadful.

Second, do not reduce class sizes. Apart from being an expensive strategy, it has little or no effect on school/academy improvement.

Third, having a “zero tolerance” policy towards poor behaviour brings only short-term benefits.  A permanent impact is inevitably conspicuous by its absence. So the academics gave zero points for zero tolerance.

Fourth, he mentioned, do not parachute in a super-head.  Such a person tends to engage in short-term measures – concentrating on a narrow range of subjects – sometimes only two, English and Mathematics – improving the grades of the pupils and then when Ofsted gives the school a clean bill of health, leaves the school/academy in a year to 18 months’ time to others to clear the real detritus.   A super-head is not in the business of creating sustainability and, given the government’s obsession with the narrow core subjects (which expands into those that contribute to the English Baccalaureate), will not be concerned with students’ all-round development.

Fifth, a commonly held belief that inner city schools were more difficult to turn around.  This was not true as inner city areas had a greater pool of teachers than those in the rural and coastal areas.

Sixth, more resources do not speed up improvement.  Much more important was making the right changes in the right order.

III     What to do

He then homes in on what should be done.

The research revealed that it was important to create the right environment before addressing the quality of teaching and learning. Three key areas that were to be addressed to establish the right conditions were student behaviour, facilities/resources and governance.

Professor Hill ventured into the controversial when he suggested that one way of creating good student behaviour was by permanently excluding those who behaved badly.  While such a strategy gives the failing school a life-line to survive if not flourish, it does nothing for the failing students.   He proposed, therefore, that a softer and probably more fruitful option would be to create “multiple pathways”, a euphemistic term for easing the problematic pupils from their classrooms into the support units of the schools.  In my previous life, these were called “sin bins”.   There is nothing wrong with having these units provided that

(i)         the quality of teaching in the mainstream classes is not contributing to students’ poor behaviour and/or

(ii)        students are placed in these units only as a temporary measure so that when their behaviour does improve they are moved back again into the mainstream of learning.

A better way forward, which his research unveiled, was to create all-through schools/academies – schools/academies for pupils from the age of 3+ to 18+.   This enables institutions to build from bottom-up and think long-term.

When student behaviour improves, it becomes less daunting to improve the quality of teaching and learning, which appears to be a given in Professor Hill’s research.

What his team noticed was that taking a school/academy through the improvement process had cost implications.   School improvement involved inertia – i.e. using extra effort and resources to alter the direction of the institution. “Finances,” he said, “takes a dip.”  There is an increase in costs.   It is that much easier doing this in inner-city schools than those in coastal towns or the shire counties because there is a greater pool of professionals in the former areas.

To deal with the financial conundrum, given that schools are much more on their own and stand-alone academies have nowhere to turn, Dr Hill suggests that the institutions go into collaborative arrangements with others, i.e. schools federate and academies join a Multi-Academy Trust. The exercise will have a cost-benefit outcome – in purchasing terms. Also, the struggling schools/academies could capitalise on the track-records of the successful ones.  Cross-fertilisation will enable the good, bad and ugly to learn from one another’s experiences.  Teachers could teach across the institutions and the whole become much greater than the sum of the parts.

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