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Leading a high performance education system: avoid the pitfalls

jumping-gap-1024Dan-Belcher-finalDan Belcher, SSAT Senior Education Lead, writes…

With the much-vaunted increase in autonomy and moves towards every school becoming an academy, the effectiveness of school leaders has never been more important.

The Education White Paper last week announced the government’s intention to make all schools academies by 2022. At the same time, the Centre for High Performance (a collaboration between the universities of Oxford and Kingston) released a revealing report about activities taking place in some academies in order to drive up standards and outcomes.

So, what does the research tell us and where shall we turn for guidance about leading sustainable high performance schools?

The Centre for High Performance study examined changes made by eight secondary academies after Ofsted put them into ‘special measures’. Worryingly, it found that many of the strategies used by failing academies now judged as ‘outstanding’ were short-termist, inefficient and morally questionable.

Research findings

The findings presented eight sequential changes often used to turn around a failing secondary school. They are:

1. Leadership and objectives: appoint new leaders and narrow objectives
2. Market perception: rebrand school and communicate change
3. Resources: expand service offering and improve admissions
4. Student quality: exclude poor quality students, improve admissions and acquire a local primary school
5. Structures: centralise activities and improve facilities
6. Process stability: improve student attendance and behaviour
7. Process capability: improve teaching capability
8. Systems: introduce performance development systems

But before anyone rushes off to use this as a blueprint for success, it comes with a warning. These steps might get quick results but it’s not what is shown to create sustained high performance in the world’s leading non-educational organisations, nor is it likely to last.

The Centre for High Performance has been working with the likes of NASA, the New Zealand All Blacks (rugby team), the Royal Marines and Royal Shakespeare Company to distil the ingredients of long-term success. Non-educational organisations sustain high performance by stabilising leaders, having an impact on society, using alumni well and collaborating with other organisations. The report found none of these evident in the ‘outstanding’ academies studied.

What is clear is that the Centre for High-Performance shares SSAT’s belief in creating sustainable high quality leadership – driven by strong moral purpose and educational excellence. The SSAT publication Framework for Exceptional Education – A journey to world class provides an aspirational framework and benchmarking tool by which schools can assess their own progress and gain accreditation. The framework identifies three underpinning strands:

1. Professional knowledge of the classroom
2. Professional disciplines
3. Strategic leadership of learning.

These strands contain 10 sub-strands, which are mapped against four stages of progression: beginning, developing, embedding and transforming. No matter what a school’s starting point, the framework supports the leadership of strategic development and continuous improvement.

In view of our shared belief and commitment to educational excellence, SSAT and the Centre for High-Performance are proud to announce an innovative new ‘High Performance Leadership programme’ for school and system leaders, launching in autumn 2016.

The 18-month programme combines unique opportunities to learn from some of the world’s most successful organisations such as NASA, Apple and HSBC, with academic support and reflection to translate research evidence into school impact.

How do the world’s highest performing organisations sustain success and what can schools learn?

Register your interest by emailing us.


Visit the Centre for High Performance’s website.
Follow the Centre for High Performance on Twitter.
Visit the Centre for High Performance’s LinkedIn page.

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