Image of Daria Kuznetsova
Daria Kuznetsova
Executive Director for Strategy, Research and Performance

7 lessons from 7 sustainably successful schools

How do schools achieve excellence and how do they maintain it? This post explores lessons in sustainable success from seven schools in disadvantaged areas.

(With research support from Ralph Scott and Billy Huband-Thompson.)

Our new strategy has refocused the organisation on three essential outcomes. These are described in Our Next Chapter, and are:

  1. A greater number of quality teachers who thrive and feel able to remain in schools that need them most.
  2. Strong school leadership, so teachers and pupils thrive.
  3. Networks and a positive policy environment to support schools.

To summarise: we're determined to support schools at all levels of leadership, and will do so where it’s needed most. This will happen through our well-established Training Programme, which helps schools recruit high-potential trainees, and through our new Leadership programmes - Leading Together, and our specific training programmes for Careers Leaders, Middle and Senior leaders and Headship.

Widespread concern about teacher recruitment and retention was the context we developed our new strategy in, a challenge driven in part by teachers’ workload and working conditions (DfE 2017). There is positive work planned by the Department for Education as part of their Recruitment and Retention strategy. But data published in June this year found that the number of secondary school teachers continue to decline – 10.4 per cent of secondary teachers left the workforce last year, compared to 9.4 per cent in 2010-11. 

We continue to support schools most in need as they build a fair education for all and unlock the potential in all children.  But it’s important we do this in a sustainable way for teachers and schools. After reviewing evidence, we found there was: 

  • A lack of detailed school improvement accounts that show better pupil outcomes and positive working conditions for teachers.
  • Examples of what this looks like in practise.
  • Examples of what this looks like in schools serving the poorest communities. 

When we realised there was a gap in detailed accounts of sustainable success, the team embarked on a research project consisting of seven in-depth case studies of Teach First-partnered secondary schools considered ‘sustainably successful’. We defined ‘sustainable success’ as achieving excellent results for pupils while maintaining good working conditions for teachers. The work specifically focused on what these schools were already doing and how they went about doing it. Here’s what we found:

1. The schools planned change. It was put into practice over the long-term

They had clear visions and often fully articulated plans on how to achieve these over the next 3-5 years. The schools were also steady in their approach to applying change. Both changes to existing practice, (like reviewing the curriculum) and the introduction of new approaches to professional development, would be discussed, planned (making clear everyone’s roles and responsibilities), introduced and evaluated at the end. The ability to introduce change over the long term was partly due to their reputation for success. All were rated Good or Outstanding and so none had had a full Ofsted inspection (section 5) in the last five years.

2.    This often made them look outward to their networks for inspiration and help on improving

Senior leaders were often involved in several national and regional initiatives. They would both visit and host other schools to learn more about particular practices on a regular basis. This supported recruitment and retention: staff knew of the school’s strong local reputation, which encouraged them to stay, as well as to join the school in the first place.

3.    There was a focus on staff wellbeing and opportunities for flexible working

Staff wellbeing at these schools was considered as part of the bigger picture of the school’s success, and not a separate issue. Many schools offered opportunities for part-time work, to new and current staff (often introduced after maternity leave). Some schools looked into 'flexible working'. This was usually in relation to agreed ways of communicating between staff, leaving the school site, and working hours. Part time and flexible working came with some hurdles, but schools were working to tackle these, often through well thought out timetables.

4.    But workload is still high, especially for leadership

Across the board, those at the top reported working long hours. Many staff seemed to feel happy working hard, because of their passion for the job. But this was sometimes considered unsustainable over the long term.

5.    Behaviour was owned by senior leadership

Leaders across schools acted as role models and supported staff in making sure behaviour was good. These leaders were visible and approachable to students. They also made an effort in pointing out 'little things’ like punctuality or uniform.

6.    Consistency, consistency, consistency

A common theme across the schools we spoke to was the importance they put on being consistent in the initial planning phases, and then in putting those plans into practice. For teaching and learning, senior and middle leaders set clear guidelines on lesson structure and teaching techniques. All teachers were trained in them to make sure it was consistent across the school. The same was the case for behaviour: This saved time and led to better standards overall.

7.    A sense among staff that you are ‘always learning’

Across the schools we visited, staff from all levels of seniority reported having many opportunities to develop professionally and said that they found it useful. In schools where professional development was a top priority, there was a sense of responsibility to improve.

We will be releasing a more in-depth report on sustainable success, but the practices we outline in it shouldn’t be used as an exact recipe. Instead we hope these findings can offer useful ideas for school leaders to consider, along with supporting evidence of what works in their area. We are eager to get conversations going with some of our partner schools about these findings, in the hope of starting a dialogue about what sustainable success might look like for them as we all work to build a fair education for all. Want to join the conversation? Got ideas? Feedback on this blog? Jump in on Twitter: #SustainableOutcomes.

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