Future terms: Building thriving schools in the face of disadvantage

Watch our expert panel unpick what it takes to make a school sustainably successful - even when the odds are stacked against them.

This panel aired on 3 December 2020:



Jenny Griffiths - Education Research Specialist at Teach First


  • Katie Ashford - Deputy Headmistress at Michaela Community School
  • Andy Bygrave - Achievement Partner at Teach First
  • Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson - Headteacher at Anderton Park Primary School
  • Kathryn Morgan - Expert Adviser at Teacher Development Trust


Words from the moderator

The Thriving Schools project stemmed from an awareness that some schools were defying the challenges that faced them, achieving good results even in challenging contexts. What's most notable is that they were doing this without sacrificing a positive working environment, which is so necessary for staff recruitment and retention. Teach First's research arm were keen to discover if there were common themes or practices that other schools could learn from.

The research highlighted the importance of three things:

  • consistency
  • a sustained focus on implementation over time
  • being outward facing

Crucially, the individual school case studies demonstrated that there was no exact blueprint to success; while 'thriving schools' had similarities in their approaches, what they did to sustain success and when they did it, differed.

2020 has brought fresh challenges to schools already facing adversity. Exams and learning have been disrupted, and the gap between the most disadvantaged and the least is widening. For this event, we wanted to get the perspective of school leaders and experts on the impact of school closures and disruption and whether the strategies we outlined in the report still resonated.

It was clear from our school leaders, Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson and Katie Ashford, that the additional burdens under which schools are working currently, is immense. At a practical level, there is an intense struggle to support students whilst juggling periods of staff and student isolation, and Sarah highlighted the sheer costs involved. This will inevitably have implications for future resourcing and funding. The importance of supporting teacher wellbeing has never been clearer, and Kathryn Morgan from the Teacher Development Trust, spoke of the importance of clear and careful communication, both in and beyond schools.

It was also apparent, that strong school cultures are essential in enabling schools to continue to thrive, despite these new challenges. The panel indicated that clear routines and high expectations, and a cohesive staff, make it much easier to continue to focus on learning without being distracted by individual crises as they arose. Andy Bygrave, Achievement Partner at Teach First, also spoke of the schools he was working with, paying tribute to their tenacity and their continued commitment to improvement; whilst implementation could be more challenging, the vision endured.

Whilst children remained at the heart of schools’ values, a clear message was that we need to invest in our staff if we want to narrow the disadvantage gap. Schools that had achieved success faced fewer of the recruitment and retention challenges, but the panel were united in their belief that overcoming barriers to greater flexibility was central to keeping - and promoting - the best teachers in the profession. The persistent obstacles to women and BAME teachers in achieving promotion were recognised, and Sarah also noted that no male teachers had asked to go part-time.

To finish on a positive note, we considered whether there were any aspects of the current time that we would like to see continued into the future. There was overwhelming support for online professional development opportunities and a continued passion for teaching as a profession.


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