Laker and Hill: Replace at least a third of staff to fix failing schools

Heads need to change between 30 and 50 per cent of the teaching staff at a failing secondary school in their first three years if they want to see a successful “culture shift”, according to new research into the behaviour of successful turnaround heads.

The research hasn’t pleased everyone, however, and teaching unions have shot back, saying headteachers need to make it a “primary aim” not to fire anyone when improving a school.

Mass changeover of staff is one of nine strategies successful heads use to improve schools, identified by researchers Alex Hill and Ben Laker on behalf of the Centre for High Performance.

And while they admitted that new heads were generally successful if they adopted just six of the strategies, in an article for the Harvard Business Review, the pair insisted that changing how a school works “usually means changing staff”.

They reached their conclusions by analysing decisions made by 62 heads who saw the C grades their students earned at GCSE increase by 45 per cent or more over eight years at failing schools.

Changing less than 30 per cent of teachers made little impact on staff culture, they found, but a turnover of more than 50 per cent “created too much disruption”.

They were clear to point out that churn doesn’t just mean job-losses: around half of turnover comes from new recruits, with a quarter from firing supply teachers, and the rest made up by firing underperforming staff.

To achieve a 30-per-cent change, only 7.5 per cent of permanent staff have to leave their jobs, said Hill – and a third of those are typically on long-term sick leave.

However, Nansi Ellis, the assistant general secretary of the National Education Union, said heads should be aiming to turn schools around “without managing out anyone”.

Supportive approaches can “reinvigorate teachers who may be struggling to cope”, she said, and work better than “simply weeding out staff”. There may be some teachers genuinely in the wrong job but this requires careful thought.

READ MORE: Governors! Here’s how to tell if your turnaround head is effective

Laker and Hill found the most successful heads also shift staff culture by clarifying key indicators of improvement. Some even display pupils’ attendance, behaviour and test scores in real-time on video screens in corridors and staffrooms, so teachers can see where improvement was needed.

Visiting other schools and formal observations also helps improve standards, Hill told Schools Week.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed many of the findings, but warned all school leaders to remember they have a duty of care to staff on long-term sick leave.

Supply teachers are also “easy to stigmatise”, he said, and headteachers should seek to get them on contract if they are capable.

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  1. Generally speaking, Schools Week can be relied upon to interrogate the evidence which underpins (or not) headline grabbing reports like this one. But the ‘research’ on which it is based has not been published except in articles like this one and the previous Harvard Business Review one. At first glance, the methodology used is opaque to say the least. This latest work seems to be based on an analysis of governors’ minutes and I can say from first hand experience that these are at best an indicator of internal accountability arrangements. Until we have seen a full technical report with description of the methodology that others can critique, you should, IMO, be reporting this much more cautiously

  2. Debra Kidd

    I don’t even know where to start. But I’ll have a go. What do we mean by ‘turning a school around?’ Do we mean improving results? In which case, how much of this is down to drilling, moving children on who might not pass, bringing in staff who are already lined up to support your culture? How many ‘turned around’ schools have simply changed their roll? Are the authors aware of the staffing shortage that exists in teaching. I challenge any school to get rid of 50% of their staff and be successful in recruiting 50% who are better than those who left. What of Dylan Wiliam’s research that shows that the vast majority of staff can be supported to improve? What about all the research on shame and how ranking/embarrassing children damages them. Does turning a school round encompass measures such as well being and mental health? I suspect not. I wonder how much time these two have ever spent in a school.

  3. This research contains some sweeping generalisations re so-called high-performing heads (the ‘architects’). It said these heads had been ‘successful’ in industry before switching careers (a ‘fact’ seized on by Toby Young to justify his idea to fast-track career switchers into headships via his proposed college). But how many heads of English schools which are good or better have heads which came from industry? It also said these successful heads by setting up primary schools and developing these into secondary. Again, how many heads of English secondary schools did this? And the number of all-through schools, though growing, is still a tiny proportion of English schools.
    It also appears the authors judged ‘success’ by improved exam results. But this doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of education on offer. The OECD warned in 2012 there was too much emphasis on GCSE results in English schools and this risked negative consequences including ‘gaming’ and teaching to the test.
    The original Harvard Business Review article is here:

    • Ooops! Missing word. Sentence ‘It also said these successful heads by setting up primary schools and developing these into secondary’ should be ‘It also said these successful heads began by setting up primary schools and developing these into secondary.’