Super heroes don’t solve problems, they punch people

Watching Nicky Morgan getting beaten up by her own party over forced academy conversions, I suddenly realised the fatal flaw of her plan is not so much money, but the fact it relies on imaginary, magical people. The idea of every school becoming an academy is that headteachers can do it all. They can train teachers and manage finances, all the while getting cracking exam results for pupils. And, once they’ve done it in one school, they can do it across two … twenty… a hundred of the things!

The problem is, they’re school leaders not super heroes.

The Centre for High Performance’s research, led by Alex Hill and Ben Laker, is exciting because it has captured data across 160 schools. They recorded every entry into the schools’ information systems over a five-year period. The potential of that dataset is enormous, and they are only just starting to tease out what we can learn.

No one will fall on the floor in shock when they learn that headteachers brought in to improve exam results, typically do. Nor will it be a surprise that if heads are judged by the percentage of pupils getting English and maths GCSEs, then heads whose reputation rests on the measure will focus on it to the detriment of everything else. Plus, if pushing badly behaved children out of schools’ doors and onto the streets is good for results, why not elbow away? If it leads to newspaper stories in which the head looks a safe bet to nervy primary parents choosing their child’s big school – all the better!

Those are not unreasonable actions to take. What they are, though, is short-termist. And what the Laker and Hill research is gradually revealing is a picture of “successful schools” built on sand not concrete. Result dips after superheads leave are startling and worrying. The ludicrous costs involved, even worse.

Learning of these findings, also caused us to pause here at Schools Week. We often highlight schools doing well in the league tables. But how can we be sure their results are sustainable? This is one for us to ponder as we think ahead to our coverage of GCSEs and A-levels in the summer.

Exam results are only one part of the superhead problem, though.

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As the Perry Beeches saga shows, the finances of academy trusts can be complicated and if rules are not followed will catch out school leaders and governors.

Liam Nolan, executive headteacher of Perry Beeches, is the very definition of a “superhead” – praised by politicians, a known driver of standards. He could only explain the financial breaches in his trust by saying in a BBC interview: “I’m not a business manager, I’m a headteacher.”

But therein lies the rub. In the brave new world of academies, their leaders aren’t just headteachers. They really are chief executives. The profile of Stephen Morales, chief executive of the National Association of Business Managers, shows that understanding the finance part of the role can be a life’s work.

The good news is that most academy leaders, and heads, don’t break rules or go for short-term wins. Some are instead able – slowly, quietly, with back-breaking work – to inch up the results. Do they receive the plaudits of the superheads? No. Do they worry Ofsted are going to burst down the door and tell them they are not doing well enough quickly enough? Yes. But perhaps that’s okay.

A problem of superheroes is that most don’t earn their wares. Bitten by spiders, or the victims of research gone awry, their powers are accidental, unwieldy and they don’t know how to use them responsibly. Hence they don’t use their fortunate skills to systematically resolve problems. They just use them to punch folk.

Smart, dedicated people, working hard and delivering for young people is what makes schools magical places. That’s always been true whatever the legal status of the place. If academies do a better job of spreading those people around it will be a real plus point but short-term exam results are not where we should look to see if it’s happening. Let’s hope Ofsted, and the commissioners, are willing to take that on board.

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