Superhead researchers reveal 9 indicators of a successful ‘turnaround’ headteacher

Heads with the best long-term school improvement plans are often nearly fired two years into the job simply because they don’t get “quick exam results”, according to a new study by controversial management researchers Ben Laker and Alex Hill.

Boards expect to see better exam results almost immediately under the regime of a new headteacher, the researchers claim in their new study published today.

An analysis of governing body minutes revealed that 90 per cent of headteachers who oversaw a steady rise in GCSE grades, achieved a budget surplus and improved parental engagement over eight years were almost fired by their governors after two, simply because their boards expected to see better exams performance.

Hill and Laker, whose research into superheads caused a storm in the sector last year, claim to have identified better indicators for whether a new head is on track, even if it’s not yet showing up in exam results, following up on their earlier work.

Researcher Ben Laker

In research released last October, they analysed data on 411 headteachers at failing secondary academies. They identified five different types of headteacher: from the so-called “surgeons” who drive exam results up quickly but unsustainably, to the “philosopher”, who wants to inspire but fails to embed change.

One type, the “architect”, engaged the community and focused on underperforming pupils. Just 62 of the 411 headteachers studied were architects, but they were the best at improving results over the long-term.

Now Laker and Hill, whose findings will be published in the Harvard Business Review alongside co-authors Liz Melon and Jules Goddard, have studied board minutes from the 62 architects’ schools to identify nine indicators that could be used at the end of the two years to show progress (see below).

These included expelling less than three per cent of pupils over three years, and taking on a primary school or expanding admissions to include younger years, which makes it easier to get to know pupils from reception through to year 13.

Successful headteachers did not have to meet all nine of the key indicators, but meeting six of the nine correlated with an eventual increase in the GCSE pass rate of 45 per cent. If all nine were met, grades increased by just over 50 per cent, the research found.

Researcher Alex Hill

“The motivation for the research is to help headteachers who are making the right changes for the long-term to not get fired,” said Hill. “It’s about giving clear, tangible measures that predict you are on the way to success. Governors can then use those, even when exam results haven’t changed yet.”

Andy Buck, the chair of the education committee at Ambition School Leadership, himself a former headteacher, said he was “really excited” by the research because it was a different measure of success than that typically used by governors and Ofsted.

“Many senior leaders don’t want to become headteachers, especially at the most challenging schools, because of the current accountability framework,” he said.

“This gives us a way of identifying that a school is on the route to being outstanding, and needs time.”

The measures also have the advantage of being flexible – schools did not need to implement all nine, but can leave three if they were too difficult to achieve.

Steve Munby, education consultant and former chief executive of the Education Development Trust, said the requirement to have all-through schools was less attainable, and that closer partnerships with primary schools was a more realistic goal, he said.

He claimed that having less than three per cent exclusions is also “actually very high” since the national average for permanent exclusions stands at 0.5 per cent.

The 9 recommendations for being a successful headteacher at a failing secondary school

We asked Dan Moynihan, CEO of Harris Federation and Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union what they thought of the recommendations

1. Stay for at least five years

The most successful headteachers remain for at least five years, and often longer. Many even develop a 10-year plan for the board to follow.

Dan Moynihan said: It’s fundamental to have this stability in a headteacher. You really want them to stay five years at least, assuming they’re the right head. A low turnover of headteachers across a trust is important.

Mary Bousted said: This does not surprise me. Schools are complex organisations. Successful school leaders take time to understand a school’s context.

2. Expel less than three per cent of pupils

The most successful headteachers temporarily excluded 10 to 15 per cent of pupils in the first three years, but expelled or permanently excluded less than three per cent. This includes informal exclusions, such as sending them to colleges or off-rolling them.

DM: I don’t agree with not expelling anyone; there is behaviour that is beyond the pale. It can get to a point where it’s impossible to teach. Although we try not to exclude, anyone who says no exclusions is not being realistic. Less than three per cent is a good target.

MB: It is sometimes necessary to expel a pupil, but this must be a very serious decision taken only after all alternatives have been explored. Expulsion as a means of improving the pupil intake should be deplored.

3. Teach from five to 18 years old

It took five years to see results increase, but pupils in schools that expanded their age range with five GCSEs at C or above jumped nine percentage points and improved by five percentage points each year after that.

DM: Pupils can be more used to behaviour and learning styles if they’re at an all-through school. But junior schools are still very different to secondary schools; they need different expertise.

MB: Successful schools come in all phases, stages and sizes. I can see the rationale for all-through schools, but I can also see the rationale for concentration and focus on a particular stage of learning. I think the key is to make sure there is a successful transition between one phase and another.

4. Change between 30 and 50 per cent of the staff

The most successful leaders saw a third to a half of their staff change. This does not mean they were fired, but that new teachers were brought in and some moved on. Less than 30 per cent turnover and there was no “cultural shift” among staff. More than 50 per cent was too brutal.

DM: We bring in subject experts to support teachers who have been struggling, but there’re no two ways about it – if you’re trying to turn around a school that’s failed,and there will be some colleagues who might not want to make that journey. You want to minimise staff turnover, but you also need to make sure everyone is doing a good job.

MB: While some staff turnover is good for every organisation – bringing with it fresh ideas and innovation – a particular percentage should not be a prerequisite for success. In the current teacher recruitment crisis, school leaders need to develop their teachers.

5. Pupils are on 95 per cent attendance

Successful schools have at least 95 per cent of pupils attending all their classes.

DM: You often find failing schools don’t have proper tracking systems for pupil absence, and they’re not aware which key groups have poor attendance – is it poor working class boys, for instance? The education welfare officer at the council might also not be reliable. We employ a private firm sometimes to check on absentees. Our senior team will also actually collect the pupil in a van. You want attendance to be at least at 95 per cent.

MB: Pupils cannot learn if they are not being taught. Good attendance gives a structure to pupils’ lives, keeps them out of potentially dangerous situations, and involves them in the life of the school and its community.

6. Between 30 and 60 per cent of the governing board should challenge the headteacher

The best leaders are challenged by between about a third and two-thirds of governors on key decisions in their first three years.

DM: We appoint all our governors centrally and I interview them personally. It’s a huge responsibility. In failing schools, you often get governors who are fan clubs. We tend to appoint professional people who are used to having that kind of debate and discussion.

MB: Governors should exercise both support and challenge to school leaders who have an immensely difficult job, particularly when leading challenging schools with disadvantaged intakes.

7. Have 50 per cent of parents at parents’ evenings

The most successful heads made sure at least half of pupils were attending by the end of the third year.

DM: We have a translator for pupils whose parents don’t speak English – the last thing you want is a pupil translating what the teacher is saying to their mum or dad. Haranguing parents to come to parents’ evening doesn’t work; incentives to come are much better.

MB: High rates of parental attendance at parents’ evenings are essential. Many schools are now trialling new ways to inform and involve parents – beyond the traditional parents’ evening.

8. 70 per cent of staff take no absent days

The most successful schools had 70 per cent of staff taking no sickness absence by the end of the third year.

DM: We’d want more than 70 per cent: we’d be aiming for 80 per cent no-absence in the first year. The first thing to help staff who are absent is to sort out pupil behaviour.

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

MB: The best way to achieve low staff absence is for leaders to tackle excessive workload which results in teachers working more unpaid overtime than any other profession, rather than a punitive approach which spreads fear about legitimate teacher absence.

9. 100 per cent of staff are capable

No teachers should be on capability, and all staff should be capable by the end of the third year, the study found. This was achieved through recruiting competent teachers, increasing informal teaching observations through mentoring programmes, and sharing best practice from different schools.

DM: If you do what a MAT is supposed to do, you bring teachers together to collaborate. This helps them to improve, and gives them access to subject experts too.

MB: Teachers would agree that it is preferable to have no colleagues on capability measures. But these can be applied very unfairly. It never ceases to surprise me how many women teachers, over 50, are put on capability – a toxic combination of sexism and ageism.

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