Conditions for a Successful School

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Having focused on the success of pupils in yesterday’s post, today I want to briefly consider the characteristics of ‘successful’ schools. I’ve barely touched the surface of the reading and research that is available in this area but there are a number of interesting points to reflect on.

In ‘Essential pieces, the jigsaw of a successful school’ Professor Tim Brighouse explores and identifies various requirements that are ‘pieces’ of the ‘puzzle’ of a successful school. He begins by touching on the school improvement debate and reflects that leading a school to success is not as simple as following a set of guidelines. Inevitably, the success of a school is impacted by a range of contextual factors that will vary depending on the area, size or ‘state’ of a school. However, his ‘jigsaw’ presents a number of different interrelated steps that can be followed in pursuit of creating a successful school.

Before starting the journey, he identifies that the issue of school improvement is a longstanding one. Quoting research by Judith Little from the 1980s, he explores a simple description of successful schools:

Schools are successful when the following four things happen:

1. Teachers talk about teaching.

2. Teachers observe each other teach.

3. Teachers plan, organise, monitor and evaluate their teaching together.

4. Teachers teach each other.

While this signals important ‘behaviours’ that schools should definitely consider in order to develop, I can’t help but think there is something missing from the list: children. In my view, successful schools put children at the heart of everything they do. And while, I am sure, this research considered this aspect, I think it is worth making explicit. I would add that a successful school is one where pupils talk about learning; where pupils learn together; where pupils plan and evaluate their learning together; and where pupils teach each other. Obviously, for this to happen, teaching needs to be successful. But I think that the role of pupils is worth highlighting in any exploration of what makes successful schools.

In another examination of success, this document from the National College of School Leadership references seven ‘strong claims’ about the efficacy of school leadership:

  • 1. School leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on pupil learning.
  • 2. Almost all successful leaders draw on the same repertoire of basic leadership practices.
  • 3. The ways in which leaders apply these basic leadership practices – not the practices themselves – demonstrate responsiveness to, rather than dictation by, the contexts in which they work.
  • 4. School leaders improve teaching and learning indirectly and most powerfully through their influence on staff motivation, commitment and working conditions.
  • 5. School leadership has a greater influence on schools and students when it is widely distributed.
  • 6. Some patterns of distribution are more effective than others.
  • 7. A small handful of personal traits explains a high proportion of the variation in leadership effectiveness.

While there is far too much here to reflect on in one session, I think the third claim is a crucial one to review.

In the second claim, the authors refer to four categories of core practices of successful leaders: ‘building vision and setting directions; understanding and developing people; redesigning the organisation; and managing the teaching and learning programme.’ In consideration of the third claim, it is reflected that while some affirm ‘context is everything’, successful school leaders ‘apply contextually sensitive combinations’ of these basic leadership practices. Therefore, it can be synthesised that while the context of a situation is essential to consider in the search for success, there are certain ‘behaviours’ that can be developed, followed and adapted by those leading the strategic and overall direction of a school.

The research I’ve met so far is all relatively ‘old’ and references studies that have taken place even before they were written. I’d be interested to explore more recent case studies of successful schools, including those who hold a position relatively ‘independent’ of state and Local Authority ‘control’. The school improvement debate is a longstanding one, and inevitably, it will continue to be prominent in the future of our education system.

Photo: ‘Success’ by bernavazqueze

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