How To Turn Around A Failing School: Myth or Fact?

Reading time: 5
Failing School


In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

Is there a specific methodology that the government promotes to turn around failing schools?

This paper presents the findings from a study which analyses the changes made by 160 academies after Ofsted placed them into ‘Special measures’ from 2009 to 2016.

Reasons for interest

I am late to reading this academic paper, but COVID-19 lockdown has given me much time to reflect, read and write for my doctoral studies. Having suffered at the hands of a ‘special measures’ outcome, seeing the entire leadership team foldover, then a raft of teachers leave the school also, I am keen to learn if Oftsed outcomes exacerbate teacher attrition, waste taxpayer cash, place schools into a decade of poverty (e.g. stuck schools) and if there are any links with the community. For example, house prices and knife crime. I’ll report back on this in 3 or 4 years time…


Before I explain the research findings used for schools that are transferred over to become academies, I can imagine some unethical leaders (and I know there are many good ones too before you shout at the screen) will find these ‘eight improvements’ familiar; used as a method for ‘farming off’ weaker teachers/pupils who have lower standards. I am reminded of a school leader who stepped into an assembly space and said in front of current staff, parents and pupils: ‘Our version of outstanding is better than anyone else’s’, followed by me leaving the room…

  1. Leadership and objectives – appoint new leaders and narrow objectives
  2. Market perception – rebrand school and communicate change
  3. Resources – expand service offering and improve admissions
  4. Student quality – exclude poor quality students, improve admissions and acquire a local primary school
  5. Structures – centralise activities and improve facilities
  6. Process stability – improve student attendance and behaviour
  7. Process capability – improve teaching capability
  8. Systems – introduce performance development systems.

The academies observed were all five years old and located in different parts of the country (Inner city, Urban, Rural and Coastal), serve different markets, teach different students and perform differently. Reading this is clearly a blueprint for all the academy models that we have seen unfold across the English education system. Note, I have highlighted the work exclude; school standards and academisation first, rather than inclusion…

The findings

The researchers state “Our findings challenge some of the prevailing beliefs about how best to improve schools. These beliefs claim more resources accelerate improvement and it is more difficult to turn around Inner City schools”, including, “using a ‘Super Head’, improving teaching first, creating a new building to improve behaviour and using a ‘zero tolerance‘ behaviour policy create short-term impact are not the best long-term solution or the most efficient use of resources.” The researchers also found these failing schools (naturally) work to meet Ofsted’s assessment criteria and targets, developing behaviours that may have a negative long-term impact on society. They have become selective, do not teach the local community, do not teach ‘White British ‘students, exclude poor performing students and focus on maths and English.

I would claim academisation is largely a waste of money, with the need for government to focus on cultures, not structures. Time and time again, bailing schools out is sad indictment of our government model for school improvement. I also accept that writing about this now is probably not the best time to be criticising our education system during a pandemic, but it’s worth writing, reading and sharing this model of neoliberal approaches, considering the damage you can see it has done to our NHS and the crisis we are all currently facing. Recruitment crisis anyone?

What can Ofsted learn?

Having been on both sides of the wedge, the thick and the thin side, I think quite deeply about the things that I have done as a school leader which were not in the interests of Ofsted, but in the interests of children. I have read countless research now which suggests that there is no evidence of sustaining the above approaches in so-called ‘outstanding’ academies. There is also no evidence to suggest that attending an outstanding school benefits pupils in the long term. Just ask and I’ll send you this research paper…

The researchers suggest the need to conduct further research to test their findings against the wider sample of academies, the finance and how academies can better impact on society, and create more sustained, high performing practice to solve the headteacher ‘demographic timebomb’. HMCI, Amanda Spielman famously said: Is the fear narrative out of proportion? when she claimed that “you can’t come up with even one busload of heads who lose their jobs because of an inspection.” I bet Spielman regrets saying that considering we still have a headteacher recruitment issue two years later and the new EIF framework is proving contentious with many prominent CEOs of multi-academy trusts.

Myths versus research

Here are the recommendations for people in positions of power to digest.

  1. Do more resources accelerate improvements for leaders taking over a failing school? However you define this, all leaders should make the right changes in the right order. Although resources are necessary to attract good leaders, schools will not improve faster if more funds are made available. Sometimes the people you have already working in the school, just need support to make the right changes, and in the right order.
  2. Is it more difficult to turn around an inner-City school? Inner-city schools do have more access to resources than in rural areas, which makes it easier to improve leadership and student quality.
  3. Do small class sizes make a difference?  Everyone knows, the quality of the teaching far outweighs the number of pupils in a class. There is a great wealth of research to support this. Whether leaders taking over our failing schools believe smaller classes, particularly in English and maths, make a difference, that’s an interesting question for them to answer given the research available.
  4. Do failing schools need a ‘super-head’? (Today, this may be equivalent to an Executive Headteacher or a CEO). The research recommends that whoever is in charge needs to improve structures, student quality and teaching processes. Interestingly, performance can still improve with a poor leader if they are guided by others to make the right changes, in the right order. This type of support is often absent in schools which are struggling.
  5. Should you improve teaching first in a failing school? The research suggests improving student quality. I’d be curious to unpick this by definition, but the researchers recommend putting in structures to stabilise the teaching process. If you can improve the teaching capability within the school, this will have little impact if the processes are unstable. For example, poor behaviour, timetabling and curriculum choices.
  6. Does a new building improve behaviour? This is an interesting question because often, new schools acquire local authority land and sums of cash to rebuild parts of their school building, providing the school community with a ‘fresh start’. This could be as simple as a lick of paint or a new uniform/logo. The research suggests moving towards academisation provides an opportunity to increase revenue. I remember when this happened in my last school, the facilities and letting became an initial burden on the school leadership team, particularly for the bursar, managing contracts and cash flow. There was also a safeguarding aspect to consider for ‘after-school hours’ with Joe-Public walking inside the school to kick a ball around the astroturf. Of course, I believe all our schools are a community resource, and this is a good method for schools generating some income, but we have to ask whether this does improve student behaviour, and is this a distraction from schoool funding from government.
  7. Does a failing school need to have a zero-tolerance behaviour policy? I have blogged about this before; there is no robust research or evidence to suggest that having a ‘no excuses’/’zero-tolerance’ behavioural approach improves standards in the long-term. I know I have used these approaches in some of my schools. It does make a difference in the short-term, but often the behaviour processes are not sustainable for the pupils or the teachers. The researchers recommend that using positive behaviour management techniques offer a longer-term solution, rather than ‘forcing’ students to behave. Change does not occur until teachers work with students to collectively identify positive behaviours’.

After 10 years of academisation, what we need to do now is research if academisation has actually improved school standards, or if it’s merely folklore…


Read the full paper.

10 thoughts on “How To Turn Around A Failing School: Myth or Fact?

  1. As ever, I’ll rise to the bait when it’s cast.
    You write this paper whilst the country’s NHS are demonstrating daily that crises require ‘many hands’.
    When the patient requires such close care 2xadults are required every day, and to know their patient if they are to survive.
    April 2020, we were not blaming Boris or his care team; frankly the cabinet and the nation were praying for him as well.
    Education does not know how to pull the house down or blow the whistle. Appointed ‘gurus’ fiddle about behaviour or online learning and argue the vanity of small differences, whilst the public estate encourages the Education Secretary to behave like an Eric Morley promoting 2x Miss World for South Africa, with Mecca sponsoring the rank order.
    Shame on all of our houses.
    Within the borough of our former prime minister, I can show you both the best and worst of worlds – education’s shame is that it permits such apartheid within such a small curtilidge.

  2. The real scandal is schools moving students out, as pawns in cruel games which off-load the most vulnerable young people who may not shine by the flawed, so-called ‘quality,’ measures by which we are publicly judged, hanged quartered.
    We school leaders have kept falling for successive, equally unfair and statistically nonsensical, school assessment frameworks which have created all of this game playing, with barely a squeak.
    A friend from a different background said to me recently: “why don’t you all just say, no, we won’t do it. They couldn’t possibly make you if schools stood up together. ” How right: divide and conquer reigns.

  3. I found the fifth point, about improving student quality, the most interesting. Many school leaders attempt to ‘recruit’ better quality students, many of whom are outside the school’s catchment area. This is, in my belief, wrong. Surelymwe should improve student quality within their setting/local area?

  4. Improving student quality comments are fascinating. Who in their right mind thinks this can be achieved by threatening everyone. Pupils and staff need a safe and happy environment in which to thrive. With this in place quality teaching and learning will happen in abundance. The moment a RIG steps in, out goes any pastoral support.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.