Attempts to turn around a struggling school can be fatally undermined unless the head and governors take the often unacceptable step of changing their pupil intake.
Sharon Gewirtz of the Open University has issued this cautionary advice after examining the contrasting experiences of two neighbouring inner London comprehensives. One is heavily over-subscribed and successful in league-table terms, the other under-subscribed and a poor performer in public exams.
The most significant difference between the two schools is their intake. The successful school, "Ruskin", reflects the social mix of the area with 20 per cent of students from middle-class homes and only 20 per cent on free school meals. The intake is mainly, though not exclusively, white. Very few of the ethnic-minority children need language support. In the struggling school, "Beatrice Webb", 30 per cent of the intake are refugees, two-thirds are bilingual, 73 per cent are eligible for free school meals, and 30 per cent are registered as having special needs. Many pupils enter and leave mid-year because of housing difficulties and the school has to accept a significant number of children who have been excluded elsewhere.
The research shows that Ruskin meets Professor Peter Mortimore's criteria for a successful school in terms of leadership, team approaches, planning and target-setting, common expectations and good home-school relations.
Beatrice Webb has few of these attributes. But Sharon Gewirtz 's research suggests that the extra pressures inherent in a highly deprived intake might make it impossible for the school ever to make the sort of improvements now being demanded. With students turning over at the rate of 10 a week, and budget pressure making it impossible to reject even the most disruptive new recruits, senior staff spend a disproportionate amount of time on crisis management. Two successive heads at Beatrice Webb devoted so much time and energy to dealing with violent andor disruptive pupils that they found it difficult to take a wider and longer view.
Other factors also make Beatrice Webb a much more difficult place for staff to work in: the comparative lack of parental involvement, a poor physical environment and shortages of books and resources.
Sharon Gewirtz argues that it is possible that rather than good management leading to school success, it is a school's relative success which contributes to good management. Conversely, school failure, in terms of inability to recruit either motivated pupils or high-quality staff, makes good management extremely difficult because the agenda is hijacked by behavioural and resource issues.
Given that many parents choose schools on the basis of their perceived intake, it becomes very difficult to see how a failing school like Beatrice Webb can improve without changing its intake quite radically, she says. But if that is the route to school improvement which the current "market" dictates, it is one which will merely redistribute students among schools and will fail to tackle the root causes of educational underachievement, Sharon Gewirtz concludes.
"Can all schools be successful? An exploration of the determinants of school 'success'" by Sharon Gewirtz, The Open University.