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Perils of relying on superheads

Inspiring leaders can transform a school, but what happens when they leave? Jon Slater on the latest research findings

Charismatic leaders may succeed in rescuing schools from failure but such success is unlikely to last, new government-commissioned research reveals.

Schools that rely on strong individuals to bring about improvement risk returning to square one when those leaders move on to another school or become government advisers.

Instead of relying on one person, politicians and policy-makers should encourage schools to ensure all staff take a role in leading school improvement, Daniel Muijs, of Newcastle university, told the American Educational Research Association conference in Montreal.

He is co-author of a study, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, which suggests nine steps to school improvement:

* Focus on teaching and learning: positive feedback for pupils and a strong foundation in the basics.

* Train staff in leadership skills.

* Learn how to use pupil data productively.

* Promote high expectations and share the vision of how the school should improve.

* Create improvement teams to focus on specific problems.

* Tailor teachers' in-service training to their needs and the needs of the school.

* Involve parents.

* Bring in external support and advice for areas where you do not have expertise.

* Take care of the pennies: money is not all, but spending it wisely is.

The report examined existing research and the experiences of eight secondary schools in former coalfields areas whose GCSE results have increased in every one of the past five years.

It was commissioned by the DfES to find out what helps schools in challenging circumstances succeed.

The study shows that elements most likely to bring improvement such as changes in unemployment, demographics or competition from other schools, are outside schools' control, Alma Harris of Warwick university said.

Professor Harris, who is co-author of the study, said she had been surprised by how hard it was to find schools which had sustained improvement over five years. "One of the myths about school improvement is that it is an escalator effect," she said.

Heads of the improving schools admitted they ignored some government initiatives, giving priority to those, such as Excellence in Cities, with money attached.

One head said to her: "Alma, this would be a good school but parents keep sending us the wrong children."

Sir Dexter Hutt, executive head of the Ninestiles federation in Birmingham, said: "I am not at all an advocate of the superhead. I don't think it works. I do not think there is any one person who could turn around a school on their own in any significant way."


The study is available from:


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