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Small lapses, big disasters: the theory of planes, aims and gains

School leaders are being advised to learn from high-risk industries such as aviation, where individual or team failure can have catastrophic consequences

Schools should operate like air-traffic control centres or nuclear-power plants in order to be more effective, according to new research.

Academics from Britain and the United States studied smooth- running, non-educational organisations to assess what contributed to their effectiveness.

"Such complex social organisations as air-traffic control towers continuously run the risk of disastrous and obviously unacceptable failure," they said.

Successful organisations share a range of characteristics, whatever the area of expertise, the academics found.

"First, they often operate a no-failure policy and accept that failure to meet goals would be disastrous.

"For example, one badly cascading error in the 40-year life of an otherwise superbly performing nuclear-power station is simply not acceptable," the researchers noted.

"The public would heavily discount several thousand consecutive days of efficiently monitoring and controlling the very crowded skies over London or Chicago if two jumbo jets were to collide over either city."

Organisations must be alert to any lapses in standards, the academics said: "Small failures in key systems are monitored closely because they can cascade into major problems."

Reliability requires focus: no one can be perfect at everything all the time. So the successful organisations have a clear and finite set of goals, shared by staff at all levels. And, ultimately, short-term efficiency must be sacrificed to longer-term reliability.

Effective organisations tend to be hierarchically structured to save time on decision-making. But during peak times, collective decision-making is encouraged to speed up working processes.

Staff are aggressively recruited at all levels. Existing staff are given regular, specifically targeted professional development sessions. And there is continual monitoring and evaluation of all employees.

All these characteristics are also subject to scrutiny and change.

Returning to the implications for education, the researchers said: "Last year's teacher recruitment effort, however successful, merely becomes the baseline for measuring this year's effort, and so on.

"In human organisations, reliability is a socially constructed, evolving phenomenon."

The academics then used the characteristics they found in successful organisations to create a high-reliability programme for schools. This was trialled in 12 Welsh secondaries for four years.

All teachers and administrators worked towards a small number of clearly articulated, shared goals. Standard procedures were introduced to deal with absence, mis- behaviour and data collection. Teachers also learnt to measure pupils' time on-task effectively. And they were required to observe lessons in higher-performing departments and schools.

Before the programme was implemented, 33.7 per cent of pupils were attaining five higher-grade GCSEs at these schools, significantly lower than the Welsh average of 41 per cent. By the end of the four-year project, the average was 48.1 per cent. This improvement was 75 per cent more rapid than the overall gain in Welsh schools.

The researchers concluded: "We believe the... programme is representative of the new wave of school improvement." But they warned: "It is worth remembering that the goals of education for students are not short-term... A school that produces dramatic gains but does not sustain them has contributed little to the overall educational environment."


- One bad mistake can cancel out years of smooth operation.

- Small failures can cascade into major problems if left unchecked.

- Have a finite set of goals: no one can be good at everything all the time.

- Goals should be constantly revised and updated so that they are always relevant.

- Long-term reliability is more important than short-term efficiency.

- Hierarchical structures save time on decision-making.

- All employees should be offered regular, targeted professional development.

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