Schools have gravity

Successful schools seem to have a force of gravity which pulls things towards them. They attract strong teachers, high attaining students, additional resources, publicity and privilege. As their reputational ‘mass’ increases their gravitational effect grows. This is a zero-sum game for the most part. The gain is at the expense of those schools whose pull is weaker. As a strategy for school improvement it makes absolute sense from the perspective of the individual school, but it makes no sense at the system level.

Now don’t get me wrong; this is no rant against the marketisation of schools. I say this is a zero-sum game ‘for the most part’ because there is the potential to raise school standards by challenging schools to attract students by being the best they can be. However, in the language of economists, we must recognise the failures of the market. There are many factors that mean the competition is not fair and there are unintended consequences of this strategy. For the purposes of this post I’m going to avoid the economic jargon and stick with my gravity analogy to unpack this a little.

How do schools become gravitational giants?

Some schools have a head start; a built in gravitational advantage if you will.

Catchment and intake is for many schools the factor that keeps their gravitational pull strong. High attaining, well cultured children give a core mass around which success can be built. The school is calm, the students are compliant and well turned out, the exam results strong. Such factors mean parents strive to send their children to the school, high quality staff strive to work there and superficial success attracts publicity and strong word of mouth.

There are many factors which mean some schools have this inbuilt advantage; selective schools, social segregation, house prices, league tables which emphasise attainment over progress to name a few.

Our system reinforces these natural advantages further. For evidence, look at the disproportionate number of grammar schools deemed outstanding by Ofsted. Once this label is attached we afford these schools further privileges, such as the right to become a teaching school. We celebrate their excellence in government case studies, we bestow prestige by recommending others learn from their success. We even exempt these schools from further scrutiny from Ofsted, creating a mystique around their untouchable brilliance, these gravitational giants around which lesser celestial bodies orbit.

Artificial gravity

Schools without this head start will seek to create their own gravitational pull. There are two ways they can approach this. Firstly, schools can strive to be excellent, this excellence becoming the gravity which pulls everything towards them. Alternatively, they can focus in looking excellent. We notice the uniform changing. Exam results increase (but through cynical curriculum design and qualification choice rather than as a result of students being better educated). The new zero-tolerance behaviour policy means students are expelled or shipped out to pre-16 courses at college. Under immense pressure and natural disadvantage, can we really expect these schools to resist taking the easy option and creating an artificial gravity around which they can build success?

Whichever of the above strategies are adopted by those schools with a naturally weak gravitational pull, if they are successful then they contribute no more to system wide improvement than the gravitational giants. The fundamental flaw is that the default model for school improvement is in creating gravity which attracts the best resources, thereby depriving other schools of these, who in turn focus their energies on creating their own gravitational mass.

What are the alternatives to the gravity strategy of school improvement?

Another way of putting this is “how can you improve a school without damaging another?”.

This is school improvement the hard way, and the ethical way. It might look like this:

  • Instead of seeking to attract ‘better’ students, work on making the students you have got better
  • Invest in your staff; if every school raises the professional capital of its workforce then the stock if great teachers will increase, to the benefit of all
  • Stop spending money on marketing which should be spent on educating
  • Aim to improve education, not exam results (they’ll follow)

and back in the real world….

The problem is that everything in our system is set up to mean that only the foolish or insane would truly shun the temptation of a gravity-building strategy. What can be done about this?

What about MATs?

 I know of a market town with three secondary schools. There aren’t quite enough students in the town to sustain all three schools. They fight for the students and they market to attract the most desirable students. They can’t help but spend their energies on gravity building strategies. Over time, the gravitational pull of each school grows and declines. There are always two bright winners and one loser.
What locks the schools in this eternal struggle is that they are only responsible for their own success. In fact, their success is dependent on the failure of another school. This competition would, if each school went about school improvement the hard way, lead to raised standards for all. However, all the incentives are set up to promote the quick win, the superficial veneer of looking successful and the easy path to getting on top.

Multi Academy Trusts might provide a way forward. If these three institutions became one trust the incentives would be completely different. No longer would the schools be permitted to gain at the expense of the others; at least not the others in the trust. However, whilst this may prevent the schools from using gravitational strategies to draw in the desirable students it would not prevent them from drawing in the best staff from the wider system.

This localised MAT model also has some downsides. The removal if parental choice in the locality is a concern. If the trust is managed poorly then all schools will suffer. The other problem with MATs is that many are not localised collaborations but rather have schools scattered around in various localities. The temptation of employing school improvement strategies which damage schools outside of the MAT are great. Central government have been guilty of encouraging this behaviour  by celebrating school turnarounds by sponsor academies which have been as the result of gravitational strategies; often radically changing the demographic of their schools.

How else can we discourage gravitational strategies?

Here are some ideas:

  • Reinstate more control of admission numbers to ensure that the total places does not significantly exceed the supply of students in a locale
  • Place significantly more emphasis on progress rather than attainment measures, possibly over-valuing value added by low prior attaining students
  • Hold schools to account for the quality of their professional development
  • Instigate a nationally accredited qualification pathway for qualified teachers and incentivise schools for supporting teachers through these courses
  • Invest in training high quality teachers and attracting an adequate supply of staff in to the profession
  • Scrap the Ofsted outstanding grade and recognise excellent aspects of practice whatever school they are found  in
  • Include in Ofsted criteria for leadership and management a requirement that schools adopt school improvement strategies that are ethical, sustainable and do no harm to other schools
  • Instigate a commission to investigate immoral school improvement strategies
  • Research and publish case studies of schools which have improved through strategies which are sustainable on a systems level

System wide improvement is possible if we can defy gravity.

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