School system does not reward the best head teachers

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Media captionSurgeons, architects... Chris Cook unpacks the research

The school system systematically fails to recognise the head teachers who make the biggest impact in improving pupils' chances, research suggests.

Heads who focus on short-term success, even at the expense of the long-term, tend to be rewarded by the system.

The study looked at 160 schools in England and is published in Harvard Business Review.

Leaders who build big, successful schools are less likely to be recognised.

The new research, produced by the Centre for High Performance, shared exclusively with BBC Newsnight and Schools Week, is based on internal administrative data from schools which covers everything from pay to timetables.

Four researchers had access to 160 secondary school academies in England - building a dataset that covered the tenure of 411 head teachers.

The research, by Alex Hill, Liz Mellon, Ben Laker and Jules Goddard, is being published in the Harvard Business Review. Their work found that heads tended to fall into one of five "types":

  • "Philosophers" are the largest group. They are heads who do not see themselves as managers, but try to lead by example as senior teachers. They are inspirers, who like to talk about pedagogy, in particular. They do not change much about the student body or the staffroom.
  • "Surgeons" are head teachers who act decisively to try to turn around schools. On arriving in a school, they exclude an average of around a quarter of the final-year students and drive resources into final-year students. They fire around a tenth of staff. They have a dramatic immediate impact.
  • "Architects" are careful planners. They work on improving standards of behaviour in schools as a first step before working on improving teaching. They value parental engagement, seeing themselves as working for their community. They only expel children for behaviour management, and slowly replace poorly performing staff.
  • "Soldiers" and "Accountants" are best suited to schools which need a financial turnaround. "Accountants" try to increase the size of the school as a strategy for improving the financial balance. "Soldiers" try to cut costs to meet the school's budget constraints.

The graph below shows the average annual change they made when the head was still in post. The vertical axis shows performance change in exam results, measured as a share of the children in the school getting five good GCSEs. Dots that are higher up mean the school has a faster average improvement rate. The horizontal axis is financial balance. Being further to the right means that the school tended to improve its financial position.

The clear finding here is that surgeons appear to make the most dramatic improvement in the short term, averaging around a 10% improvement per annum in exam results with only a slight loss of financial strength. "Philosophers" make marginal improvement on results, but not finance. "Architects", on these measures, make steady progress on both finance and results.

Image copyright Centre for High Performance
Image caption Average change in GCSE performance and financial balance during heads tenure

That remarkable performance on GCSEs explains why surgeons are the most sought-after heads. The paper reveals that they are paid, on average, £154,000 a year. Philosophers get £103,000 and architects just £86,000. Soldiers and accountants both get about £100,000 a year. Surgeons are also most likely to get awards. Almost two-thirds have a national honour, like a knighthood.

Pay (£k per year) Surgeon Soldier Accountant Philosopher Architect
Lowest 115 89 65 50 60
Highest 195 114 130 135 112
Average 154 100 102 103 86
Recognition (%) Surgeon Soldier Accountant Philosopher Architect
Dame or Sir 39 0 0 0 0
CBE, OBE or MBE 24 30 27 30 13
National leader 3 5 6 43 2
Total 66 35 33 64 14

More on this story on BBC Newsnight at 22:30 on BBC Two

There are, however, profound problems for the system with the strategy pursued by the surgeons. Their strategy is about rapid turnaround, so they invest aggressively in children about to take exams, and exclude tough children up-front. Surgeons dropped into a school would be expected to get rid of an average of 28 per cent of final year students to dramatically boost that year's exam results. The Philosophers would expel 6 per cent of final year students and architects just 1 per cent.

That generates rapid improvement in results. But it is not sustainable. Many of these heads leave within two years - and the surgeons' schools' results decline rapidly in the year after the head moves on.

Their strategy is time-limited - you can only improve results modestly through removing pupils. And if a school has moved resources from younger children to focus on those taking exams imminently, eventually it will have to deal with children whose education was damaged by the strategy at the start of secondary school, when resources were diverted from them into older children.

Image copyright Centre for High Performance
Image caption Change in GCSE performance and financial balance one year after each head leaves

The surgeon's schools eventually recover, and stabilising back into slow improvement in the third year after the surgeon left. But in the meantime, the architects' slow steady approach has left behind schools that are still continually improving.

Image copyright Centre for High Performance
Image caption Change in GCSE performance and financial balance three years after each head leaves

An important reason why the architects' schools are improving financially as well as on exam results is that these schools have been improving without expelling. In fact, they have been growing, as parents want to use them.

That has another effect, too - the previous graphs showed the change in the proportion of children who are getting five good GCSEs and the change in the budget. The following two graphs show the raw number of children getting five good GCSEs in each category of heads' schools. This graph suggests that, when architects are in place, their schools get many more children to five good GCSEs than the surgeons.

Image copyright Centre for High Performance
Image caption GCSE performance and financial balance during heads' tenure

Looking on, three years after the heads move on, the architects' schools are both still growing - and delivering a good education to a higher proportion of those children. In short, they leave schools that are both growing and improving.

Image copyright Centre for High Performance
Image caption GCSE performance and financial balance three years after heads leave

All of this research is novel - elements of it may get refined and improved. We need to look more closely at some of the detail - like why different sorts of schools might recruit different sorts of heads. But it is not the case that, for example, architects just take easier schools. And there is certainly enough here to suggest that some strategies being pursued by heads may be counter-productive, yet those strategies are ones which get the rewards. The work also raises questions about the structure of English education.

First, it implies that the incentive structure for English schools is much too short-termist. We honour heads who get short-term results and pay them more. Architects, who maximise impact for the maximum number of children over the maximum amount of time, are not recognised. If anything, they are penalised. The short time-horizon is the consequence of regulation about school turnaround, the attitude of Ofsted and the way academy chains have to demonstrate rapid progress in order to be allowed to expand. All of these things are easily fixable.

Second, we do not look enough at school size. We have, until now, measured schools by the proportion of children meeting certain fixed benchmarks. This has always created an incentive to exclude children. One unforeseen consequence of these new progress measures now being introduced is that those incentives will disappear. They may, then, reduce the number of children being removed from schools. But explicitly paying more attention to school size might also help identify heads who are quietly excellent.

Third, it implies that the training of heads is insufficient. It is extremely striking that the "philosophers", for example, are mostly English teachers, the surgeons are mostly PE teachers and the architects are mostly history and economics teachers. Schools Week has a lot more detail on that fascinating avenue. That observation brings out how far teachers work in silos surrounded by people who had similar academic and professional training - and how little we do to broaden their experiences as part of the process of turning them into heads.

Finally, it is surely excellent news that a lot of schools can be made to work better with the student bodies and staffrooms within them. While the problems it raises are fascinating, the research is optimistic. And it is exciting - for once, we are able to talk about how good schools work. Not just about types of schools.

Chris Cook is policy editor for BBC Newsnight. More on this story on Newsnight at 22:30 on BBC Two Thursday - or catch up afterwards on iPlayer

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