Free article: Transforming a failing school

Published: Friday, 07 April 2017

Matt Bromley offers some advice on turning around an underperforming school in a short space of time while laying down the foundations for sustainable improvement.


  • Improving standards in the classroom must be a priority.
  • Achievement data should be analysed in order to identify specific gaps in students’ learning and progress.
  • Data should be used to identify one or two priority areas for improving the quality of teaching, in order to invest in targeted professional development.
  • The senior leadership team needs continually to communicate its improvement plans to all stakeholders, including staff, parents and pupils.

Although genuine, sustainable school improvement is a slow, incremental process, time is often in short supply. Never the less, the unrelenting cycle of inspection can put huge pressure on school leaders and senior teams to demonstrate rapidly rising standards.

What, then, is the secret to turning around an underperforming school in a relatively short space of time, while laying down the foundations for sustainable improvement? Here are four suggestions.

1. Change school leadership practices

Assuming that the existing leadership team remains in post, senior staff need overtly to change their leadership practices. Senior leaders need to become ‘instructional leaders’, highly visible around the school and in classrooms, leading by example as excellent teachers first and administrators second.

Standards can only improve if changes are made in the classroom, so senior leaders must put pedagogy first, accepting that high-quality teaching and learning trumps all. They can signal this in tangible ways by maximising the amount of time teachers spend in the classroom with students and removing as many distractions to teachers as is feasible.

If teaching and learning are of the highest quality, there will be less need for bolt-on intervention strategies outside the classroom and school hours for disadvantaged students, and more chance of students’ socio-economic differences being reduced to a negligible level. As research suggests (Hamre and Pianta 2005), in classrooms run by the most effective teachers, disadvantaged students progress at the same rate as non-disadvantaged students.

The senior leadership team (SLT) also needs continually to communicate its improvement plans to all stakeholders and ensure that it makes each improvement public. It can do this by consulting on, agreeing and communicating a new vision and mission for the school, and by using this to remind staff, students and parents of the school’s purpose. This vision must be premised on the notion of high expectations for all, and on strong values such as educational excellence and fair access, affording every student an equal opportunity to achieve his or her potential.

Strong leadership teams also share leadership. This is not the same as delegating tasks; it means genuinely empowering all staff, and indeed the student body, with ‘real’ leadership and authority.
Senior leaders can also change their leadership practices by building a consensus among their staff, forging a cohesive culture in which everybody works towards the same
end goal.

2. Use data to improve teaching and learning

Schools in search of rapid improvement should examine their achievement data in order to identify specific gaps in students’ learning and progress. They should ensure that every teacher uses formative data about individual students in order to analyse the effectiveness of their teaching.

Data should be used to identify one or two priority areas for improving the quality of teaching. Senior leaders should then invest in targeted professional development, differentiated according to the needs of individual teachers and subject areas. The best CPD focuses on a small number of ‘tweaks’ over the long term, and is collaborative and practitioner led, grounded in research. It also balances the need to improve content knowledge with the need to improve pedagogic knowledge: developing teachers’ knowledge of their subject and their knowledge of how to teach that subject to young people, pre-empting students’ questions and misconceptions, and explaining complex concepts in a way that makes sense to students.

All staff, not just senior leaders, should be responsible for monitoring and evaluating student progress. They should do this regularly and systematically, making adjustments where necessary in order to strengthen teaching, as well as student learning and progress.

Underperforming schools in need of rapid improvement also need to examine student achievement data in order to identify the gaps and weaknesses in student learning. The headteacher may decide to establish a data leader on the SLT to organise and lead this effort. This person can examine student learning through test outcomes and classroom assessments.

This senior leader can also look at the data in order to ascertain the factors that contribute to or impede student learning. These might include problems with attendance and punctuality, poor discipline, problems within a student’s family unit, language limitations, and so on.

School leaders should be ‘lead learners’, demonstrating the importance of engaging in professional development based on an analysis of achievement and quality data, and that is tailored to meet the needs of individual teachers and subject areas.

3. Achieve ‘quick wins’ to motivate staff

Senior leaders need to keep staff morale high and make ongoing improvements visible and public by sharing ‘quick wins’ early in the turnaround process. The best way to achieve this is to start with a goal that is important but can also be achieved quickly and can provide visible, tangible evidence of improvement. Some examples of quick wins might be:

  • changing the school’s use of time – scheduling a common, weekly slot for CPD or joint lesson
  • planning time
  • improving access to resources – a CPD library, subscriptions to online materials, ICT equipment, textbooks, etc.
  • the physical environment – painting corridors, fixing broken fixtures and fittings, tidying up the school grounds, etc.
  • improving discipline – establishing a safe and orderly environment with clear rules that are known and applied consistently by all teachers and fully supported by senior leaders.

Another way to ensure that a school achieves quick wins is to identify one or two goals that build on the school’s existing needs and strengths, are important to staff, and can be achieved quickly. A narrow goal, such as increasing Year 7 students’ reading achievement on a high-stakes test, can be achieved faster than a broad goal such as increasing attainment for all students in all subjects.

4. Achieve a staff consensus and develop leadership capacity

The SLT needs to ensure that all staff ‘sign up’ to the improvement agenda and are committed to change. An assessment could be carried out in order to identify staff who are not fully committed to the school improvement goals or who do not have the qualifications to carry them out. The SLT could redeploy staff who have valuable skills but are not effective in their current role.

It may be necessary to replace some staff members who actively resist the school’s turnaround efforts and recruit new staff who have the requisite skills and competencies. However, a principal’s starting point should be that all staff have the potential and capability to help turn the school around; any negativity or seeming lack of skill is likely to be the result of poor leadership and support in the past.

It may also be necessary to create new posts in order to carry out the improvements required, and some existing staff may be well suited and qualified to fulfil these posts. Providing new opportunities to existing staff may help motivate and energise them.


Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Matt Bromley is an experienced education writer, consultant, speaker and trainer. In a leadership career of more than 15 years, he was Group Director of a large FE college and multi-academy trust, acting Headteacher of one of the top five most improved schools in England, Deputy Headteacher of a small rural school, and Assistant Headteacher of a large inner-city school. He is the author of several best-selling books and regularly speaks at national and international conferences. You can find out more at and follow him on Twitter @mj_bromley.

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