UK schools – the inequality machine

UK schools – the inequality machine

A few months ago there was a lot of noise in the educational world about the Harvard Business Review’s publication of UK research into types of school leadership. It featured on BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ and there was a flurry of debate on twitter and in Schools Week. People identified with the call for more ‘architect leaders’ — those who invest in the sustained improvement of learning and school culture, and who look beyond their school walls to have an impact in the wider community served by schools.

For Innovation Unit there is a deeper significance to the research. We are convinced that there are multiple imperatives — global, economic, social and equity imperatives — to go beyond the improvement rhetoric and to begin the process of reimagining and redesigning what we mean by ‘school’. And, for that to happen, a certain kind of leadership will be required. We will need the qualities, capabilities and characteristics of architect leaders who can go beyond school turnaround and take on fundamental school redesign.

The research

The research says that currently we are recognising the wrong qualities in leaders — with that recognition being signalled by salary levels and public approbation in the form of knighthoods and gongs. The researchers (Alex Hill, Liz Mellon, Ben Laker and Jules Goddard) generated five archetypes from their study of 411 Academy leaders. They are:

  • Surgeons — who focus on test scores and cauterise underachievement
  • Soldiers — who are task-focused and cost-cutting
  • Accountants — who grow revenue, increasing students and income sources
  • Philosophers — who focus on values and the debate about good teaching
  • Architects — who progressively redesign school and the community it serves.

Using financial savings and student results on test scores as the two primary dimensions of achievement, the research suggests that only the ‘architects’ create long-term and sustainable improvement. They are more strategic and their effects are more enduring, yet they are by far the least recognised group, in salary terms and in public recognition.

The conclusion, of course, is that we need to appoint more architects to our schools.

Now, there may well be some dodgy dimensions to this research, despite its peer-reviewed status. For example, the sample of 411 leaders is inevitably skewed — those 2012 early academy converter heads were, by definition, an a-typical sample, having been relatively early adopters of an aggressive system restructuring policy. Another is the association of school subjects with the archetypes — PE and RE for surgeons; IT and Technology for Soldiers; Mathematics for Accountants; English and Languages for Philosophers; and History and Economics for Architects. (We can assume that this has an empirical validity in the sample, but it doesn’t hold a ring of truth in reality. Many of us will know some stunning long-term leaders and team builders with a PE background, for example, and where on earth are the geographers — a subject that throws up some excellent leaders?)

The truth

However, reservations aside, there is undoubtedly truth in this — truth at two extremes.

At one extreme short-term improvement in results is all too often achieved by leadership ruthlessness — restructuring the organisation; getting rid of a proportion of staff; focusing on Key Stage 4 pupils to the detriment of younger learners; annexing or excluding unwanted students; disproportionately targeting those near the C-D borderline; being tactical about exam entries; putting the most successful staff with high stakes groups; arranging holiday exam-prep sessions…and a range of other similar short-term and ultimately culturally damaging strategies. They shout out to everyone that what matters in this school is ‘our league table position and my career as a leader’. Culturally, this tends to create threat, fear, compliance and internal competition, along with cynicism, disillusionment and resentment.

At the other extreme, we know that long-term growth requires deeper change strategies. Unification around a long-term vision and optimism about its feasibility tend to be supported by capacity-building and enabling strategies; by a culture that liberates the creativity of staff; by  unleashing discretionary energy, and developing collaborative learning norms, both between both teachers and students. Such a culture isn’t focused disproportionately on one type of achievement or particular target groups, but recognises diverse success and values and celebrates all learners equally.

So, whilst there may be some reservations about the characterisations within the research, it is essentially true. We are encouraging, lauding and publicly valuing and rewarding the wrong kinds of leadership for sustainable growth in our schools and system.

From leadership for sustainability to leadership for school redesign

It makes sense that organisational architects, those that build for the medium term and grow for the long-term, will create sustainable improvement cultures. This is welcome. The truth is, though, that we need even more than this.

Our system needs leader architects who can redesign schools for the future.

Ken Robinson has a message, said repeatedly and in multiple compelling ways: “Education doesn’t need to be reformed, it needs to be transformed”. Those who have seen the case for change made in the award-winning film “Most Likely to Succeed” will know what this means. The stark message of the film is that our 100+ year-old model of schooling and learning needs to change, and change dramatically, if we are to serve young people well for the future and if we are to tackle the equity and achievement gap. (Despite more than 100 years of trying, the existing model has patently failed to get even close to doing this.  If you doubt that, just note the linear relationship between family income and educational outcomes shown by the image for this blog post!)


And let’s be clear, this equity and social justice dimension really matters — and it matters in the UK particularly because we have some of the most dramatic equity gaps in the world. It is an irresistible priority morally, of course, but it also matters socially and economically, too. Our schools still remain the only entity in our modern world that has institutionalised a fixed notion of ‘ability’. We talk about ‘able’ and ‘less able’ children in a way that would be utterly unacceptable in the adult world and which is wrong.  We even group learning by spurious notions of ‘ability’ — notions which are, in effect, little more than socio-economic pre-determinants, but ones which then go on to become institutionalised determinants. As Larry Rosenstock, CEO of High Tech High recently said: “The more narrowly we define intelligence, the more broadly we define what is not deemed intelligent”.

One last perspective on this theme. More than 3 million adults have successfully graduated from the Open University since it enrolled its first students in 1971.  Most of these new graduates had been failed by their school experience.  Many of them previously thought they were ‘less able’ learners. And what is more, not one established university believed it could work  – not a university for which you required no prior qualification levels, or where you could personalise your own unitary pathways and modalities, or be assessed when you were ready. But it did work, and it has liberated the potential of millions.  And yet the schooling system has learned nothing from this precedent.

So, the simple message of this piece is that our schools need to be reimagined and redesigned —  and, if this is to happen, we need architect leaders who can both reinvent and sustain the model.

Why do we need leader architects in this context?

Such a learning transformation will of course require significant changes to the way we conventionally structure the curriculum, the way teachers teach, and the way students are assessed. However, for a school leader trying to redesign their school, these are secondary effects. There have been many experiments, projects and pilots over the years that have developed new approaches, and many have benefitted students and convinced teachers. What is remarkable is that most of these new ideas have not been sustained.  They have not spread within schools or between schools; the practice hasn’t deepened with time; and the ownership of the practice hasn’t transferred beyond the innovators or transformed the deep structures of school.

The fact is that the impact of these new ideas was limited because they didn’t go hand in hand with a systematic redesign of the school as an organisation. When we learn that at High Tech High there is an hour of collaborative adult learning every morning before students arrive; or that teachers do not teach 28 students on their own, but 56 students together, in half-day units; or that all projects (Project Based Learning is the dominant norm) are critiqued by other teachers before being introduced to students …. then we know that something significant in the organisational norms is different. And it is changes to organisational architecture — the culture, the structure, and the organisation of time across the whole school — that make possible the design, delivery and refinement of more engaging learning opportunities for students.

Change of this depth requires strong and bold and committed and sustained leadership. It requires school leaders prepared to rethink some of the conventional norms in school culture, who are prepared to reimagine the structures that staff, students and parents have grown used to, and are prepared to change the way the timetable and the school year has governed people’s lives for many generations.

This kind of change requires what the research calls ‘architect leaders’.

A moral from this tale

The research on leadership styles is welcome and has a resonance of truth. If we want sustainable school improvement, the qualities of the organisational architect need to be held in higher regard. That much is obvious.

However, as stated at the outset — and as as set out in the case for change in “Most Likely to Succeed” — there are utterly compelling reasons for taking seriously the need to reimagine and redesign schools. Indeed there are multiple examples around the world where this is already happening. If it is truly to happen here, in the UK, then we will need bold and ambitious leader architects to pave the way.

This research is both timely and relevant. And it may also be more profound and more prophetic than the writers imagined.