#055: Can Failing Schools in the UK Teach the US About Effective Leadership?

Well, yes. It turns out that there is much the business leadership community can learn from some small failing schools in London.

Leadership

There is a small group of schools in London that transformed themselves from the worst performing schools in England to the best performing schools in a matter of a few years. What was the key factor that drove the transformation, you ask? The quality of leadership in the schools is what made the difference!

The academicians at the Institute of Education in London studied the turnaround, and made the leadership claim, but they went on to define a set of characteristics common among successful school leaders:

  1. They have consistent, high expectations and are very ambitious for the success of their pupils.
  2. They constantly demonstrate that disadvantage need not be a barrier to achievement.
  3. They focus relentlessly on improving teaching and learning with very effective professional development of all staff.
  4. They are expert at assessment and the tracking of pupil progress with appropriate support and intervention based upon a detailed knowledge of individual pupils.
  5. They are highly inclusive, having complete regard for the progress and personal development of every pupil.
  6. They develop individual students through promoting rich opportunities for learning both within and out of the classroom.
  7. They cultivate a range of partnerships particularly with parents, business and the community to support pupil learning and progress.
  8. They are robust and rigorous in terms of self-evaluation and data analysis with clear strategies for improvement.

In 1998 these schools were among the highest funded schools in England, but had the worst results of all of England’s schools. The students in these schools were among the city’s poorest. Nearly 2/3 did not speak English as their first language. You couldn’t get much more disadvantaged than these kids.

A turnaround plan was implemented. Noticeable results came in just two years (2000). Those results saw additional dramatic gains over the next five years (2005). Sustained and accelerated improvement continued through 2012. The results were not simply a function of “teaching to the test” as we sometimes hear. In this study, the measure of success was a dramatic drop in the gap between how the students tested, and what they actually achieved! In other words, not only did they demonstrate learning through higher test scores, they also demonstrated increased proficiency by achieving more!

What business leader wouldn’t like to emulate results like that? A smarter, better educated workforce that actually performs better! Sounds like a recipe for profitable growth to me! So let’s rewrite these eight characteristics with effective business leaders in mind:

  1. They have consistent, high expectations and are very ambitious for the success of their employees. Establish clear-cut high expectations, while overtly and openly advocating for the success of your employees.
  2. They constantly demonstrate that disadvantage is not a barrier to achievement. No excuses! No brand is too weak, no budget is too small, when excuses are set aside in favor of directed effort
  3. They focus relentlessly on improving skill sets that contribute to each employee’s productivity. If the organization is to grow and thrive, the employees must also grow and thrive.
  4. They are expert at assessment and the tracking of employee progress with appropriate support and intervention based upon a detailed knowledge of individual employees. Individual employee progress assessment and coaching is favored over a one-size fits all approach to assessment and training.
  5. They are highly inclusive, having complete regard for the progress and personal development of every employee. Every employee has their own unique set of gifts and abilities that should be treasured and leveraged.
  6. They develop individual employees through promoting rich opportunities for learning both within and out of the corporate organization. Many employees see their involvement in social causes as just as important in their lives as their contributions to the bottom line profit of the organization. There is much synergy to be found in helping employees develop these cause-related interests and learning experiences.
  7. They cultivate a range of partnerships particularly with consumer, other businesses, and the community. The world is growing smaller every day. It is important to build partnerships with those who share your values, wherever they may be.
  8. They are robust and rigorous in terms of self-evaluation and data analysis with clear strategies for improvement. As leaders, we must hold ourselves accountable to deliver clear-cut, data based strategies for improvement.

“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” (Mark 10:42-45)

Application:

I suspect there are other very important qualities possessed by the leaders that contributed to the turnaround in these London schools. When I hear about a dramatic turnaround like this I’ve found it always begins with an individual (or a small group) who have a sense of moral purpose that propels them toward their objective. Next, I’ve found there must be a clearly articulated vision that is understood and accepted by the broader leadership team. And finally, I’ve found dramatic change like this occurs only when leaders are masters at managing the change process among a diverse constituency.  You can have the purpose driven moral cause, and clearly stated vision, but if you can’t get your team to work and play well together towards the common goal you’ll never experience the turnaround these leaders experienced.

Join the Conversation

As always, questions and comments are welcome. Are there elements in this list of effective leader qualities that surprise you? Are there any you would add?

Category: Skills | Leadership Development

 

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