Creating Enduring Transformational Change

In Leadership

By Maura Fay Learning

Every now and then, it’s important to look outside our own industry for inspiration and best practice. We have chosen the world of academia on the back of an eight-year study that was released earlier this year by Alex Hill and the Kingston University.

The study looked at 411 leaders of UK schools and found that only 62 of them were able to change culture, turn around the performance of the school and sustain its success, meaning the performance of the school outlasted the leader who was the chief architect of the change.

What did the 62 leaders do? Research shows that these leaders executed a strategic change plan and actioned nine building blocks over three years.

  1. Challenge the system: stay for at least five years

The first step was to develop a 10-year plan, clearly showing how they intended to transform the school. As part of the plan, it was also about demonstrating a commitment to be part of the plan for the long haul, when previous leaders had often walked out half-way through.

  1. Teach everyone: expel less than 3% students

In the study, the most successful leaders suspended 10-15% of students in the first three years after they arrived, but expelled less than 3%. As one leader mentioned, “If you start kicking kids out as soon as you arrive, then your community wonders if you’re trying to help or get rid of them. Instead of expelling students and passing the problem to someone else, we created multiple pathways inside our school – so we could manage and improve behaviour ourselves.”

  1. Teach for longer: from ages five to 18

Teaching kids from a younger age meant that the schools could embed the right behaviours earlier on, teach the kids in a consistent way for longer (for 13 years rather than five) and create valuable resources (as revenues increased 30-40%).

  1. Challenge the staff: change 30-50%

In the study, the most successful leaders changed 30-50% of staff in the first three years by clarifying targets, broadcasting real-time performance and managing out poor performers.

As one leader said, “Who are you here to help – the students or the teachers? I believe you let down 30 students a year by protecting one incompetent teacher.”

  1. Engage students: keep 95% in class

The turning point in schools occurred when at least 95% of students showed up to class. This was achieved by bringing in external speakers to inspire students, asking students to evaluate teachers, so they felt part of the process, and getting older students to mentor the younger ones, so they had someone to look up to.

  1. A board that challenges 30-60% of the leaders key decisions

It took three years for the leaders to turn around the performance of their schools and in that time, both the leaders and the board were tested. The successful leaders were able to build a holistic measure of performance/progress without a sole focus on student results. They were also able to take time to get to know the board, build relationships with them, understand their needs and importantly, build trust.

  1. Engage parents: have 50% at parent evenings

It’s key to partner with parents as well as the students otherwise all the hard work from the school disappears when the student goes home. Whilst it takes time, the successful leaders had increased parent attendance to 50% of social functions, etc. within their third year.

  1. Engage staff: 70% with no absence

Your staff have just been told they’ve failed and you’re here to sort them out. That was the predicament facing many of the leaders in the study. Over time, they were able to improve staff engagement by asking teachers to evaluate each other, team teaching, visiting other schools and simplifying processes to reduce administration.

  1. Teach better: 100% capable staff

One leader in the study said, “Good teachers don’t apply to work in failing schools in deprived areas.” So the recruitment approach for some leaders were to contact good schools in the area that advertised for teachers where they had more applicants than places and ask them who else they would have employed if they could. They then contacted these teachers and asked them to join.

Building capability started from recruiting the right people but also extended to mentoring teachers, sharing best practices within and across schools and creating informal teaching observations.

It’s worth pointing out that the study revealed that you don’t need all nine building blocks to create enduring transformational change. Six building blocks became the magic number; those who implemented all nine got marginal gains on those that implemented six, but only a very minor increase.

You might not work in a school or report to the board, but we hope you are able to join the dots on this case study for whatever role you perform.

Here are few questions to get you thinking:

  • What’s your 10-year plan? OK, we’ll be nice, what’s your three-year plan?
  • How have you demonstrated to your team that you’re committed for the long haul?
  • The concept of ‘teach for longer’ is an important one. What’s the strategy to elevate professional development for your employees that are already good? How do you create ‘mastery’ and take their performance to the next level?
  • Making tough decisions on your people is never easy, yet if you were at a BBQ listening to your own story played back to you by a friend, it’s the easiest decision in the world. Leading change requires managing poor performers and setting the example of what you want the future to look like.
  • What does mentoring look like in your organisation?
  • Is your plan for the year ahead aligned with your own manager and your manager’s manager?
  • Of all the most influential stakeholders that could make or break your plans, which ones are you not paying enough attention to?
  • How can you increase collaboration in the work that people do? The leaders in the study used team teaching to engage teachers. What’s your version of team teaching?
  • Are you recruiting the best possible people to join your organisation? What’s the quality of your organisations on-boarding program and line managers commitment to it? Does it set people up for success?

The nine building blocks are not designed to be followed in any particular order. Select the elements that are the easiest or most urgent and get started.


This blog is taken from our Leading Change eBook. Download your copy today.

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