Matt Walker, Julie Nelson, Robert Smith (NFER) and Chris Brown (Durham University)
13 November 2020
This exploratory study was commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation. The report presents findings on the challenges facing schools in disadvantaged circumstances. The focus of the study was primary and secondary schools which had a high proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM), and which had been identified as being most in need of support to raise overall levels of attainment. The study also explored schools’ ‘readiness’ to engage with external support on evidence-informed approaches to school improvement, including the conditions that are necessary to support this.
The study was undertaken between February 2019 and March 2020. It involved: an expert review, undertaken by NFER and Professor Chris Brown and telephone interviews with 18 ‘system leaders’ (including representatives from local authorities, school trusts, National Leaders of Education, and Research Schools) and 35 headteachers. Face-to-face case-study visits and telephone interviews were also undertaken with staff in 17 schools in which we interviewed the headteacher. Each case study incorporated one interview with the school’s CPD lead or equivalent member of the senior leadership team, a discussion with a group of middle leaders, and a discussion with a group of classroom teachers. All of the interviewees were based in the North East and North West of England.
- Headteachers in disadvantaged schools reported that their single main school improvement challenge was associated with what they perceived as a lack of parental/carer support or engagement.
- While headteachers typically talked about the external challenges they faced, system leaders were more likely to focus on factors they thought were within a school’s control. These included the need to: improve the quality of teaching; strengthen the quality of middle and senior leadership; and develop more systematic approaches to monitoring and evaluating their improvement efforts.
- Many system leaders believed that school leaders lacked confidence in diagnosing their needs or prioritising their actions, and that there was scope for them to make better use of data to inform these judgements.
- The findings suggest that, in some circumstances, headteachers do not always see themselves as critical change agents – demonstrating a tendency to focus on external challenges, rather than on the possibilities to make specific, targeted, changes within their schools.