The anatomy of a struggling school

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What is it that means one school struggles to do well for students and another doesn’t? Is it possible to diagnose* the core issues in struggling schools so they can be addressed?

1.Behaviour 

I’ve blogged before on this; Why don’t schools nail bad behaviour?

Poor behaviour means that teachers and leaders are spending more time on dealing with poor behaviour and the following paperwork than focussing on learning. The problem with poor behaviour in classrooms is that one student has the potential to impact the learning of 30 others. Multiply this across classes and poor behaviour can seriously impact the whole school.

2.Ineffective/inefficient leadership 

At all levels. The reason for this may be varied. Leaders may be spending their time dealing with behaviour, as above, or things that are peripheral to making a significant difference to students. This may include paperwork, data collections, sitting in meetings that could have been an email, doing things that justify rather than things that make a difference; using their time in efficiently.

In some cases a leader may have been over promoted or are incapable of meeting their contracted duties.

3.Doing the wrong things, in the wrong way, at the wrong time

Or any of those in combination with something ‘right’. For example there may be an attempt to deal with poor behaviour but it might be done in the wrong way and/or at the wrong time of year. 

Struggling schools have a filing cabinet full of ideas that were never followed through because one of these factors was ‘wrong’.

4.Lack of strategic planning 

To move a school forwards the leaders need to understand what the issues are with the school AND have the ability to consider possible strategies to improve them, thinking carefully about the possible pros and cons of a possible course of action.

Struggling schools may know what is wrong on the surface, poor results, poor behaviour, low literacy, but don’t have the knowledge or skills in order to work on these effectively. Anything that is attempted usually doesn’t work because the strategic planning hasn’t happen or doesn’t involve those that matter. Rapid improvement plans are written but are done because the school is struggling not because there is value in working on the areas that might make a difference.

The failed strategies & ‘Rapid improvement plans’  filing cabinet fills even more.

5.Inconsistency

If all staff are not following the same procedures, supporting the same values & principles, and not supportive of the school’s ethos, inconsistency will creep in.

If one member of staff ignores the untucked shirt or doesn’t feedback to students or fails to do break duty, the inconsistency can become corrosive. Children aren’t stupid. They smell inconsistency from a mile and it is what most of them rely on. They go from lesson to lesson ducking and diving inconsistent teachers. It is a great skill they develop and it is one of the most significant factors in the school’s failure or success. 

It doesn’t mean teachers are all robots. We can all value the principle of feedback but do it differently. But if we agree as a school it is part of our teacher expectations we must all do it.  Failure to be consistent makes it unfair and even more challenging for those staff that do follow expectations. In some cases the arguing with students that ‘Mrs X doesn’t make us do that’ or ‘Mr Y lets us do this’ is enough for a teacher to give up.

Finally, if this becomes widespread, leaders stop trusting staff. Once that occurs, there’s almost no going back.


Whilst this blog may come across as negative I believe that if struggling schools take a look at how these things manifest themselves in their own context, one or more will exist and will undermine any good willed, late nights, hard working to improve the school.


I’ll blog another time on what might be the anatomy of a successful school.

*Apologies for the anatomical references

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