Making world-class schools
Professor Deborah Eyre, founder of High Performance Learning, talks to Sam Henson about a new collaborative philosophy, creating world-class schools, and the role of governance in grappling with the big questions
The origins of High Performance Learning (HPL) lie in a deep conviction that far more children could do well at school than they currently do. Professor Deborah Eyre, founder and chair of HPL, is passionate about making that happen.
HPL is relatively new to the scene and has the chief aim of helping more children reach high levels of performance. Eyre’s vision is built upon a framework that looks to exploit the HPL philosophy “designed around the evidence from psychology and neuroscience”, using practical action at school level to create world-class schools.
“We’ve started the organisation, and we work with schools so that they go through a sort of process of adoption,” she explains. With schools in the UK state sector, independent sector and English-speaking British international schools, HPL provides a new, “not very sector-dependent” approach. “When our schools talk,” says Eyre, “they’re a family, a community of schools; they don’t really think that much about their sectors, they think about being better schools. You can learn from any sector – it doesn’t matter.”
With more schools than ever appreciating friendship and shared practice with other schools during the COVID-19 crisis, is this sense of wider, less formalised collaboration important for the future as well? “Schools in England really value being part of a bigger community,” Eyre replies. “I think being part of a family with the same intentions is the glue. It’s not that you don’t recognise sector differences, but they’re not defining.”
So what does ‘world-class school’ actually mean, and what role does governance play? “We have 10 characteristics of what it means to be a world-class school,” Eyre explains, “and some of those are about the kind of conventional outcomes that you’d expect, but some are about the experience that students have when they’re in school. Number one is you need to know what you’re trying to achieve – and governance really helps with that, as boards ask: ‘Are we really creating these kinds of students?’”
A quick guided tour of each of the 10 characteristics unveils some fascinating yet refreshingly simple attributes that make a school world-class. Third on the list is making explicit to your students and parents what it is you’re trying to achieve.
“Governance is really important in agreeing how to craft that language within its leadership teams,” says Eyre. “Who are we, what are we, what makes us different? It’s about being clear about what we’re trying to do. Because in the end, that’s what you hold yourself accountable for. These schools are confident on behalf of their students. That sense of confidence – ‘if you come here, you’re safe in our hands’ – is a powerful message.”
10 characteristics of world-class schools
- They start by focusing on the profile of the type of student they want to develop and build their accountability measures around this.
- They select a core curriculum that is well suited overall to their vision and then audit it in order to enhance and supplement where needed including via the enrichment offer.
- They make explicit to students (and parents) what they are trying to achieve and how they should participate.
- They are confident on behalf of their students who feel they can trust the school to help them be successful.
- They see personal and pastoral support and guidance as crucial to academic success.
- They see the school as a well-oiled machine that can deliver the same high standards for students year on year regardless of background.
- They are purposeful but also relaxed, with both students and staff at ease in the school.
- They place a high level of trust in their teachers, and their students and structures assume timely intervention and benchmarking rather than constant monitoring.
- Internal accountability precedes external accountability and they take ownership for their own performance.
- Everyone feels an emotional attachment to the school but they don’t see themselves as world-class because they are never complacent and are continually seeking to refine and improve.
A well-oiled machine
Then there is the need for schools, as explored in the sixth characteristic, to be a well-oiled machine. “So it’s got all its systems and processes in place, and they work really well,” she says. “And they get to the same high standards for students year on year, regardless of their background. A colleague from outside the education sector once said to me that if an organisation is a well-oiled machine, it means it delivers regardless of all the noise.
“So, if you go to a Michelin-starred restaurant, you still expect to get your Michelin-starred meal and experience. You’re not really interested in whether the sous chef didn’t turn up or the suppliers didn’t do what they’re supposed to do. The sign of a really well-oiled, world-class school is that it can do it – whatever the situation, it just adapts.”
World-class schools, she continues, “have a vision and they know what they’re doing with it. They know what they want to achieve, and they monitor themselves.” This ties in with ownership and internal accountability, number nine, which is distinct from the external accountability of Ofsted.
“It has to be found in the school having its own sense of purpose, its own vision for where it wants to go,” Eyre believes. “And it has to measure itself against its own vision, which it can then talk about with external regulators.
“The schools should be confident in expressing who they are; finding their own story is a really important part of success in any organisation. If you want to do something, if you think it is important, but it is a bit leftfield, whatever it is, then you just have to be prepared to justify it.”
She adds: “External regulators are not designed to measure everything. The most successful schools don’t exist to satisfy the external regulators. They usually do, extremely well, but they have their own sense of purpose.”
Grappling with the big questions
For any school to feel free enough to do its own thing, the governing board’s role will be crucial. Eyre speaks with the experience of having had governance roles in different organisations since she was a young teacher. “Governance is all about grappling with the big questions, setting direction. Successful governance is all about the questions you ask in a way that helps senior leaders think through some of the things they are doing – the probing rather than accusatory question. The best governors enable heads to be the best they can be.”
In a world-class school, by Eyre’s definitions, the responsibility is not just on the head, however, which is good news for governors. “One of the fears governors have is that everything resides in the headteacher and, if the head moves on, it’s a massive risk point for them. Having a really robust teaching and learning framework makes you less reliant on heroic leadership.”
Looking with fresh eyes
Another area where Eyre sees governing boards as important is in change management. “Schools have been subject to an enormous amount of change, but most has been imposed from above,” she says. “Most schools have not developed a particularly strong understanding of how to conduct their own change.
“It’s a skill-set that all organisations have to learn. You have a sense of where you want to go, looking at where you are now as your baseline, and you create an action plan for how you get there. Governors can really help in the clarification process, asking for information, questioning practicality and realism.”
Eyre advises governors to balance their degree of involvement in the process. “I cannot stress enough the objectivity that governors can bring, because they’re not involved in the day-to-day. When they look at something, they look at it with fresh eyes, and they can bring that objectivity and it’s just so helpful.
“The challenge for those governing is finding the right point on the continuum between too much interference and getting into the executive space, and the other end, which is ‘We trust the head, we’re all good friends.’”
Straying too far into operational matters can “dampen the senior leadership’s own confidence in their abilities. They cease to take full ownership. That’s really dangerous because then nobody knows who’s driving the ship.”
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