It takes effort to stay on top

It is not enough to reach the top and consider your work done. In order for a school to remain outstanding, a continual programme of improvement is necessary. In this post, we take a deeper delve into the component of growing the top as part of our approach to school improvement which underpins the work of Olevi.

Mike Dubeau, Director General of the Western Quebec School Board, is fond of reminding me that remaining at the same level of performance in an education system that is moving in an upwards convergence trajectory is not an option for long-term success – even if you are at the top of performance at one point in time, you will inevitably find yourself at the bottom.  For example, schools which attained an outstanding rating by Ofsted for teaching and learning in 1993 would, with the same performance, have been categorised as inadequate in 2010. Thus, continual improvement is required even by those at the top. Growing the top is as important as transforming the performance of those at the bottom.

Who owns the issue of school improvement?

The ownership of the school improvement issue is different for schools at the bottom of the performance range from those at the top.  When a school or teacher is performing at the top, the task of staying there is owned by them. There is little direct action that those charged with system leadership can take. They can draw on their systemic leadership skills acting as facilitators and motivators, whilst knowing it is not their problem, rather than using their system responsibilities and directing them over what to do.

Then as performance declines, a gradual shift in ownership of the task takes place, so that at the bottom, the problem becomes one for the system. To use the oft-quoted phrase: “our [the system’s] intervention is directly proportionate to your ability to do your job”.  A case in point is the English education system’s response to Ofsted’s categorisation of schools. Schools categorised by Ofsted as failing or about to do so will often have their autonomy removed, are instructed to improve and are heavily monitored.  Whilst on the other hand, schools categorised as outstanding, while encouraged to share their knowledge through Teaching School networks and the formation of Academy Trusts, are not obliged to do so.  

Governments in particular find growing the top difficult because legislation rarely produces excellence, whilst they must be seen to be preventing failure. They need to take action to ensure that the education service meets basic standards and they can directly affect this. However, encouraging outstanding schools to continue to improve is often not a burning priority and hard to sell to the tax paying electorate.  This can be seen in the latest drive in the United Kingdom for levelling up provision in public services.  It is designed to ensure other regions gain the same level of performance as those at the top.  This requires considerable targeted expenditure and also assumes that the level to be attained is static and once reached, that the electorate will see the task is done.  However, in our approach of continual school improvement through the sharing of existing knowledge and the systematic development of new, our task is never done.  

How far can we improve internally?

If, as we have proposed, growing the top is critical for continual school improvement, another important concept is headroom.  This is the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom of the performance range.  Thus the larger the disparity in performance, the larger the headroom. We refer to it as headroom because it is the space into which teachers or schools can grow if they use their heads to learn from what their colleagues already know. 

In the second illustration, we have presented two images of the distribution of performance of teachers in a school.  In the outstanding schools (green) their headroom is relatively small with the majority of staff within reach and all performance  at least good. In our experience, schools that require transformation performance as shown here rarely have low headroom, performance of a few teachers matches those in the outstanding schools, but, a significant number are poor and their aggregated impact is deemed unacceptable by the system.  


At the start of the summer break we suggested that you reflect on what actions you were taking to grow the top. We would like to suggest here that you reflect on the headroom you have amongst your pupils, teachers and schools, especially in the area of the “new normal”. 

We hope you find this useful. As usual we would be pleased to hear about your own experience in this area. 

Take care and stay safe