School improvement in challenging circumstances

2809961438_56d48f9969_mBritish researchers recently revealed new evidence concerning school improvement in the most challenging situations. Christopher Chapman and Alma Harris, University of Warwick, Coventry, U.K., describe some of the improvement strategies that have been successful in raising achievement in schools facing difficult circumstances.

A group of about 600 low-achieving schools are at the center of a drive by the British government to raise performance and increase levels of student achievement. These schools, which serve mostly urban communities with low socioeconomic populations, face high levels of external pressure to improve performance. They receive higher levels of resources and are inspected more frequently than other schools.

The link between economic disadvantage and low educational achievement is still strong in these communities. The research data from school improvement efforts is growing, and Chapman and Harris report that there is now considerable agreement about what characterizes “good”, “effective” and “improving” schools. They contend, however, that there is less evidence about “ineffective” or “failing” schools, since the steps required to help a failing school turn around are significantly less researched.

Leadership practices

Recently, however, two research studies focused on improving the most difficult schools in England have appeared. The first study commissioned by the National College for School Leadership examined successful leadership practices in 10 British schools facing especially challenging circumstances.

The second study funded by the Department of Education and Skills explored strategies for raising and sustaining attainment in eight schools that demonstrated sustained improvement over a five-year period. While the possibilities for generalization from the findings of small-scale studies is limited, both of these studies highlight key strategies that improving schools identified as contributing to their success. Common themes from this data are described by Chapman and Harris.

Improve physical environment

The majority of the schools studied are located in very poor surroundings. The physical condition of these schools was initially very poor. One of the first actions taken was to improve the environment in which students and staff worked. Some of the tasks, such as removing litter and sanding graffiti off desks, were done by students. This strategy had both a symbolic and practical purpose, as it demonstrated to staff, students and parents that the school was changing and improving.

Generate positive relationships

The quality of the relationships between the staff and administration and between staff members, students and parents was generally poor. These deteriorating relationships resulted in a negative culture, and schools were characterized by mistrust and low expectations. Heads of schools initially invested much time in creating opportunities for more positive relationships to be developed. They emphasized breaking down social barriers and creating a climate where staff, students and parents had more opportunities to talk.

Staff were given opportunities to work together, to work across teams and within teams, and to socialize, and staffdevelopment activities called upon the expertise of people within the school. Staff-student committees and school councils were organized. Lunchtime and afterhours clubs and trips were set up. Evening classes and drop-in sessions were created for parents. Social evenings for parents and more positive feedback from teachers were encouraged.

A focus on teaching and learning

A clear focus on a limited number of goals was identified as an important factor in effective improvement efforts; the demands of too many initiatives can be counterproductive. One way improving schools directed their efforts was to focus them in the areas of teaching and learning. This focus was a common denominator of schools’ success, although they used a variety of approaches. Some schools emphasized opportunities for student-directed learning activities or practical applications of learning. Staff development activities focused specifically on effective teaching strategies.

Building community

One main task for many of these schools was building bridges to the outside community–forging links with parents and local businesses. The goal was to gain their support and loyalty in difficult times. They sought ways to integrate parents into school life. Social, sporting and charitable events offered points of entry for parents. Evening classes and community meetings encouraged parents to view the school as an important resource in their community.

Continuous professional development

A lack of attention to investment in staff development over time is a common feature of schools in trouble. The resulting erosion of professional confidence and capability can be a major barrier to schools’ improvement. Increasingly research has pointed to the need for schools to become learning communities in which continuous improvement efforts and inquiry into school conditions and outside educational developments are ongoing.

Teachers’ practice is seen as the key to school improvement and school effectiveness. Effective and improving schools have policies that support professional development. Opportunities for teachers to visit other schools, to gather together examples of best practice and to take time to reflect upon their own teaching skills are critically important in raising teachers’ morale and increasing expectations of teaching performance. Mentoring, coaching and peer review can provide ways for schools to redevelop professional skills. Major benefits to schools have resulted from groups of teachers working on a specific area for improvement.


The most effective form of leadership appears to depend on a school’s current level of reform. Firm, directive leadership can be necessary at the outset of school reform efforts. Because low expectations of students are a problem in many low-performing schools, school leaders tried to generate a belief in the culture of improvement.

A first step was to set clear expectations (behavior, attendance) with students and staff, to share a vision of improvement, particularly with students, and to reaffirm this often. Head teachers were able to establish a more positive climate for learning by “talking up” the school and by encouraging respect for all. They also imparted a sense of urgency for maintaining high academic standards and exerted pressure on staff and students to excel.

However, it appears that a more democratic form of leadership is needed as schools begin to change and improve. Effective leaders in improving schools built leadership teams that motivated staff, raised teachers’ and students’ morale and sustained student performance over time. Teachers were given leadership responsibility and were encouraged to work together in teams and set targets for themselves to meet. Teachers who knew how to motivate others, how to establish and manage teams and how to convince staff often made a difference that was crucial to continuing improvement. Honesty, trust and openness were perceived as important qualities in a leader.

Create an information-rich environment

Data richness appears to be an important component of effective and improving schools. Collection and effective use of data are strongly related to improvement and should form the basis of school and classroom decision-making. Schools that are continuously improving analyze existing data to see if initiatives are working and what areas need improvement. Data is used to set achievement targets and to plan programs for study.

External support

Additional professional support is another factor found to be important in improving schools in disadvantaged areas. It can be generated through the creation of external networks that facilitate the generation of ideas and dissemination of good practice. Outside support prevents innovation from being blocked and can ensure that the momentum for change is maintained. Districts can act as a resource for professional development by helping schools with data analysis and giving intensive early support to schools attempting to turn themselves around.

These studies reveal that schools in difficult situations are constantly managing tensions and problems stemming from the particular circumstances and context of the school. The problems they face are often beyond their control and thus the challenges of improving the school are far greater. Schools with little parental or community support face the hardest task. While Chapman and Harris believe that even schools in the most difficult circumstances can improve, there is evidence that circumstances can limit the extent of the improvement.

“Improving Schools in Difficult and Challenging Contexts: Strategies for Improvement”, Educational Research, Volume 46, Number 3, Winter 2004, pp. 219-228.

Published in ERN January 2005 Volume 18 Number 1


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