School improvement: What it is, what it is not, and how to build systems to create it

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Date published 01 August 2020

Last updated 08 April 2024

This is an exclusive extract from the new book ‘Leading Academy Trusts: Why some fail, but most don’t’ by Sir David Carter with Laura McInerney. This extract comes from Chapter 3, which explores how to understand and codify effective multi-school improvement.

Many academy trusts do not have the resources or the capacity to lead a quick and sustainable turnaround. That may sound like a bold statement from someone who believes so strongly in the potential of the academy system to make an enormous difference to the education of children. But there is no point in denying that there are big challenges facing smaller academy trusts who have limited capacity and a smaller talent pool to draw upon to effect change. Where there is a culture within the trust to give autonomy to each school, a consistently applied strategy for improvement across all of the schools is unlikely to be in place.

When small trusts manage successful turnarounds, it is often because they have been forensic in their analysis of the need, decision making, and deployment of resources. Larger academy trusts – with greater numbers of leaders, financial resources, and professional networks to match – are able to use their resources to deploy a range of teachers and leaders into a new school and bring about change more quickly. In almost every case where I was asked as NSC to find the best trust to broker a school that was in difficulty, this capacity was matched by a trust school improvement strategy that we had seen work before in similar contexts.


Bearing in mind Nicky Morgan’s statement about a day being a day too long for a child to be educated in a failing school, speed and track record were two important considerations I had to focus upon. This is one of the benefits of scale and was one of the reasons why some of the toughest turnaround schools were brokered into trusts like Harris, Outwood Grange, Delta Academies Trust, United Learning or Ark, to name just a few.

Commissioners who led on the brokering of these projects knew trusts like these were able to move more quickly to start improving the school in comparison to other trusts who might have to compromise the support that they were offering to an existing school in order to free up capacity to help a new member of the group.

A day [is] a day too long for a child to be educated in a failing school.

That said, some amazing improvements were undertaken by smaller and medium-sized trusts where the capacity was proven to exist. In my time as Regional Schools Commissioner in the South West of England, one of the toughest challenges I managed was the re-brokerage of St Aldhelm’s Academy in Poole. It was a school I had known about when I was music advisor in Dorset in the early 1990s, and since that time it had undertaken at least two makeovers and name changes. Early in my tenure as commissioner, in October 2014, the academy was placed in special measures by Ofsted. The inspection report described a broken school where almost every indicator of poor performance was evident. By March 2016, barely two years later, the academy was judged to be ‘good’, and this quote from the report sums up the remarkable transformation that had taken place:

‘Since taking over the sponsorship of the academy, the Ambitions Academies Trust and in particular the chief executive officer have brought about a stunning transformation. Through the trust’s proven track record of improving schools experiencing significant challenges and its deployment of high-quality senior leaders, rapid and sustained improvement is evident in all aspects of the school’s work. A school that was described as ‘dysfunctional and unsafe’ during the first monitoring visit of February 2015 is now a place which is rooted in high expectations, where pupils behave well and enjoy coming to the school each day. One pupil summed up the changes at the school by saying, ‘we have watched it evolve into such a great school’.

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St Aldhelm’s is a great reminder that it is possible for a smaller trust to achieve a quick turnaround even in the most challenging circumstances. The outstanding leadership of Brian Hooper (the CEO) and Sian Thomas (the principal of the academy at the time) oversaw one of the most fantastic improvement journeys I have ever seen. Slower yet sustainable progress is, however, the key to long-term transformation. As I have mentioned before, deep turnaround can take three years or more. This makes the improvement journey at St Aldhelm’s even more impressive.

However, ‘slow yet sustainable’ is a difficult message to sell when a school has been placed in a trust and where change is expected to follow seamlessly.

As the National Schools Commissioner, I would sometimes be called to see government ministers after an academy now placed into a new trust had posted worse results than when under its previous management. The minister would rightly ask, ‘Are you sure that you have put them into the correct academy trust?’ Almost every time, when I looked at the evidence, and often went to visit the school myself on a residency in one of the RSC regions, what I would encounter was a trust and school leadership team that, instead of fixating on pupils in the examination year groups, was instead focusing on the school more holistically.

‘Slow yet sustainable’ is a difficult message to sell when a school has been placed in a trust and where change is expected to follow seamlessly.

Instead of paying for expensive short-term interventions for the Year 11s about to sit their GCSEs, they were investing in attendance officers to increase the number of persistent absentees attending more frequently. They were developing consistency in teaching practices and they were redesigning their Key Stage 3 curriculum so that by the time the current Year 9s got to Year 11, their experience would be very different. More importantly, it meant that the trust was more likely to end the cycle of failure that for some of our hardest-to-improve schools has been generational.

These leaders were building a sustainable future for the school rather than setting it up for one or two years of improved exam results but with little prospect of this continuing beyond the initial impact. In cases like this, I never had any hesitation in going back to ministers and confirming that the school was in the correct trust and that I was confident it would have sustained improvement.

‘Leading Academy Trusts’ is available to buy from John Catt Educational.

Find out more about our new Leading Trust Improvement programme.

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Find out more about our new Leading Trust Improvement programme.

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