High Performers: The Secrets of Successful Schools

In 2011 having spent the previous year visiting fifteen highly ‘successful’ secondary schools and five other ‘outliers’ I wrote my book on school culture and managing change. It was of real value to me to go to these schools and meet the leadership, staff and pupils. It left me with a clear idea of what was needed to create and sustain success. Each school was very good at the time on staying focused on Core Purpose. Below is an excerpt from the first Chapter on Core Purpose

Start with this exercise. Get each person on the leadership team to individually write down what the school stands for, in other words, your core purpose. Do the same with governors. You may be shocked by how different the answers are! If you can’t agree as a group of leaders what will the staff say? Many years ago I did a similar exercise with a school leadership team from a school in Somerset. I split the team in two and asked them to draw a representation of their school without any annotations or words. One group came up with a mountain complete with flag on top, different routes, fixed ladders and ropes, camps and guides. The message being whatever your starting point we can get you to the top. At the same time the other group drew a castle with ramparts, sentries, moat, drawbridge and portcullis. Their message was we need to be more selective about who we let in and once in, keep them under control. One school leadership team, but with two contradictory takes on core purpose.

Core purpose is not to be confused with school mission statements or ethos or values. By core purpose I mean those fundamental outcomes which are not for negotiation or compromise and which guide everyday decisions.

The ‘core purpose’ as defined by business writers Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, authors of Built to Last, is ‘The organization’s fundamental reasons for existence beyond just making money – a perpetual guiding star on the horizon: not to be confused with specific goals or business strategies.’

Core purpose ought to be capable of being boiled down to a sentence or two. One of the questions I asked of every interviewee – 95 individuals in total – was ‘What is your school’s core purpose?’ In really successful schools there is always very strong coherence around core purpose. All staff are clear about what it is and what it isn’t.

In times of difficulty core purpose will be put to the test. If you commit to provide equality of opportunity for all then it ought to shape policy and practice on permanent exclusions. If you declare yourself to prepare students for the challenges of the twenty-first century, why are you banning mobile phones? If you are a school that values independent learning, why are teachers marking every piece of written work?

Core purpose also guides the hard decisions about staff and staffing and could be valuable in determining the future direction of the school.

For example, a new academy had emerged from a previous incarnation as a community school and specialist college and was meeting as an extended leadership team to define priorities for the next three years. In years past its community provision – including extended hours, adult access, crèche and playgroup, evening classes and vocational provision – had been one of its characteristic successes. Now difficult decisions had to be made as to whether, in changed financial and demographic circumstances, it was possible to continue to serve the wider community.

Some of the most impressive schools had a core purpose, which was accurately and easily reflected in their school motto. Sandringham School in Saint Albans was ‘Everybody can be Somebody’. Weydon School in Farnham was ‘Inspiring Minds’. Chafford Hundred Campus had changed theirs from ‘The School of the Future’ to a more pragmatic ‘The School for the Future’. At Walthamstow School for Girls the school motto ‘Neglect not the gift in thee’ is over 120 years old. In a full day session led by an external facilitator the whole school community revisited the school mantra, agreed to keep what was in place but modernised it to be more inclusive: ‘Neglect not the gift in thee and nurture the gift in others’. This now allows the leadership team to test everyday decisions against the aspiration.

In the schools I visited I asked how student outcomes aligned to core purpose. The views expressed varied by status and experience. Senior leaders in all schools were clear on desirable student outcomes with most aligning to their core purpose. Middle leaders partly related it to the whole child and partly to academic outcomes. Junior staff were less clear and articulated it in relation to their own subject or in more vague terms like happy, fulfilled, good people or good citizens

Be quite clear that this is not about branding or about public relations. We know the corporate brands in part through their tag lines – The Power of Dreams: Honda; Your Potential, Our Passion: Microsoft; Just Do It: Nike; Impossible is Nothing: Adidas – but for schools it provides a benchmark for leadership to model everyday behaviours and decision-making.

This excellent book, organised and written in a lively and engaging style, explains how schools can become high performing in all aspects of their work based upon case studies  practice and extensive research. It is structured around the concepts of leaders improving, teachers performing and managers supporting with appropriate recommendations for action. The book is packed with practical ideas and suggestions and will appeal greatly to school leaders, classroom practitioners, members of the school community and all those who work and advise on school improvement.

Professor David Woods CBE, Chief Adviser for London Schools and Principal National Challenge Adviser

The high performing school is an elusive phenomenon. We all know that it exists but actually identifying its component parts in a way that enables understanding and action is rare. This is what Alistair Smith has achieved in High Performers. This resource provides detailed and systematic guidance in how high performance actually works. Firmly based in current practice this book is both a reference work and a source of inspiration. It is challenging and practical and will be of real value to leadership teams planning their way forward.

John West-Burnham, Professor of Educational Leadership, St Mary’s University College