Some believe that a fashion for school staff “clean-outs” when new headteachers take over is resulting in experience and knowledge being lost from the system. Former headteacher and now legal consultant to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), Richard Bird, discusses

Literature and folklore are full of stories of what happens when new bosses take over, even if the morals drawn are a little equivocal. Traditional proverbs tell us that ‘A new broom sweeps clean.’ And the Bible describes how Rehoboam ignored the advice of the old men who had advised his wise father, Solomon, and listened to the young ones – with disastrous results, one might add.

The literature of school change refers frequently to difficulties with the ‘old guard’, who have to be given the choice of surrender or death. This is not folklore. Associations that support senior leaders in schools have noticed an increasing attrition rate among their deputy members when new heads arrive.

Business research suggests that the prognosis for senior leaders when a new boss takes over is very poor. In Surviving Your New CEO, Coyne and Coyne suggest that the percentage of senior business leaders in the United States who actually improve their position after the arrival of a new CEO is 4 %. The percentage whose careers effectively end because they either leave work or end with a job well below their previous one is 65%.

While these rates may not apply to schools yet, the trend is in that direction. In schools, leaders tend to not to sack, but to freeze inherited colleagues out. Ultimately, the effect may be the same.

A change of culture
This approach marks a significant change of culture in schools. It is arguable that the prevailing attitude once was one of pride in being able to ‘manage’ people. The language used symbolises it: ‘Bringing people on board’ for example. The suggestion in books was to be tactful and start slow –  ‘Don’t frighten the horses.’ Now the language is nearer to ‘Setting out your stall’ with the implication that those who don’t ‘buy in’ can ‘butt out’. The emphasis on ‘leadership not management’ may be encouraging this.

Does it matter? Doesn’t the folklore suggest that ‘getting rid of the dead wood’ is a good thing? It seems that for the unfortunate 65%, the quality of your work has very little to do with survival or fall. Nor is it a matter of ‘personality clashes’; so often used as a way of avoiding thinking about the real causes of management failure. One telling anecdote from the Coynes’ article is the boss who was not happy with the responses he was getting to questions about the work of a particular senior manager. The more questions he asked, the less satisfied he was. Eventually he fired the unfortunate manager. When asked if he had ever told the manager that he was dissatisfied with his work he said, ‘You know, I guess I didn’t. It never occurred to me. I was too busy.’

How has this change of culture taken place? The anecdote suggests one aspect of the problem: time. Headteachers who were advised to ‘go steady’ were working in an environment where time could be taken. Indeed, they were advised that rushing change, or introducing too many initiatives, was likely to demoralise staff and produce superficial changes that would unravel over time.

Teacher folklore anecdotes described serial heads who got out of one school into another with a glowing reputation for change just in time to avoid the falling roof. Successors were left to clear up the mess and ‘get the vessel back on an even keel’. The moral of such tales was that serial heads were flashy and flaky and not to be imitated.

The environment in which heads work today is very different. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 increased the powers of intervention by local authorities. The possibly apocryphal wall chart in the DCSF, showing the success or failure of schools throughout England, is just the initiating blow which, transmitted through the local authority to the school, ends up with the school equivalent of the office boy kicking the school equivalent of the cat. The crux of the matter is that those in charge believe that failure is simple to remove and that 12 months should do it.

Parameters for success or failure
Yet everyone knows that changing the culture of an organisation is profoundly difficult and slow. As Schein (2004) has shown, culture is the result of many choices of ‘what works’ learned through a collective experience over a long time. If a school is failing, then the culture of defeat is likely to be seated in more than the quality of the senior team. A secondary school on a rough working class estate that is socially disintegrating as a result of changing patterns of relationships is likely to fail. We may choose different parameters for success or failure but it is probable that the school will fail on almost all dimensions.

When such schools are apparently ‘turned round’ it is generally by following the old adage, ‘If you can’t change the people; change the people.’ By introducing uniforms; excluding trouble-makers and generally giving out signals that the school is not going to accommodate people who are not interested in success, the school attracts a clientele which is selected from those who do have a yearning for better things and excludes those who don’t.

Effectively, the new head has become more selective with the suppliers and applied quality control to the components entering the educational factory. The school is no longer failing as an institution; even though it is not a school for the same children.

This process of change of culture also involves removing teachers who don’t fit: for example, those who drift and settle comfortably into schools where nothing can be achieved and therefore nothing can be expected; and where ‘we must hang together or we shall assuredly all hang singly’ has become a justification for exercising union power to keep things as undemanding as possible.

A matter of timeThese changes, both to the child population and the teaching force, take time. The changing of a school from one with a culture of failure and a population which feels comfortable with failure, to one which aspires to success, is no quicker than changing the culture of any other organisation.

Nevertheless, the process, if repeated year on year for a long time, can change the culture; even if it constantly has to be repeated because the nature of the area will swamp the school’s efforts without perpetual vigilance.

What such change will not do to any great extent is to change the excluded. Their problems are beyond the superficial changes of a school. The enduring underperformance of white working class boys, for example, has its roots in cultural patterns that go back at least to the collective trauma of the industrial revolution.

Willis (1977) produced the classic description of the interaction of working life and lack of school aspiration in a then prosperous working class community. The collapse of the work that sustained the positive elements of that culture has left many white working class boys adrift, without replacing it with a culture of academic aspiration.

However, even given that it is possible to achieve deep level change in a single school as a single institution, change which will last – slow, deep change – is not what is now demanded. As for the CEOs in the Coynes’ study, the demand in schools is for instant change, at worst within 12 months. Hence the pressure on heads and the tendency to clean out rather than to manage.

Justification for rapid change
The political and moral justification for the demand for rapid change it is that children have but one chance and unless a school improves they lose it. But if we know that real change is so slow, what is this ‘chance’ that can be transformed in so short a time?

The only answer is that it is the chance for gaining improved qualifications. It is not difficult to see that the argument that this improves life chances for young people is only true to a certain point. If the improvement is universal, then the advantage will be nugatory. There may well be an advantage to industry, which will have a better-educated workforce overall. This may be an advantage to Britain Plc. It is questionable whether it will be an advantage to individuals.

However, from the point of view of politicians and administrators, changes in aggregated results can be measured and can be quick: within the 18 months that a secretary of state for education is, on average, in post. It is also true that heads can manage it. There are tricks for boosting examination results. Apparent changes like this have occurred in a significant number of schools. So the expectation is established for change in every respect in 12 months.

Heads with this Mission Impossible, who see themselves as parachuting down into a jungle full of hostiles with a demand for instant conversions ringing in their ears, may well feel the need to have a loyal team around them. The new head may assume that anyone from the old team is automatically associated with failure: indeed, new heads are encouraged to look for weakness rather than strength in the old team. The assumption may be that anyone who was there when the school was failing must be a failure themselves. So they go.

Valuing experience
This may make sense in failing schools within the framework of assumptions that are made about ‘turning round schools.’ What is concerning is when these attitudes are extrapolated on to perfectly normal schools which are achieving statistically perfectly normal results. There can be no justification for that. It is not enough for new heads to say that it is up to the old team to prove itself. As the examples from the industrial world show, there is responsibility on the CEO to look through the superficialities to the real qualities beneath. Time constraints are not an excuse in such schools. It is simply fashion.

This article is not intended to be a plea for the incompetent, the lazy, or the unaspiring in senior leadership teams. But there is a need to avoid losing experience and knowledge through a fashion for drastic action. The effect of the fashion for clean-outs is that experience and knowledge are being lost from the system. Talent is limited; not just the talent to lead and inspire but also, though they are much underrated, the unglamorous talents that make a senior leader an anchor of a school.

To go for a quick hit is fine if you are also looking for a sharp exit but a head who is looking to build a school over time should look to ‘manage’ as well as lead. He/she should take time to find out what people have to offer rather than seeking to appoint a clone ‘dream team’ from outside.


  • First Book of Kings, Chapter 12
  • Second Book of Chronicles, Chapter 11
  • Coyne KP and Coyne EJ Snr ‘Surviving Your New CEO’ in Harvard Business Review May 2007
  • Schein, EH (2004) Organisational Culture and Leadership 3rd edition, San Francisco
  • Jossey-Bass Willis, P Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids get Working Class Jobs – (1977) Farnborough: Saxon House