Headteachers working together in a National College for School Leadership (NCSL) research project have announced progress in overcoming differences in performance between departments within schools.

‘Within-school variation’ has been pinpointed by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) as a key barrier to pupils’ attainment. The organisation’s figures show difference in performance between departments within British schools is four times greater than that between schools. However, the issue goes unnoticed in most schools because they either don’t have sufficiently clear information to pinpoint it or little idea what to do about it.

The results of the first phase of the research were delivered at a conference in London at the beginning of March. The project allowed participating schools to devise their own strategies to address variation. Schools that were successful in tackling the problem shared three common approaches:

  • recognition that variation is a leadership issue and that headteachers and others in school leadership roles have a responsibility to act
  • ensuring that information on pupil performance was consistent throughout the school
  • a consistent, systematic approach in applying methods to tackle variation.

Such approaches enabled staff to make better predictions about performance and correctly target students for extra support. Some schools have narrowed performance gaps by developing ‘departmental partnerships’ between low-performing and high-performing subject departments.

Other schools found that giving middle leaders the support to focus more of their attention on leadership rather than management was a successful strategy. At Thomas Sumpter School in Scunthorpe this included an eight-week coaching and mentoring scheme for heads of department by LA consultants, giving them the skills to coach colleagues within their departments. Hatfield Primary School in Sheffield developed a new behaviour policy designed ‘to foster a consistent approach to behaviour management by all staff’. These strategies saw Hatfield go from the top of the exclusion league table to no exclusions. A full analysis of the first phase findings will be published later in the year and will be published nationwide. Phase two of the project, involving 25 other schools, will deliver their findings in the autumn. Seven of the 12 secondary schools involved in the project ‘demonstrated an improvement between Key Stages 2 and 4’. Of the 10 primary schools in the project, five ‘demonstrated strategies that have reduced variation from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 2.’

For G&T coordinators the problem of identification is made more difficult by inconsistencies between departments or even members of staff. Not only do coordinators have to consider that different methods of teaching suit different G&T pupils but that underachievement and hidden potential could be factors that further muddy the waters of accurate identification. These findings will offer new ideas for improving identification of G&T pupils.

For further information go to: www.ncsl.org.uk/leadershipnetwork and click on ‘Articles and resources’.