In July 2005, there were 1,557 poorly performing schools in England, according to the National Audit Office’s recent report, Improving Poorly Performing Schools in England. Around 23% of secondary schools were in the ‘poorly performing’ category.

The NAO identifies five main reasons for a school falling below acceptable standards:

  • Ineffective leadership – schools are vulnerable where a formerly good headteacher becomes less effective over time, or where a strong headteacher leaves the school without having developed a confident and effective leadership team that can lead the school while a new headteacher is recruited and settles in.
  • Weak governance – most poorly performing schools have weak governing bodies, although a school with a very good leadership team can still succeed in spite of a weak governing body.
  • Poor standards of teaching – schools with ineffective leaders typically do not address weaknesses in teaching.
  • Lack of external support – schools are at risk should their local authority not give funding or advice that fully reflects their circumstances.
  • Challenging circumstances – in January 2005, 29% of all schools in special measures were located in the most deprived 20% of communities.

On the question of ineffective leadership, the NAO says that more needs to be done to identify and tackle the barriers that discourage potentially suitable candidates from becoming headteachers. It says: ‘As children’s and young people’s chances in life depend on the effectiveness of their school, headteachers have a challenging and vital role in leading their school and, for some, in turning around
a poorly performing school.

Headteachers have come under increasing pressure in recent years from extended responsibilities and external scrutiny, and recent surveys of headteacher recruitment have indicated that there are growing shortages of headteachers.’
To address this problem, the NAO says that the DfES should:

  • commission research to determine, in more depth than currently known, the barriers that discourage experienced teachers from developing into a managerial role, and experienced managers from becoming headteachers
  • commission research to identify the critical success factors associated with executive headteachers
  • do more to encourage school managers to consider undertaking the National Professional Qualification for Headship
  • develop the role of federations of schools and School Improvement Partners in enhancing the support provided to school leaders to strengthen their skills and performance.
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