Making schools count

Every school deserves a turnaround programme. A turnaround programme is a special intervention distinguished from a normal school improvement plan.

While a school improvement plan is a slow incremental agenda requiring years to effect change, a turnaround programme is a quick fix. “It is a dramatic and comprehensive intervention in a low achieving school that produces significant gains in student outcomes within two academic years” (Calkins, Guether, Belfore and Lash 2009).

A turnaround programme clearly understands that education cannot wait. And in the words of Dr Collie Monkge, former permanent secretary (PS) at the Ministry of Basic Education (MOBE), every child must succeed. This means access to quality education is the fundamental right of every child.

To be effective, a turnaround programme requires a turnaround leader at the driving seat. There is no low performing school that ever changed its fortunes without a special leader.

Behind every successful school principal, there should be a strong and supportive senior leadership team. The selection of the team is important. In other jurisdictions, school principals, just like a head of State, have the prerogative to pick up their ‘Cabinet’. And if the purpose and mission is in danger, principals elsewhere have the opportunity to do a Cabinet reshuffle to weed out disruptive and non-performing elements. But in our own jurisdiction, school principals do not have the luxury of choice but have to do with what they are given. But lack of opportunity to select the team does not limit creativity. Creativity in this context could mean the ability to recognise weaknesses and institute relevant training programmes to close gaps identified.

It could also mean summoning the courage to recommend dismissal in the event the behaviour of a team member is deemed irredeemable. But sadly, the courage to take the right action at the right time always eludes many leaders. R. E. Curtis and E. City cited the work of Ruth Wagerman suggesting that, “CEOs (principals - my emphasis) are slow to address poor team performers and only do so after team functioning has been severely compromised.”

The best approach is getting basic things right.

A school principal should stamp authority right on day one and should be seen to be addressing anything that is not good for the students. Doing nothing about a disruptive behaviour or a non-performing element within the school cannot carry any school anywhere. Curtis and City have observed that, “when a disruptive or poor performer is allowed to continually behave in an unproductive manner without consequence, other team members get frustrated, questioning why they are working so hard when expectations for performance seem to be quite low”. School leaders should set high expectations and ensure that every member upholds religiously the standards set.

This begins with the courage to risk popularity by addressing a dysfunctional culture.

Uprooting an existing pattern of behaviour is a tough call requiring nerves of steel. It takes courage and commitment to dismantle a dysfunctional school culture and many school principals and other CEO’s across the world have been found wanting in this respect. It is important to address assumptions and beliefs that do not support the quest for better learning outcomes. It is not uncommon to find those supposed to be responsible for effecting a positive change saying the school is rotten and that nothing can be done to change low grades in Mathematics in the area. It’s a cultural thing, so goes the argument! The assumption here is that the geographical location of an institution has anything to do with learning outcomes. Assumptions and beliefs that have no scientific basis if not challenged can destroy the potential of schools.

This is the kind of negative energy that courageous school principals must address head on. Learners can do well in any geographical setting provided instructional practice is strong and inspiring. Success begins with a reset of the culture of a school. Culture is a formidable force and if not checked can eat a strategy for lunch. So a turnaround programme necessarily entails disturbing an existing pattern of behaviour, which compromises learning.

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