How do schools succeed against the odds?

Ethos and Leadership


‘Football’s a simple game. You play for 90 minutes and then the Germans win’.

Gary Lineker, after losing in the 1990 World Cup on penalties.

It was an extraordinary scoreline, against all betting odds. After two games Barcelona, the team touted by many as the world’s best team ever, were routed 7-0 by Bayern. Next Saturday at Wembley, two German teams, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, compete in the Champions League Final. German football has always been competitive. No country can equal the German national side’s record of 12 World Cup semi-finals. No club can equal Munich’s record of reaching the Champions League final five times in the last fifteen years. Germany has never lost a penalty shoot-out in any World Cup. What accounts for such success? I’ve always thought it was the mindset and ethos of their teams, but I never realised how much system leadership counted for. Although English football has a lot to learn from Germany’s, English schools can look closer to home for similar lessons from home-grown school success: the best schools succeed through ethos and leadership.

Three decades of research into school effectiveness and school improvement have asked two questions: what makes a school effective, and how can schools improve their effectiveness? Both have clear answers: An effective school enables students to progress further than might be expected from consideration of its intake: ‘an effective school thus adds extra value to its students’ outcomes, in comparison with other schools serving similar intakes’. (Sammons, 2008). As for improvement, what matters most for raising the bar and closing the gap in pupil attainment is strikingly similar across four key research papers:


Leadership and ethos emerge as the non-negotiable priorities of school improvement. As Sir Michael Wilshaw put it, ‘what makes the difference is the culture of the school, the expectation levels of the schools, and that is determined by leadership … schools can make a difference.’

Beyond teacher quality

Finnish Lessons

Pasi Sahlberg, one of the world’s leading experts on school reform and the author of the best-selling Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland?echoes this, also using a football analogy:

“Teacher quality is often cited as the most important in-school variable influencing student achievement. But just having better teachers in schools will not automatically improve students’ learning outcomes.

“Education policies in Finland concentrate more on school effectiveness than on teacher effectiveness. The role of an individual teacher in a school is like a player on a football team: all teachers are vital, but the culture of the school is even more important for the quality of the school. Team sports offer numerous examples of teams that have performed beyond expectations because of leadership, commitment and spirit…

 A commonly used conclusion is that up to 20% of the variance in measured student achievement belongs to the classroom, i.e., teachers and teaching, and a similar amount is attributable to schools, i.e., school climate and leadership. Over thirty years of systematic research on school effectiveness and school improvement reveals a number of characteristics that are typical of more effective schools. Most scholars agree that effective leadership is among the most important characteristics of effective schools, equally important to effective teaching. In other words, school leadership matters as much as teacher quality”.

The Challenge

Ofsted research into the most effective schools corroborates this. A 2009 report on ‘Twelve outstanding schools: excelling against the odds’ asked the question: ‘why do some schools succeed brilliantly against all the odds while others in more favourable circumstances struggle?’ They were under no illusions about the scale of the challenge, which will resonate with many teachers in tough schools:

“The scale of challenge faced by these schools is considerable. A higher than average proportion of students in these schools come from poor or disturbed home backgrounds, where support for their learning and expectations of their achievement can be low. Many students are subject to emotional and psychological tensions, owing to their circumstances. Regular attendance at school is a problem for many. The areas in which they live are subject to some of the urban ills that often characterise poorer communities. These come not only from the ready availability of drugs and alcohol, but the peer pressures of gangs and fashions, and overt racism, all of which tend to attract behaviour which ranges from anti- social to violent. Getting these students ready and willing to learn is a constant challenge”.




The Results

Two of the best examples of schools that succeed against the odds are St Marylebone School and Paddington Academy in London. They both have over 50% of their pupils living in poverty (on free school meals, with family income of under £17,000), which puts them in the 1% of most disadvantaged schools nationally.


Their academic results also put them in the top 1% of schools nationally. Marylebone has 56% of its pupils on free school meals, but gets 81% of its students at least 5 A*-C at GCSE. In 2011, 97% of disadvantaged pupils achieved expected progress in English, as compared to 95% of other pupils. In 2004 in Paddington, just 18% of GCSE pupils got 5 C grades at GCSE including English and Maths. In 2012, 74% did. Extraordinarily, while 90% of pupils made expected progress in English and Maths, 96% of disadvantaged students in English and 92% in Maths did. Paddington and Marylebone have not only closed the gap, they have surpassed it. These are world-class results against all the odds. How are they achieved?


Seems like clockwork 

As Ofsted say, “Experts can make the difficult appear easy; to a visitor, the outstanding school may not appear a challenge. Such schools seem to run like clockwork: oases of calm purpose, highly focused on learning, with well-turned-out students and staff. Appearances are deceptive. These schools are extraordinary communities, exceptionally well-led and managed. They have to be”.

  • They have strong values and high expectations that are applied consistently and never relaxed.
  • They operate with a very high degree of internal consistency.
  • They have outstanding and well-distributed leadership.
  • They focus on improving the quality of teaching and learning and attracting great teachers.
  • They are constantly looking for ways to improve further.
  • They are focused on the things that matter most:

discipline teaching and learning the curriculum attracting and retaining staff

The Reason: Ethos

The Ofsted report identified ethos as the vital, secret ingredient of the most effective schools:

Characteristically, these schools are able to maintain a sharp focus on rigour and consistency in the basics. They do not overstretch themselves and are careful not to jump on bandwagons. One of the crucial keys to the success of consistently outstanding schools is undoubtedly the culture and values of the school. These take time to establish and require constant nurturing but – once embedded – they provide the sense of purpose, direction and self-belief that will ensure continuous improvement and see the school through any unpredicted challenges. These schools have a very strong team culture, so powerful that new staff are quickly assimilated into it.

Other schools can adopt these strategies, but they will succeed only if they are born of a deep sense of purpose and commitment, courage and ambition, stemming from the leadership of the school.

When asked, headteachers in these schools responded with the importance of ethos: ‘It’s often in schools in pockets, but it is at an unusually high level here.’ ‘The street stops at the gate’; ‘We attract staff with moral purpose.’ ‘It’s a relentless struggle.’  The school lives its values. In time the values become central to the school’s ethos, underpinning everything it stands for and does. The culture encourages innovation and experimentation but never allocates blame. All the schools inculcate a strong work ethic. One of the hallmarks of very good or outstanding schools is a high degree of consistency in approaches and responses, regardless of which staff member is involved. No effort is spared in the search for ways of doing things better. No challenges are regarded as insurmountable.


In 2010, Daisy Christodoulou edited a teacher-led policy paper on Ethos and Culture in schools in challenging circumstances, with contributions from over 250 teachers working in tough schools nationwide. Teach First CEO Brett Wigdortz, with first-hand experience of over 500 of the toughest schools in the country, says in it that a strong ethos is the one thing that the most successful schools have in common: ‘A strong ethos is difficult to define, but you know when it’s there. It’s a feeling that permeates every aspect of the school environment, which everyone, including an arriving visitor, innately understands’. Daisy puts it even more simply: ‘ethos and culture can be defined as “the way things are around here”’. As one teacher said, ‘The best way to determine whether a school has a strong ethos is to ask pupils how proud they are of their school.’ Another indicator is staff retention: ‘High staff turnover the scourge of many urban schools, can be one of the biggest disruptive influences on developing a positive school culture. The more successful the school, however, the less acute is the problem.’ Another metric is the applicants per place: how many parents want their children to go to the school? St Marylebone school, for example, has 8 applicants per place, one of the most oversubscribed schools in England.

Both the Ofsted and Teach First reports argue that consistency is the cornerstone of a strong school ethos. The overarching recommendation of Daisy’s paper for schools is that the process of establishing the ethos and culture is in itself part of the output: recruitment, induction, timetabling, consultation and feedback from pupils and teachers must all contribute to the ethos. Like the words in a stick of rock, a strong ethos must run its way all the way through the school.


How do schools go from ineffective to effective?

How do schools get consistency and alignment in their systems? How do they suffuse a strong ethos across their staff team? Ofsted suggest there are three stages: achieving, sustaining and sharing excellence. This fits with what we’ve learned from London Challenge about partnership and system leadership.


Ask any parent what the goal of educational reform should be and they are likely to reply: “Why can’t every school be a great school?” ‘It is a reasonable, realisable and socially just goal for any mature education system: every school should be a great school,’ says David Hopkins. His book Every School A Great School, says that the key lesson from his 30 years in practice, research and policy is that it is above all system leadership that improves schools. But any intervention needs to be ‘highly responsive to each school’s context and need’:


“All schools are at different stages in their improvement cycle, on a continuum from ‘failing’ to ‘leading’. This opens up a highly differentiated approach to school improvement, given that different schools will need different forms of support and intervention at different times”. Context matters. Nevertheless, across contexts, there lies a simple lesson.

Schools succeed when they focus on the fundamentals: ethos, leadership, teaching and training. This post has focused mainly on ethos; in a previous post, I tackled the question of what makes great teaching. But what makes great school leadership, and what makes great training? It is to these questions that I turn in my next blog posts.


About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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13 Responses to How do schools succeed against the odds?

  1. carmen says:

    ‘we may be able to make the trains run on time (which is what effective school research is all about) but suppose they are running to the wrong place’ (Postman, 1996). Of more interest to me is where the Paddington and Marylebone students are 5 years hence…

  2. Thanks Joe. Really interesting post. I’ve always felt that ethos is under-rated; ethos and leadership don’t score as highly as I’d expect in the meta-research by Hattie and Wiliam… which put more emphasis on classroom practice. However, it rings true. I suppose the point is the ethos has to manifest itself in the classroom where the learning happens. I do think we need to be careful using a couple of schools with very specific improvement stories to support the argument. Some very significant but superficial gains can be made with a narrow focus on specific threshold measures and I’d like to know more than just the 5A-C EM measure. That said, ethos and leadership are evidently key drivers of success at schools like Passmores in Harlow… it is evident as soon as you arrive….and there are obviously many others. Even in a selective school like mine, I’d suggest that ethos is the key driver.

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  9. Ceddy de la Croix says:

    A very useful post because I agree that success against the odds comes from establishing ethos and culture. This comes from first establishing ‘consistency’ of practice (and this is what both these schools mentioned have addressed through their non-negotiables, high aspirations for all etc). The way I see it, now both have established success and the culture/ethos for this success, it is allowing them to have the `capacity’ to work on the wider enrichment activities so that it is not just an exams factory. This journey is something I saw us go through at Sandringham School over the last 9 years.

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