Setting up New Schools: some things we learnt

Rosie Clayton
Nov 26, 2017 · 14 min read

When it comes to transforming education systems one of the policy tools deployed in a number of countries is the setting up of new types of school from scratch. The rationale goes that these new schools will be able to innovate on behalf of the wider system in a way that traditionally embedded schools are often not able to, providing ‘proof points’ and exemplars of new practice and new organisational models, malleable to spread and scale particularly as part of networks.

In a previous job I worked for the Studio Schools Trust and spent nearly 4 years working with Local Authorities, Multi Academy Trusts, single academies, FE Colleges and other Federations to design and set up innovative new types of school across England. There were many things that we learnt along the way which might be of interest to others thinking about embarking on a similar journey, and especially in reflecting on the underpinnings of success and failure!

There are also a number of themes around what I would call ‘system learning’ which have really influenced how I now think about and approach aspects of my current work.

A bit of background…

In England the process for setting up new schools is typically divided into 3 phases (there may be more now given the length of time many of the early new schools have been open): application development, pre opening, and post opening. All of which required different types and levels of support.

The points below cover a checklist of questions that @ITTElizabeth and I put together, and which we worked through with our project partners from a school design and project management perspective.

They relate specifically to designing and implementing a non traditional school model (rather than opening a new school per se) — one which may go against the grain of the local offer and present challenge to the national accountability regime, and where there is a job of work to be done in creating a conceptual narrative and picture around a school model which is at first inconceivable to the lay person. (Most people have quite definitive views about education and schools — it’s one of the few areas of public policy where pretty much everyone has had direct and sustained experience and often maintain pretty strong and emotive opinions!)

The points below also assume that a number of the fundamentals are already in place:

  • strong project management and delivery team with the right skillsets
  • adequate resources and funding
  • enough lead in time
  • once open — all leadership and management structures are appropriate for the school
  • and the curriculum is planned and appropriate for the local area, with a strong vision, mission and ethos to ensure distinctiveness

…given that success has by and large been dependent on effective project implementation and contextual relevance. For example those schools we set up that have really thrived tended to be expertly designed for local context with a clear and distinctive rationale, great leadership and a clear and compelling purpose within the local educational landscape. Leadership especially has been key — as a rule of thumb those schools that made a poor initial Headteacher/Principal appointment, and where the Head left the role within the first year or so, often found it tricky to recover.

Those schools that have struggled (generalising here) tended to be poorly implemented from a project management perspective, under-resourced, had very short lead in times (some 3–6 months, it’s near on impossible to open a new school in less than a year), in hindsight questionable governance, and lacking in elements of the above necessary for success. All of which meant that effective processes and organisational structures and cultures were not able to be established and embedded over time.

Anyway, here is a more detailed list of things to consider…

Phase 1: Bid Development

  • Developing a clear and compelling vision and a convincing curriculum plan. (the ‘operating system’/the offer of your school) How will you reach a consensus on the best ways to deliver your vision? How will you pin down the ‘nitty gritty’ such as timetables, staffing, finance, pupil groupings etc?
  • Applying for funding, in this case to the Department for Education which presents a prescriptive application process which frames the project in a certain way. The application form itself and DfE assessment criteria for example forces you to think about school design in a traditional way e.g. a certain curriculum offer is mandatory, and there are clear expectations around the kind of targets you need to work towards. Your school building will be a standardised design regardless of the education vision. So how will you present your vision as innovative enough to achieve better and different results/outcomes but still deliver on government priorities?
  • Finding a suitable geographic location, and a suitable local site, which lives up to the expectations around the vision, e.g. community centered v town or city centre. How will you find a location/site which is both affordable and meets the needs of your vision? Plus potentially capitalises on opportunities to leverage economies of scale and local partnerships, e.g. co-location. It’s important to consider transport infrastructure — how will students get there.
  • Connecting with the communities you want to serve in the most effective way to gather evidence of need and demand. This includes exploring different messaging approaches and tools for engagement, and thinking critically about timing. Authenticity is key and ensuring you adopt the appropriate approach for different audiences. New school models can be hard to communicate in communities which think about education in a very traditional way, for example in those areas which have high numbers of grammar or faith schools in the locality. How will you generate support and buy in for your school in the local community as well as from national stakeholders?
  • Securing wider partnerships e.g. employers and other local stakeholders to ensure effective implementation of the vision and curriculum design. This may require significant outreach and first contact is really important, with a clear offer and ask. People don’t like having their time wasted.
  • Giving the project the necessary amount of time to be successful. How will you ensure you have the capacity to prioritise completing a successful bid? Who will be responsible for what? How will you free up their time to ensure they are not derailed by other tasks?

Phase 2: Pre-Opening

  • Recruiting a strong Head/leader who buys into the school vision and will champion and support the mission. This is the most important role throughout the project. Ensuring your recruitment methods will deliver you the right person — are you specifying the right skillset, asking the right questions, marketing in locations appropriate for the local area? Are you paying enough? Do they have any experience of setting up new schools? Do they have substantial experience of leadership to enable them to deal with the challenges of setting up a new school? What level of flex will you give the new head in designing the education brief?
  • And linked to this — recruiting the right staff who are also capable of implementing the vision, and buy into the education model. Ensuring you recruit early enough to allow adequate culture building and planning time with new staff before the start of term. Have you given thought to the recruitment timetable and in particular resignation dates?
  • Ensuring your Principal Designate (as they will be known during this phase) has sufficient project management support, particularly covering areas they many not have experience in for example procurement and tendering, managing building works, IT.
  • With new schools it’s really important to effectively market your offer to parents and students, build strong relationships, and keep them engaged throughout the pre-opening phase to ensure enrolment on Day 1. This includes clear and compelling presentation of the model and offer locally (what you are, and what you are not) How much will you flex on your offer to meet specific individual needs? How will your pioneer cohort, as ambassadors for your approach, help you implement your vision?
  • Having hopefully found a suitable site, there is a parallel strand of work around gaining planning approval, dealing with ongoing building logistics, unforeseen issues leading to temporary accommodation, which can affect student recruitment and your ability to implement the curriculum and culture you want at the beginning. How will you ensure an engaging start to your school if you are in temporary accommodation? One of the schools I worked with turned their whole town into a ‘school’ for the first term — operating out of local churches, community centres and the working mens club — which despite being an unfathomable logistical headache proved a great way to start in style and get the wider community involved.
  • Building relationships throughout this phase with other schools and the local authority is really important, and making sure that all understand your vision and distinctiveness, and how you will fit into the local landscape. How will you achieve buy in? And reassure them? Particularly in some areas of the country where there is high politicisation around new schools. Local relationships need careful navigation at all stages.
  • Including turning partner support from bid stage into tangible activity and meaningful relationships. Significant outreach across all levels of the wider community is needed. How will you get partners to work with and support you, and maximise their capacity to help and input? Who will manage those relationships?
  • Effective media management — dealing with the positive and negative, through all stages.
  • Getting your admissions policy right, and knowing the law. How will you ensure you have the optimum student profile for your school community and to deliver your offer? How will you ensure you reach those who you are aiming to serve, i.e. all abilities, geographic bredth, social mix.
  • And — making sure all school policies and processes build the right culture and deliver on your objectives. How will they differ from more traditional school policies? Is this appropriate? And how will breathing space be included for evolution and modification over time as culture develops?
  • Considering the practical realities around timetabling — particularly if you want to offer something out of sync with the calendar in your local area, and with a degree of flexibility e.g. a longer day or longer year. Potentially tricky for parents and staff if they have children at other schools locally. One of the early Studio School designs enabled students and staff to have more control over their time and to book flexible holiday during specific periods each term (in line with the ‘real world’ ethos). A number of schools tried to implement this but it proved unworkable for a number of reasons.
  • Planning for the first day, first month, first term — culture building and setting the tone for your school both internally and externally. How will you ensure a detailed and thorough induction for your staff and students?
  • Converting expressions of interest/applications into enrolment on Day 1. How will you make sure students turn up? How will you keep them engaged after their applications are submitted so they aren’t persuaded by other schools/Heads/friends?

Phase 3: Once Open (First Year)

  • Cohort conversion — if for whatever reason you under-recruit, and the reality is, until Day 1, you never know for sure what your intake will look like — how will this affect staffing, curriculum and timetabling?
  • Cohort flux and baseline data — effective baselining on entry, as the ability profile of your intake may be different to what has been anticipated, which may affect curriculum planning. How will you ensure your curriculum offer addresses the needs of this new school community?
  • Building in time for reflection on policies and processes, to make sure they build the right culture and deliver on your objectives. Including staff development and behaviours — ensuring time for planning, reflection and training. And dealing with issues effectively as they arise.
  • Working with local schools and the local authority to access student information and data. What measures will you have in place to ensure you’re robust in your data and target setting?
  • There can be numerous challenges around temporary accommodation, if you end up in this position. How will you ensure your students and staff don’t feel let down?
  • Some new schools can face challenges around high staff turnover, often when staff don’t fully understand the model, or where ultimately the role and model just isn’t a good fit for them. High Tech High in San Diego, one of the most pioneering future school models in the world, had something like 95% staff turnover in their first 3 years of operation. It’s only now, 5–10 years down the line, that they have a stabilised culture and operational processes. How will you ensure your staff feel supported in their innovation journey?

Linked to this last point, and in looking beyond the first year, culture building year on year is hugely important for new schools as they grow to capacity. Every year your school community may look and feel very different, with a new cohort of students and new staff coming in each September, and new relationships and processes needing to be established to reflect this. It’s crucial to invest time in this. Including regularly reviewing policies and procedures and their application as the environment changes and your vision evolves.

In addition, here are two other useful pieces of analysis which I came across in thinking about all this…

  • New schools are most likely Ofsted-ed in their third year of operation. This is often the first major test and can make or break a school, within our generally ‘high stakes low trust’ accountability system in England. Here are some key points from DfE analysis which relate to the success of new schools in Ofsted inspections:
  • And here are some insights on the challenges of leading/managing small schools — i.e. during the first 5 years of operation as the new school builds to capacity from low numbers (from a great NCSL report Establishing and leading new types of school: challenges and opportunities for leaders and leadership)

New Schools in the USA

When I was in the USA last year I visited around 15 different schools (both Charter and District schools) across 7 Cities which are pioneering new approaches to learning and school design (e.g.

I spoke to school and network leaders and other staff about their experiences of setting up new schools from scratch, and also transforming existing schools towards new models — not dissimilar to our experiences in England process wise, but there seemed to be significantly more emphasis on proactively supporting new schools to thrive and innovate on behalf of the wider system and share practice. (Driven by philanthropy as well as Government)

It was interesting to see the level of support and investment charter schools and charter management networks for example were able to tap into at each stage of development, and particularly once open. This includes a concerted effort to build educational leadership and capacity for new school models at all levels within the system. In comparison the free schools programme, as it has been to date, for those at the coalface has felt somewhat more sink or swim.

Getting Smart in the US published this hugely insightful document — 100 tips and insights for opening great new schools — many of which are v applicable to other national contexts:

System Learning

One of the underexplored stories from the free schools programme, and the Studio Schools programme in particular, imo, has been around the contextual evolution of the model, and the conditions of success and failure. A concept that was originally built on a broad and robust evidence base, which morphed through its implementation journey in different parts of the country. You can get a sense of the complex mesh of interlocking factors which determined much of this from the points above.

Whilst a more in depth research piece would be needed to disentangle all the elements there have been a number of key learnings for me which have informed and continue to shape my thinking in both education and other fields…

1. The potential for system corruption of an idea or concept — a critical aspect of this being around how we measure and evaluate the effectiveness/impact of new approaches via traditional metrics. When new approaches in theory are fundamentally not designed to improve the effectiveness of a traditional model. (This links to the Christensen Institute’s work around theories of disruptive innovation, and the challenges of innovating within an innovation hostile base environment — e.g.

  • National systems — during the life of the programme the policy context, accountability system, funding regime, and delivery model for schools (academisation) all changed.
  • Local systems — networks, power relationships, catchment areas, travel to learn and work patterns, transport infrastructure, entrenched behaviours, expectations and cultures — which both enabled local flex and flourishing, and through poor implementation killed off a number of projects.

2. Design for context & sensitivity to complexity—linked to the above, being acutely aware of how local context and existing dynamics could shape a project and enable success or failure. When it comes to schools, really getting under the skin of how people locally think about education and how your proposals and ideas could link into and support the ambitions and aspirations of a place. Authenticity, empathy, strong relationships and finding the right advocates and leadership locally are all vital in this.

3. Process corruption — particularly in relation to funding. Application processes not only frame issues in isolation and sometimes abstraction across a complex system, but can also distort desired outcomes and solutions. This was something I thought a lot about in the USA in looking at the impact of VC funding on education innovation, and in questioning whether the funding regimes and processes of VCs and Foundations could be a barrier to innovation. For example the desire to see a rapid return on investment within a short timescale and around a certain set of outcomes can just lead to better and more efficient ways of doing conventional things. Rather than real innovation towards longer term transformation where results and impact may take years to be evidenced, and may require a new language or set of conceptual norms and behaviours.

Another element of process corruption is where over time process distorts purpose — as articulated by Jeff Bezos from Amazon in his 2016 statement to shareholders:

Interesting parallels with Ofsted, where blind adherence to process can often mean that teachers and leaders lose sight of the bigger picture and the intended purpose of education. ‘Ofsted Outstanding’ becomes the end game, the thing. And of course there are a number of unintended consequences — fascinatingly discussed recently by Becky Allen, exploring how the audit and compliance culture created by Ofsted and consequent organisational behaviour of schools has resulted in the huge increase in administration and bureaucracy which is effectively strangling the profession:

4. For innovation work within complex environments new types of leadership, or new understandings of leadership seem desperately needed — which really recognise the unrelenting demands, the emotional energy, creativity, personal reserves, networked skill and resilience needed to make stuff happen. Rigid and compliance driven accountability systems in any industry can be unforgiving, and capacity and capability development around leading in complexity and for innovation is key.

5. Adoption curve thinking — at what point does it pay to play as it were. I’ve been interested in Adam Grant’s work around how the most ‘successful’ iteration of a concept tends to not always be the first or second, and with Studio Schools there was definitely a sweet spot around 2013/14, 3/4 years into the programme. Being an early adopter can give you a strategic advantage especially locally, and if you leave it too late you may end up at risk of being eaten by process. Decision making on when to join a movement, or invest in one, I guess depends in part on ability to read the system and interpret likely signals, as well as individual/organisational capacity and desire to take risk and learn. And of course a sprinkling of luck and serendipity, as with many things in this world!

Rosie Clayton

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#educationalist #technologist #designer #adventurer #campaigner #entreprenerd | T: @RosieClayton

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