Challenging schools: Solutions to five common problems

This article was originally posted in Headteacher Update 10/3/17.


In January, inclusion expert Daniel Sobel described the five challenges that he often sees in vulnerable schools. He now attempts to offer some advice on tackling these key issues…

In the January edition of Headteacher Update, I described five recurring systemic problems that I have noticed through my work supporting challenging schools (Challenging schools: Five recurring themes, January 2017:

I promised I would follow up with some solutions to these problems. However, I included a caveat: I am sceptical of “initiatives”, because they often disguise rather than illuminate the unique problems schools face, encouraging the application of “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

Let’s recap the five common concerns

  1. Inhibition and timidity: an insidious negativity that becomes infectious, permeates every plan, weakens belief and stymies bravery. Such schools are on the edge of, or already in the grip of, a downwards spiral.
  2. The EYFS: schools have an undiscovered hornets’ nest of a problem emerging from EYFS in a feeder nursery or internally. Problems begin to fester and grow worse, thus costing a great deal of time, effort and expense later on.
  3. SEN: it is notoriously difficult to hire good SENCOs and teaching assistants are often inexperienced and poorly trained when it comes to SEN – and some vulnerable schools even choose to go without SENCOs for extended periods of time. Many vulnerable schools have SENCOs who are still teaching in the “old style”, hiding in their room rather than working on the front line, supporting their teaching colleagues
  4. Interventions: Far too many interventions end up having a long-term negative, rather than the intended positive, impact because they are based on exclusionary practice, which is not reflective of the main class learning-environment. With this style of intervention, it becomes impossible to re-integrate the child into the main class because they develop a reliance on being withdrawn from their cohort. Furthermore, the schools I have worked with often do not know whether or not they are making progress in the area of SEN because they have no means of properly measuring or monitoring their interventions.
  5. The local community: Communities can be challenging, not just for socio-economic reasons, but complacency and lack of aspiration can prove equally corrosive to schools. A common theme we have noticed is that dealing with the effect of social issues in an educational silo is doomed to failure because you cannot separate the student from the community.

I would like to address these concerns in a non-linear and non-consecutive way because I don’t think there is one solution per problem. Instead, I think that some broad-stroke approaches can address these quite different areas in a virtuous circle with cumulative effect.

Approach one: Celebrate

One thing these hardest issues have in common is that they are all topics mired knee-deep in disparagement, negativity and a general lack of hope. One example is the mental health of children (and indeed staff and the community): most heads could wax lyrical about the sheer lack of support, resources and the bleak state of the broken system. While it won’t solve the problems, heavy doses of belief and optimism do go a long way.

I tried an experiment in one school where the lack of differentiation and personalised learning were very much at the heart of the requires improvement Ofsted grade. The headteacher started sending an email out to all staff praising one or two teachers who had done a fantastic piece of differentiation and sent them individual “fantastic work” thank you cards.

After a few of weeks, the message was planted among the staff that recognition and reward was available. This obviously has to be coupled with some training and support.

This is the flip side of the same coin that says “my way or the highway”, which I have sometimes heard heads espouse proudly as if an iron fist is the only hallmark of real and robust leadership. The problem with that approach is that it fosters little goodwill, creativity or imagination and staff turnover tends to be high.

I might have opened a can of worms here, but my contention is that you get out of your staff whatever you put into them, and if you are full of praise and encouragement you are usually rewarded in kind. The experiment we tried continues to this day and there is an atmosphere in the school that good teaching is warmly celebrated.

Similarly, celebrating your achievements loudly could be more than just a nice thing to do, it could be a priority. One school called me because they were expecting Ofsted. There wasn’t much time to address the blue items on the RaiseOnline and so I asked them instead to take me to the room where the inspectors would be based – it was a meeting room with bare walls.

By the end of the day, it was covered floor to ceiling with every possible positive thing the school could say, from a quote by a student about how great the breakfast club was to how much another student enjoyed reading a book for the first time, to a newspaper clipping about a competition some students had won.

The room shouted: we love our school. We then replicated this in the entrance hall. Something I have learned by visiting schools is that the attitude of the whole school is written on the walls of the entrance area. I reckon it would make a fascinating PhD for someone: self-perception of the staff about their school and the perception visitors get when they first walk into the school.

You can tell an outstanding school because they are so proud and shout about it from the moment you walk through the door. You can replicate this trick regardless of your Ofsted. Be outward-facing to the press and celebrate everything very publicly. Why? Because every function of the school requires a belief that you can do it, from leadership in curriculum to engagement of families – if you want parents to engage more then make them proud of your amazing institution by declaring it in multi-colour on a regular basis.

Remember, your staff and all of your stakeholders walk through that entrance too – celebrate them and they will show you goodwill in turn. The nay-sayers will claim that this has nothing to do with pedagogy and is just a marketing trick. I think that could be true if it was done in isolation; if it remains a veneer of thin varnish atop of a real festering mess. But if you are in the process of change, then this will end up being much more than varnish and can make the difference between Ofsted grades.

Approach two: Be sceptical and creative

It is a hallmark of low Ofsted grade schools – they perpetuate interventions that are not regularly managed or critically evaluated.

Start from scratch by addressing the question: what do our students actually need? Do not assume bog standard interventions and approaches work universally. They don’t. If they did, I promise that you would have heard about it by now.

What works for your unique setting has to be bespoke. The capacity of the staff to deliver and how often and how well they are line-managed is as much a factor as the intervention itself.

In general, I prefer home-made interventions rather than bog-standard buy-ins that cost a fortune and never quite deliver what they claim on the package. Ask your SENCO, teacher and teaching assistant to come up with an intervention that meets the needs of the students of that particular class, track it every week, review it every six weeks and assume it should not last longer than two terms. This easy formula has produced some fantastic results. Remember the key here: interventions have to be line managed and held to account very carefully.

Approach three: EYFS expertise

Quickly admit what you don’t know. If you are not EYFS-trained then you don’t know EYFS well enough to know. Two common problems are that primary heads often have to be persuaded that their EYFS staff don’t have sufficient training and also that EYFS leads in schools tend not to be great managers, so whereas they themselves may be knowledgeable, their staff might not be.

This leaves primary headteachers vulnerable to misinformation or even an unawareness of the lack of information (they don’t know what they don’t know). I don’t know a magic trick to get out of this conundrum but I think it may start with being honest.

For any school that has struggled to make progress from their current Ofsted category to the next, I strongly recommend that they consider an independent, warts and all EYFS review with a strategic implementation plan specifically written for the headteacher to use for line management.

Approach four: Think of SEN anew

The kind of reinvention SEN needs in order to meet the SEND Code of Practice is not cosmetic. However, it is possible to meet the Code of Practice’s requirements and still miss the point. The point? The point is to make SEN a whole-school venture, not the sole domain of the appointed SENCO.

The old SENCO role died a few years ago and yet in most schools I visit, it persists like a ghost. The reinvention of this role might mean the reinvention of the job description and I have written previously for Headteacher Update about the trouble with trying to find a decent SENCO nowadays and how we should reinvent the role (Recruiting the perfect SENCO for your school, September 2016:

So, putting the SENCO aside for a moment, the issue we have to deal with is the teachers’ perception of their role around SEN. A strategic starting point for your leadership team might be for you to imagine that you do not have either a SENCO, interventions or even teaching assistants and that all SEN is to be dealt with by the teachers only (okay, assume just for the exercise that you have a visiting SENCO to take care of the SEN panel paperwork!).

In this scenario, what would your teachers need in terms of training and planning to rise to this challenge? When you can answer that question and work out how you can implement that, then you are on track to what “think of the SEN anew” actually means in reality.

It could be that you would want to dedicate one member of staff to help the teachers get their differentiation just right – and that would be the new SENCO role. It could be that teaching assistants would be deployed more infrequently and be used only when they have had solid training and regular line management to ensure they are not simply unburdening the teacher.

I appreciate that this is a larger topic than this one exercise and I have previously written a lot about this topic in these pages – see link below – but the key point is the need for reinvention and what that actually means in reality, for your school.


There are no quick fixes in a school. I could write an encyclopaedia full of advice mainly about what not to do as a headteacher. However, I tried to focus here on a few key shifts in approach that can have a broad-reaching effect. It is not necessarily about the doing but more about the attitude or the thinking – the questions you ask and, of course, those you don’t ask.

This article is meant to be an idea: that with these approaches working together, the archetypal failing school that I described in my last article can emerge out of its quagmire with an upward trajectory, addressing its quite different challenges in a virtuous circle with a cumulative effect.

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