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Research to Support Schools of Ambition: Final Report




5.1 This chapter draws on a range of primary and secondary sources of evidence accrued by the research team during Research to Support Schools of Ambition and referred to throughout this report to summarise lessons for successful and sustained school transformation. These lessons are also informed by related insights gained by the research team during their research and support for similar initiatives i.e. the Partnership Project schools in the City of Glasgow (University of Glasgow, 2010) and the 2020 Vision project in East Ayrshire and Edinburgh (Lowden and Hall, 2010). Indeed, many of the same key factors and conditions that appear to influence successful school transformation are evident across these various initiatives.

5.2 While the transformational plans across the 52 Schools of Ambition varied in focus and reflected each school's own context and priorities, there were common and inter-related themes. These include: improving learning and teaching across the school, both in terms of pedagogy and curriculum; promoting positive school ethos and capacity for change through CPD and leadership development for staff and pupils; and improving achievement and attainment.

5.3 The measures and activities adopted by schools to address their transformational goals also varied reflecting schools' circumstances and plans. These measures, and indeed some of the aims of the schools, evolved as the programme proceeded. Despite this diversity across the programme, it is possible to identify some common conditions that appear to facilitate transformation and to offer lessons that have wider applicability for managing change in schools.

5.4 The findings from the research, related studies and wider literature indicate consistent themes concerning conditions that have facilitated school transformation. It appears that many of these features of success, while supported by external conditions, are driven by internal and in-school factors.

School level conditions and structures

School leadership

5.5 The research literature indicates that evidence of leadership effects on school transformation is equivocal and that there are insufficient large-scale empirical studies on the impact of leadership at individual or 'distributed' levels (Leithwood and Jantzi, 2006; Murphy, 2005). The literature consistently indicates that leadership effects are small (see Hallinger and Heck, 1998) and that 'instructional' (or pedagogical) leadership is more significant than 'transformational' leadership in improving pupil outcomes. Hattie (2009) provides a succinct definition of these two leadership approaches.

Instructional leadership refers to those principals who have their major focus on creating a learning climate free of disruption, a system of clear teaching objectives and high teacher expectations for teachers and students. Transformational leadership refers to those principals who engage with their teaching staff in ways that inspire them to new levels of energy, commitment and moral purpose such that they work collaboratively to overcome challenges and reach ambitious goals (Hattie 2009, p.83).

5.6 While this indicates that impact on pupil outcomes is influenced by instructional leadership, the qualitative evidence gathered from Headteachers during the Programme indicates that broader, whole school change and ethos which helps to sustain classroom-level innovation is promoted by transformational leadership.

5.7 It is apparent from the Schools of Ambition programme is that while 'shared ownership' of activities is crucial to promote change, a common feature of progress in Schools of Ambition has been the role of strong leadership and the development of a clear transformational vision. Indeed, an important driver for sustaining transformation activities was the presence of coherent and committed senior management that provided the strategic vision and motivation for change. The impact of senior management on promoting leadership and engagement across the school community was enhanced when management were able to enlist the support and respect of staff, pupils and parents. In addition, there is consistent qualitative evidence across those schools involved in the Schools of Ambition programme to indicate that measures to promote leadership across pupils and staff are associated with the schools' capacity for change. The provision of leadership opportunities contributes to an overall ethos that is conducive to sustained innovation. The research literature indicates that effective leadership development requires embedding and support through all levels of the education system from individual post, the school and beyond (Fullan 2009: 45). This implies that sustaining leadership development is an issue not just for schools but for local authorities and government.

5.8 Those schools that sought to enhance staff and pupil leadership have drawn on the support of organisations such as Columba 1400, Brathay, the police, universities, charities, community providers, arts organisations, sports clubs and community and training providers. While such opportunities have been seen by staff as effective in stimulating leadership development, cost implications have meant some schools have explored ways to adapt aspects of these external leadership programmes within their own schools to make them more sustainable. This has seen some schools drawing on the skills and abilities of external leadership course participants to develop and sustain in-school leadership academies and programmes. For example, one School of Ambition has developed a pupil leadership group. This group uses activities such as team building, personal reflection, mentoring visits and work in the local community.

Promoting engagement

5.9 Positive change appeared to be enhanced when staff and pupils clearly understood the transformational objectives and developed a sense of ownership early in the process. This finding is consistent with the work of Goodson et al (2006: 57) who report that large-scale education change is more effective when teachers perceive innovation activities to be in line with their professional identity. Staff engagement was facilitated by encouraging them to participate in Schools of Ambition processes, for example, by engaging the school community to address transformational aims, forming evaluation teams/school enquiry groups and cross-curricular working groups.

5.10 In some of the Tranche 1 schools the transformational activities were focused on particular departments. This often led to those staff not directly involved being either unaware of the rationale and impact of the transformational activities and in some cases led to resentment that funding was being selectively deployed. However, these negative perceptions were usually successfully addressed by expanding the programme across the school and inviting all staff (including promoted and non-promoted staff) to take a role in defining and leading initiatives.

5.11 A feature of many transformational plans has been a focus on promoting school ethos and a culture conducive to change. The importance of promoting a culture predisposed to positive school change and capacity building is highlighted in the research literature (Stoll and Fink, 1996; Slavin, 2005, Stoll, 2009; Hatch, 2001; Adelman and Taylor, 2007). Across Schools of Ambition this has been addressed by introducing leadership activities for staff and pupils, inclusive curricular and pedagogical developments, cross-curricular working groups with active involvement from promoted and non-promoted staff, CPD opportunities and fostering greater parental and community engagement. Over time, school leaders report that these measures have resulted in staff and pupils expecting to be involved in decision-making, wanting to take responsibility for transformational activities and becoming more involved in their school and community generally.

5.12 Cultural change of this kind has been greatest where pupils, parents and staff have felt that they are part of the initiative and receive constructive feedback and encouragement, for example, involving staff in initial and on-going planning, evaluation processes and appropriate and relevant CPD focused to their needs. Such an approach represents modest moves towards collaborative, rather than invitational or cooperative models of participation.

5.13 School-based CPD activities have played a role in helping staff to implement aspects of the transformational plans and to sustain successful measures. This reflects findings in the wider research literature which stress the importance of teacher quality for promoting pupil achievement (Hattie, 2009) and school change (Elmore, 1996). Where leadership and school ethos measures have become embedded in schools, senior staff reported that this facilitated greater collegiality and willingness to engage in peer learning. Sustained site-based collaborative CPD appears important in supporting teachers to experiment with, evaluate and embed new approaches to teaching and learning that are proven to be effective in their school setting. This echoes the findings of Earley, 2009 and Goodall et al, 2005).

Developing a culture of self-evaluation and critical reflection

5.14 The research team noted early in the programme that school evaluation capacity and activity was more likely to develop where there was management support for evaluation, a team of co-ordinated teachers responsible for evaluation and realistic evaluation aims built into, and informing, broader school planning. In addition, staff reported that having time to conduct evaluation activities was an important factor. Indeed a major inhibitor to evaluation activity was competing demands and priorities on teachers' time, which restricted the time available to plan and conduct evaluations. Staff apprehension (often misplaced) to apply research methods and analysis was also evident in the early stages.

5.15 The complexity of operationalising transformational plans meant that schools designated or recruited a person or small team of staff to act as coordinator. This was particularly apparent in those schools that worked together on joint transformational plans. For example, a retired headteacher was appointed to integrate and develop the joint working across the partner schools, while another joint Schools of Ambition project recruited a coordinator with experience of managing youth and community programmes that shared aspects of many of the schools' transformational activities. However, one challenge for schools that used part of their Schools of Ambition funding to pay for a designated coordinator was that as the programme came to an end these posts were unsustainable unless other sources of funding were located. Some schools had anticipated this issue and allocated responsibility for coordination and management of the transformation across existing members of staff. This approach was less vulnerable to staff leaving to take up other posts or prolonged periods of absence. It also promoted distributed leadership which helped to maintain progress.

5.16 Where staff were engaged in School of Ambition research that also contributed to the Scottish Qualification for Headship ( SQH) or the Chartered Teacher programme there was evidence from Research Mentor observation and self-reporting from those staff involved in such programmes that research and reflection could contribute to improved educational practice in their class and school. The rigour of the research process required as part of such professional programmes, and the fact that it often focused on the teacher's own practice, appeared to reinforce the impact in school. Some schools were particularly enthusiastic about involving pupils in their evaluation activity. With appropriate induction and attention to ethical safeguards this proved valuable in obtaining pupil perspectives while also developing the skills of these young people. Such developments reflect aspects of the literature on school transformation which highlight the importance of schools as learning organisations as a factor in effective change (Senge et al, 2000; Coppieters, 2005).

5.17 The research team's experience suggests that more that needs to be done to support and develop a capacity for professional enquiry and evaluation among teachers and other stakeholders in schools. This will become more important with full implementation of Curriculum for Excellence and the need for school professionals to critically assess the impact of the new curriculum for pupils and staff in their schools. Indeed, the research literature stresses the importance of collaborative enquiry to inform learning and teaching and professional practice (Earl, Torrance and Sutherland, 2006). Further external guidance from appropriate sources would also be beneficial to build research and evaluation capacity among teachers, including help to make effective use of various school data to inform decision-making in school. As James et al, (2007) have noted, effective use of routine school data to inform decision making is a key factor in successful school transformation.

Partnership working

5.18 The importance of partnership work was often crucial to the success of those transformational plans that sought to expand provision and support to make a positive difference to the achievement, life chances and health and well being of pupils. Partnerships were built with other schools, colleges, Skills Direct Scotland (formerly Careers Scotland), youth work and health and social services. Such partnerships were enhanced by Schools of Ambition funding which facilitated additional specialist and advisory staff input. The impact on achievement and positive destinations has been sufficiently pronounced in many of the schools that when the funding came to an end, schools and their partners have explored and implemented creative approaches to maintain successful aspects of joint programmes and systems. Where Schools of Ambition resources were used to fund external input to deliver one-off or discrete initiatives these were less likely to be sustained and benefit the school. The capacity for change and impact, however, was more sustained where there was systematic partnership working between schools and agencies and services to develop measures that were fully integrated into the curriculum and school systems.

5.19 Schools have also reported enhanced formal and informal networking with other schools both within and outwith their own learning community and local authority. As the Schools of Ambition programme has developed, networks of headteachers whose schools share similar transformational plans and contexts have established and maintained informal links to share ideas and good practice. Headteachers report that such networking has been facilitated by the regional and national Schools of Ambition conferences and events.

5.20 The range of partners that schools have been able to draw upon to support change and progress has often been influenced by the local availability of appropriate providers, services and employers. It is also evident that schools' efforts to engage employers and businesses to support their transformation efforts has been a challenge throughout the programme, yet some schools have been able to forge successful links with employers who have then, for example, played a role in supporting measures to promote positive destinations.

5.21 Experience of partnership working highlighted the need for good communication and mutual understanding of the various partners' working practices, commitments, and often differing protocols. School and external partners are vulnerable to changes in budgets and reductions in provision can inhibit the flexibility of schools to respond at previous levels. However, schools and partners have worked creatively to adapt as far as possible to changes in funding. This has involved schools allocating a share of their budget to sustain effective partnership working and spreading responsibilities across existing staff who now have increased skills. School leaders have noted, however, that the goodwill of staff should not be taken for granted or seen as an alternative for providing adequate funding when necessary.

5.22 Activity to engage with parents has usually required substantial effort from schools but where this has been successful it is characterised by schools tailoring liaison and communication with parents to focus specifically on their child/children's progress and needs and using face-face meetings to discuss these issues. These meetings with parents require more time than standard parents' consultation evenings but are reported by school leaders as worth the effort given their success.

5.23 An aspect of successful partnership working across many Schools of Ambition has involved working with associated primary schools to promote transition, to provide targeted support for vulnerable pupils and implement specific learning programmes. The involvement of the schools' wider learning community has helped to embed strategies, structures and processes that improve transition from primary through secondary school and then on to post-school destinations. Evidence from schools suggests that focused interventions and learning programmes are more likely to have a positive impact when they are tailored to an individual's needs and introduced at an earlier stage in pupils' school careers.

External influences

Curriculum for Excellence

5.24 Implementing school change has been facilitated by the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence which shares the same ethos as Schools of Ambition in promoting innovation, connections across the curriculum and flexibility to meet learners' needs and appropriate recognition of achievement. Senior staff within the Schools of Ambition reported that the programme has facilitated change to learning and teaching practices, supported curriculum development and paved the way for full implementation of Curriculum for Excellence. Where this has worked well, the curriculum and support systems are flexible to meet the needs of all pupils including the very able and lowest attaining pupils and the school has resisted developing a tiered 'vocational' and 'academic' approach. Headteachers, particularly in Tranche 2 and Tranche 3, reported that Curriculum for Excellence had provided a stimulus for change and staff felt more confident because of the improvements in learning and teaching, staff capacity and supporting structures facilitated by Schools of Ambition.


5.25 Annual interviews with members of the leadership group in the Schools of Ambition and support meetings with staff in school sometimes made reference the fact that the initial transformational plans had been influenced by previous HMIE inspection recommendations. HMIE guidance and requirements such as the increasing emphasis on self-evaluation in schools at all levels has also promoted monitoring and evaluation measures. This has complemented the Schools of Ambition mentor team's work in promoting greater awareness of the importance of critical reflection and self-evaluation in shaping practice.


5.26 Senior staff across the schools stressed that the Schools of Ambition funding had acted as a catalyst, providing the freedom to innovate and explore new ways of working. A recurring theme across the schools was that staff frequently stressed that some of the key sustainable developments required relatively little financial input. Quite often this was due to the programme promoting increased commitment and flexibility across staff and a greater willingness to lead activities and share responsibilities.


5.27 From the qualitative information gathered by the research team it is clear that most schools, particularly those in Tranches 2 and 3 have made efforts to address sustainability when planning and implementing their various measures and activities. For example, funding has been used to develop initiatives based on attitudinal, relational or pedagogical change such as Learn to Learn, or strategies based on changes to school policy such as parental engagement. Many schools have developed strategies for succession planning to ensure that successful innovations did not disappear when the funding ended, a factor emphasised in the wider research literature (Robinson et al, 2008). Attention to cultural and affective change has helped some schools to address challenging financial situations and other difficulties which may arise.

5.28 In addition, school management and teachers have reported that developments in the wider education policy landscape, particularly Curriculum for Excellence, include many of the priorities that underpin the Schools of Ambition programme. This, they hope, will mean that local authorities and their partners will prioritise funding and staffing that are in harmony with their school programmes.


5.29 The Schools of Ambition programme was an innovative way of providing support for schools going through a period of significant change, often in challenging circumstances. The programme was distinctive in promoting an action research model within a national programme for school change. Headteachers valued the opportunity to address specific local needs and educational priorities through devolved funding, within national guidelines and supported by national Advisers. As the programme progressed, many schools aligned their School of Ambition transformational plan with the school development plan, particularly in regard to the challenges presented by Curriculum for Excellence. Within this context, the Schools of Ambition programme has provided important lessons for schools which are now widely disseminated in Leading Change 2 (Scottish Government, 2010). In particular, this focuses on the experiences of schools that have shown progress in developing a school culture that welcomes change, developing the professional capacity of teachers and innovating to meet the needs of young people.

5.30 Where successful, evaluation activities supplemented routine data gathering in schools, extended the range of methods available to teacher evaluators, and promoted the use of data to inform on-going developments. In a minority of schools, curriculum development was supported by teacher development and proceeded within a planned cycle of reflection and change. Whilst this model of collaborative problem solving proved a challenge in many schools, the majority of participants across the schools reported increased confidence in using a range of evaluation methods to assess progress towards locally defined goals. The capacity of the schools to link curriculum development and self-evaluation was noted by HMIE in their report, Lessons learned from the Schools of Ambition initiative ( HMIE, 2010).

5.31 The Schools of Ambition programme is held in high regard by those teachers who contributed to the evaluation strand of Research to Support Schools of Ambition. Headteachers are keen to maintain the professional learning communities initiated through the programme.

5.32 The key features of the programme - innovation, flexibility, autonomy and professional accountability - are salient features of contemporary education policy for all schools.