Over the last few years, I've asked the same question to thousands of teachers, leaders and support staff, all over the world. I never tire of asking it, because the answer absolutely *blows my mind*. The question is simply this:
What proportion of school improvement initiatives lead to improved pupil outcomes?
You may wish to look away from the screen for a moment while you consider this question. If you can, try to come up with a percentage figure.
Perhaps you're lucky enough to have worked in incredibly well-run schools, and your answer to this question is quite high. If so, congratulations: you won the lottery. Because in my experience – and according to the available evidence, as we will see – with remarkable consistency, the vast majority of people respond to this question with a figure in the region of 10-20%.
Clearly, this is less than ideal. But this is not the end of the story.
Whatever figure you came up with, we’re now going to tighten the criteria a little. Looking back over your career, what proportion of school improvement initiatives would you say:
led to demonstrable gains in pupil outcomes;
for which you have compelling evidence of causation – so you are fairly confident that it was ‘school improvement initiative X’ that led to those improved outcomes; and
those gains were sustained over several years.
Again, you may wish to turn away from the book for a moment while you revise your figure in light of these three criteria.
In my experience, at this point, many people revise their figure down to zero. Or they point to one or two effective initiatives, and then say “although on reflection, we don’t really have compelling evidence, we just think it’s effective’. Or perhaps “there are definitely pockets of effective practice, but I wouldn't say it’s working everywhere just yet…”
At this point, you might be thinking ‘Hmmm… this all sounds very anecdotal. Where’s the evidence?’ If so, great! You’re already thinking like an implementation scientist.
In truth, it’s not possible to arrive at an accurate answer to this question. People tend not to publish detailed accounts of things that don’t work. Also, it largely depends on how you define and measure ‘improved pupil outcomes’.
But we can look for clues – and they all seem to point in the same direction.
According to experts in the field of change management, according to the available evidence and according to teacher surveys, it seems reasonable to conclude that the proportion of school improvement initiatives that bring about lasting, positive change is consistently low – somewhere around the 20% mark at best, and likely a lot lower.
This is sub-optimal, to say the least.
To get a sense of the scale of the problem – and also a sense of the potential impact we could have on people’s lives if we can figure out how to implement change effectively at a system level – let’s do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation.
A back-of-the-envelope calculation
Say the average school improvement initiative involves ten hours of activity from each staff member across a school year: to attend some training, to do something different and to record their activity in some way.
To keep the maths simple, let’s say there’s an average of 100 practitioners in a school: teachers, school leaders and support staff. This is probably a bit high, but don’t worry - we’ll adjust the numbers again later on. This gives us a figure of 1,000 hours spent on the change initiative each year.
There are around 32,000 schools in the UK. This means that, as a nation, we spend around 32 million hours each year implementing change initiatives, assuming a (conservative) rate of one change initiative per school.
If we assume a 20% success rate, which seems like it might be generous, this means that every year in the UK, we spend more than 25 million hours implementing school improvement initiatives that don't actually improve anything.
To take this to a global level, it’s estimated that there are around five million schools on the planet in total. This gives us a ball-park figure of five billion hours spent implementing change initiatives each year.
Again, if we assume a 20% success rate, that means that every year on this planet, we spend around four billion hours implementing school improvement initiatives that don't actually improve anything.
And if you’re thinking ‘Well, your back-of-the-envelope calculation is overly generous because many schools have fewer than 100 practitioners’, fine. Halve it. Quarter it if you must: that still gives us a figure of a billion hours a year.
In fact, it's likely that the four billion figure is a conservative estimate because it assumes there’s only one change initiative happening in any school at any one time, and usually there are several things going on at once – and many of them take up many more than ten hours across an entire school year.
If it is true that, as a planet, we spend around 4 billion hours a year implementing change initiatives that don't actually improve anything - that is an *unbelievable* waste of time and resources. If you were to lay out 4 billion hours end to end, it would come to over 450,000 years. For reference, 450,000 years ago, Britain was still attached to the European landmass. It’s a geological amount of time.
In short: the scale of ineffective change management happening in schools across the planet is absolutely staggering.
The vast majority of school improvement initiatives are good ideas – otherwise, people wouldn’t be trying to implement them. And they usually have worthy goals in mind.
Perhaps they’re trying to help children develop a love of reading. Perhaps they’re trying to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers. Or perhaps they’re trying to improve mental health and wellbeing.
It’s just that the change initiatives are often poorly implemented, and they don't bring about the improved outcomes that we want to see.
Just imagine if people in every one of those schools knew how to implement change effectively, in such a way that the vast majority of change initiatives do bring about lasting, positive change.
Imagine if we could get that success rate up to 80%. Or 50%. Or even just to 30%.
Think of the gains we might see in terms of inculcating a love of reading, or closing that disadvantage gap, or improving mental health and wellbeing… the list goes on.
This back-of-the-envelope calculation is obviously a very rough estimate. But it provides us with a sense of the scale of the problem before us - and also the scale of the impact we could have on people's lives all over the world if we can figure out how to implement change effectively at a system level.
Here, we can see a powerful rationale for learning about the science of implementation – whether you’re a teacher, a leader, a member of support staff or a policymaker.
Individually, it will help you become a more impactful practitioner and a more effective human being. And collectively – if we can all learn how to do this together, at the same time – we could improve educational outcomes for young people and adults all over the world on a scale never before imagined.
Well. As it turns out, we're in luck…
Implementation science: A new dawn…
In recent years, a new field of study has emerged – Implementation Science – the study of how to bring about lasting, positive change in real-world contexts.
To cut a long story short, I've spent the last eight years becoming increasingly obsessed with implementation science and change management more widely, trawling the literature and reading everything I could get my hands on from the fields of education, healthcare and business.
Often, it felt as though I was hacking my way through a jungle of jargon. The change management literature is littered with the stuff. But there are loads of brilliant ideas floating around also, if you look hard enough.
Throughout this period, my aim has been not only to learn everything I possibly can about the art and science of how to implement school improvement effectively - but also to simplify, distil and organise this complex field into an easy-to-follow process, packed with tried-and-tested ideas, strategies and activities for bringing about lasting, positive change to the lives of young people.
Over the last four years, I have shared, trialled and refined these ideas with thousands of teachers, leaders and support staff - all over the world. And the feedback - and the impact - has been absolutely phenomenal.
To illustrate, here are three comments senior leaders have shared upon completing the training:
“This programme has been the making of me as a leader. It’s something that I take with me now and apply to everything that I do.”
(Elaine Long, Assistant Principal)
“The senior team and I are really energised and much more confident about what we can do differently as a school... This training is so valuable because it’s something we’re doing all the time, but we’ve never really been trained in it.”
(Alasdair Kennedy, Headteacher)
“I really wish that I had done this training before I embarked on my current project. Goodness me, I would be doing things differently if I had had this learning first!”
(Sara Ward, Deputy Head)
This last quote is an example of the feedback I receive most often: “I wish I’d known this years ago”.
Starting in January 2023, each week I'll share a free resource, idea or school improvement strategy, rooted in the principles of implementation science. There's also a free 10-part taster course on the homepage if you'd like to delve a little deeper. It takes about an hour to work your way through. (The full, paid course is a little longer, and usually takes around 24 hours to work your way through - e.g. 8x 3h sessions, or 12x 2h sessions - and usually takes place over a period of a few months).
If you would like a golden nugget of implementation know-how to land in your inbox once a week, sign up using the link in the top-right hand corner of your screen.
Until the next time…