School principals can have a big impact. A highly effective principal can raise typical student achievement by up to seven months in a single year, and even more in disadvantaged schools.

But running a school well is a difficult job – just ask any principal.

Schools are complex organisations. The average secondary school principal manages a budget of more than $15 million – more than the turnover of 98 per cent of Australian businesses.

Every principal wants to deliver an excellent education for their students. And while WA has some exceptional schools, too many students are in schools that struggle to provide a high-quality, well-rounded education.

This is not a new problem. The WA Government has long experimented with different methods for supporting principals.

For example, under WA’s Independent Public Schools Initiative, since 2010 government principals have been given more autonomy to make decisions.

But unless principals have the right resources and expertise in their school, it can be hard to exercise this autonomy effectively.

And encouraging schools to devise local solutions often leaves too much on a principal’s plate. This is a particular challenge for WA, where 20 per cent of schools have fewer than 10 teachers. These small schools are asked to deliver the same quality of education as bigger schools, but with a tiny fraction of the resources.

This is also a fragile improvement model. It relies on superhero principals to change one school at a time and is an ineffective way to spread success. And things can quickly unravel when a principal leaves the school.

There is another way that WA is yet to try.

Grattan Institute’s research identifies multi-school organisations (MSOs) as a missing piece in WA’s school system. MSOs are strong families of schools, led by an executive team which is responsible for their schools’ performance. Schools in an MSO have shared governance and accountability.

This approach is different from WA’s 20 school principal networks. While a helpful place to share tips, they struggle to provide the sustained, practical support that principals need to run a great school.

To explore the opportunities offered by the MSO model, our team conducted case studies of high-performing MSOs in England and New York, which each supported between 10 and 100 schools.

We saw how each MSO had a clear model for running an effective school, and the authority to enact this model across multiple schools.

Their Goldilocks size helped, too. These MSOs were small enough to understand and ‘own’ the specific challenges their schools faced. But they were also big enough to have the resources and expertise required to tackle those challenges. 

Take Dixons Academies Trust, which runs 17 schools in England’s north. They work in some of the most challenging contexts and have taken on, and successfully turned around, several underperforming schools.

At Dixons, new principals do not need to start from scratch.

Dixons Cottingley Academy is a case in point. Before becoming a part of Dixons, the school had poor results and consistently disruptive student behaviour. When the school joined Dixons, the principal could adapt what had worked at other Dixons schools.

For example, Dixons brought in leaders from its high-performing schools to implement tried and tested strategies to settle poor behaviour. And teachers no longer had to reinvent the wheel on curriculum planning, instead adopting a shared curriculum, developed with expertise drawn from across Dixons schools.

The school quickly improved. One teacher, who had been at the school for 27 years, told us: ‘When Dixons came in, the change was almost overnight and lots of those initial problems were solved.’

Dixons Cottingley Academy has made great strides. Its last cohort of graduates made about a year’s extra learning progress in secondary school compared with students nationally. The school now helps other schools improve, including schools outside the Dixons’ family.

Dixons Cottingley Academy’s transformation is one of many which show how MSOs can be a powerful vehicle for improvement. These organisations offer principals shoulder-to-shoulder support, develop teachers’ professional expertise, and attract teachers to hard-to-staff schools.

Grattan Institute is calling on the WA Government to trial MSOs. Each trial should start with a high-performing beacon school, and gradually build to a family of 10 schools within a decade, with further growth possible. The trials should be opt-in, and seek expressions of interest from schools.

While the MSO structure increases the odds that a school will improve, it does not guarantee it. WA should learn from mistakes internationally and set clear expectations for the trial MSOs.

Schools need more practical support, delivered in a different way. By testing MSOs, the WA Government could show that it is serious about fixing the structures holding back the state’s schools.