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

 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, which is more than the turnover of 98 per cent of Australian businesses.

And Australia expects each one of its schools to provide an excellent education for every child. But governments have radically underestimated how hard this is for schools to achieve. The result is that schools often feel poorly supported in their work.

Our latest education report, Spreading success: Why Australia should trial multi-school organisations, delves into the question of how we best support schools to improve. This podcast discusses the new report with authors Jordana Hunter, Amy Haywood, and Nick Parkinson.


Amy Haywood: School principals have a big impact. A highly effective principal can raise student achievement by up to seven months a year for a typical student, and even more in disadvantaged settings. But running a school well is a difficult job. Just ask any principal. Schools are complex organizations. The average secondary school principal manages a budget of over 15 million dollars, which is more than the turnover of 98% of Australian businesses.

And Australia expects each one of its schools to provide an excellent education for every child, but governments have radically underestimated how hard this is for schools to achieve. The result is that schools often feel poorly supported in their work.

For our latest report Spreading success: Why Australia should trial multi-school organizations, we delve into this question of how we best support schools to improve. I’m Amy Haywood, Deputy Program Director of the education team at Grattan Institute. Today, I’m joined by my coauthors, program director, Jordana Hunter and senior associate Nick Parkinson.

 For this research, we were really lucky we got to travel to both England and New York City to conduct case study research into multi school organizations, which are strong families of schools that are united under executive leadership. Jordy, you’re probably best placed because you came to this research question first.

What drew you to investigate the structures that support Australian schools?

Jordana Hunter: Yeah, look, when I first started working in education policy over a decade ago, I was really struck by how small most schools are as an organizational unit. We’ve got, you know, over nine and a half thousand schools around the country, and they’re all responsible for delivering on some really large expectations.

But as organizational units, they are quite small. We’re asking an awful lot of schools, and our expectations are really only increasing over time. You know, schools are expected to have a strong strategic direction to develop a strong approach to teaching and learning and assessment of students.

They need to do work around building teachers professional skills. Often a lot of beginning or inexperienced teachers who do need a lot of upskilling. And then those career opportunities as they develop, we ask schools to do a lot of work around student safety, make sure that the environment is orderly and welcoming, but also that they’re meeting really sometimes quite complex needs for individual students well as engaging with the local community, managing facilities and back office supports, so there’s an awful lot on the plate of principals and the leadership teams in schools, and many of our schools really are quite small. So a third of primary schools have less than 10 teaching staff.

What we’ve really effectively done is asked principals to be superheroes. And when we want a school system that’s improving over time and delivering better outcomes for students, we really are expecting principals to carry this tremendous weight, be those superheroes in those schools.

And really, I think we have to ask ourselves if that is sustainable.

Amy Haywood: Can you tell us a little bit more about the multi school organizations we visited and what kind of schools they run?

Jordana Hunter: So we visited six different multi school organizations across England and New York, and most of those multi school organizations run schools that are fully government funded fee free and open to all students. case, they draw on a substantial amount of support from the head office to enact a common blueprint for running an effective school.

So an example of this is that in those six multi school organizations, they were commonly using the same shared curriculum and assessment materials and running shared induction and professional development. So that similar blueprint was really strongly in place across the schools that they worked with. So that coordination required to do that really well is hardwired into the multi school organization structure and it really creates a strong bonds between schools, which is really powerful to support improvement over time.

I do want to say the MSO or multi school organization model, it doesn’t guarantee success, but it does improve the odds of school improvement over time, and it can lead to some really impressive results. So, the organizations we visited were amongst some of the highest performing organizations and schools in those countries, and they were working with students often in very disadvantaged circumstances to deliver some really impressive academic and enrichment results for those students.

Size does matter. We do think it’s important that multi school organizations are in this sort of Goldilocks size. So we think around 10 to a hundred schools works quite well based on the multi school organizations that we visited internationally. At this size they’re small enough to understand and own the specific challenges that teachers and leaders are facing on the ground, but they’re also big enough to marshal the resources, the capacity, the expertise to provide that support that’s really practical and useful for teachers and leaders.

Amy Haywood: So I am excited to get into some of the nitty gritty details of what these multi school organizations look like on the ground. Nick, can you tell us in particular thinking about the role of principals and how it changes their role?

Nick Parkinson: This was a really exciting part of the study that we did in these international multi school organizations. It was a privilege to sit down with principals and then get to shadow them and walk around their schools and hear a bit about what is the job like of a principal in MSO, one of these multi school organizations.

There’s two key things that we really noticed, and one was how being in an MSO takes a load off principal’s shoulders. And the other thing that we heard is how they get support in acute crises. An interesting study or case example of this is Partnership Schools, which opened in 2013. It’s an MSO in New York.

It was granted operational control of six schools by the Archdiocese of New York. It now runs 11 Catholic schools in both New York and Cleveland. The principal role changed when the schools joined Partnership Schools because principals felt they got more shoulder to shoulder support from a central team.

No longer did they have to do all the work that previously might have fallen to them when it came to budgeting and finance, payroll, enrollments, scholarships, and just the things that happen in a school, like when a boiler breaks and it sometimes falls on the principal’s lap to fix that. One of the principals who’d been there across the transition told us:

“Being free of these operational things allows me to be in the classroom more and to be more present with the community.” And this sentiment was shared by principals across the different multi school organizations we visited. One key thing to point out though is it’s not just about taking the administrative burden off principals, it’s actually providing that really practical support that backs them up in difficult situations.

What we heard from principals is that they also get help in acute crises ,from specialists, who share a same mental model for what an effective school looks like because they work for the same MSO. Just a practical example of this. We heard from one principal in the English context about how sometimes they were able to have specialists on the hand to help them with the really tricky change management journey that their school was going on.

This meant practical support, such as joining a challenging conversation or helping them write a difficult letter, instead of bouncing those issues back to the school and leaving it up to the principal to manage them on their own. The result of this was that the principal role was more attractive. So we were able to follow a principal around who got to spend a lot of time going in and out of classrooms, knew the names of the students in their, her school and what was going on in their home life, and felt in her role that she was able to be a really effective instructional leader because she wasn’t having to manage all the different juggling plates.

Amy Haywood: But the one thing I was really fascinated about was also how it changed the teacher’s role and particularly in relation as a former teacher, kind of biased opinion, but particularly in relation to curriculum planning.

Can you tell us a bit more about what that looked like across the multi school organizations?

Nick Parkinson: This was a really fascinating part of what we saw, wasn’t it, Amy? So, curriculum planning, we know it’s a key issue, and we did some work back at this, in Grattan last year and the year prior, where we surveyed teachers and we asked them about curriculum planning in their schools. We found that only 15 percent of teachers had a comprehensive bank of resources to use for all their classrooms.

And when we delved a little deeper, what we found was that around three quarters of teachers said that having too few teachers for their subject was a key barrier to getting this bank of materials up, as was teacher turnover. And so you’ve got all these individual or standalone schools across Australia really trying to crack the nut of curriculum planning, but struggling to marshal the resources needed to do that.

The nice thing about multi school organizations is that they can use the kind of collective power of a bunch of teachers working across a family of schools to create really high quality curriculum materials and use those across classes so students benefit from the very best practice happening in a group of schools.

We saw this across all the multi school organizations we visited. You’ll remember Amy, that at Partnership Schools, curriculum was a real big focus for them when they took responsibility for this group of schools previously before joining the Partnership Schools family.

These schools, which are quite geographically proximate in New York, they were using different types of curriculum in the different classrooms across the different schools. And that wasn’t always a deliberate choice. We heard from principals that quote, “it was often down to who’s the best sales person was”.

And so when Partnership Schools came in, it was really focused on how can we ensure that we’re using the most effective evidence based curriculum in all our classrooms. And so the school has adopted a coordinated approach using the same curriculum materials across all the schools. And what this enabled was a really strong foundation for collaborative practice.

Just a few quick examples. Dixon’s runs 17 schools in England’s north, and they aligned across the end of year assessments for subjects. And what this meant was that they could identify really bright spots, so a geography department in a school that was doing something tremendous, and then unpick what they’re doing and share that practice across schools.

Amy Haywood: One of the other impressive features of these multi school organizations is that they are engines for turning around and improving struggling schools. So we got to see a few of these on the ground, and I think Nick, you might give us a bit more detail about what that has looked like at one of the Dixon schools we saw.

Nick Parkinson: Yeah, Amy, that’s right. And multi school organisations, particularly in the English context, have been an important vehicle for taking a chance on some of these schools that, for many years, have really struggled. I mentioned Dixons before, but focus on really challenging contexts, and they’ve supported and successfully turned around several struggling schools.

One example that we visited was Dixons Cottingley Academy. And Dixon’s Cottingley Academy was previously a school that had struggled with lots of principal turnover. Students weren’t making the progress that they were hoping for in their learning, and there was consistently disruptive student behavior.

When it joined Dixon’s, Dixon had already attempted a few turnarounds and had a critical mass of some really high performing schools, including some of the very best schools in England. That meant that Dixons was able to draw on the knowledge it already had within its family of schools to help in the turnaround effort at Dixons Cottingley Academy.

One thing that was really important was making sure that behavior was really amenable to a great learning environment. And to do this, it starts even in the yard before class time, Dixon’s brought in leaders from its other high performing schools who’d implemented tried and tested methods of getting behavior to the point where everyone’s able to learn and it’s a safe learning environment.

And one of the key strategies was what’s called a lineup, and It’s a strategy that involves students assembling in lines at the bell to be escorted quietly to class. It’s important for a few reasons, because it means that between break time and class time, students are able to come to class together, have the class start on time, and reduce corridor noise.

Lineups though, aren’t something that’s easy to get started if you’re a school that historically hasn’t done them. Cause the strategy success hinges on all teachers being on the same page and having buy into the method. And that’s why it was really important at Dixons that when Cottingley Academy joined its family of schools, key staff members and leaders were sent to other Dixon schools to see how lineups work in practice.

Importantly, leaders who’d implemented lineups at their school also came to Dixon’s Cottingley Academy, and they were able to train staff. A key factor in the success of what happened at Dixon’s Cottingley Academy and this turnaround journey was that seven of the 10 senior staff members had worked at another Dixon school.

This meant they had a really clear blueprint in their mind for what an effective school looks like and what they were working toward. It meant they knew the kind of details of what would help the strategies succeed that they were trying to put in place and what are some of the points at which they might fail and how could they address those.

And importantly, Dixons is now attempting new turnarounds and it’s implementing what it’s learned at Cottingley Academy. Dixons has now codified a, detailed blueprint for what it takes to run an effective school and a transformation roadmap to get there. This includes a checklist of the things you would do in the first year of having a school join the Dixon’s family.

And that checklist can be tailored to schools, but also includes resources. So lineups, that strategy I talked about before, there’s now something called a what to do, which is essentially a detailed list of how you might run a lineup, including potential scripts you might use when introducing it for the first time to students and families.

So this detailed, highly precise effort is actually some of the stuff we forget about what it takes to turn around a school. It’s the shoulder to shoulder practical support that’s accrued through many years of doing this work. That it was really impressive when we saw it. And you can imagine how much that helps a new principal coming into a role to have all this knowledge and wisdom about the lessons learned in years before them.

Amy Haywood: This all sounds great, obviously. And those listening might think how does a multi school organization differ to the current ways in Australia that we support schools? Jordana, I was hoping you could enlighten us.

Jordana Hunter: Certainly in Australia, we’ve seen quite a lot of experimentation with different approaches to supporting school improvement. So for example, we’ve seen efforts to really increase school level autonomy with the goal of freeing up principals to better respond to their local communities.

We’ve seen efforts to build those collaborative, peer to peer school networks to help schools come together and tackle common challenges. In some cases, we’ve also seen central education departments in different states try to boost their level of influence and support for schools directly. And we’ve also seen efforts to boost the regional arms of education departments.

Sometimes we call this the middle layer so that they can provide schools with more support closer to the school gates. And there’s been I think experimentation that’s really tinkered with different combinations of these approaches over time. I think it’s important to recognize that each of these models has a role to play.

They all provide a different form of support for schools, but none of them yet are able to address that underlying structural challenge that really hinders school improvement across the system. And that’s really around making sure that schools have got the flexibility to respond to the needs of their local community, but also have the capacity and the expertise to develop our solutions that are going to be effective.

So I’m going to just talk through a couple of different examples here. One is the case around increasing school autonomy. So we’ve seen this is a really important part of system reform initiatives, particularly in Western Australia, but also in Victoria. A lot of decision making that used to be held by education departments has been delegated down to individual principals over things such as designing a teaching and learning program, hiring staff, increasing discretion over how principals can allocate their school budgets.

And the intention here is to really increase principals freedom to make the decisions that they think are best for their local community, for the schools that they’re serving. But this freedom can actually sometimes make their jobs harder, particularly when it includes freedom over, you know, facilities management, for example, or, or some of the hiring decisions in large schools where there’s a huge number of staff that schools are expected to hire each year.

And it can make principals feel a little bit like they’re working in what’s being called autonomous islands. Disconnected, autonomous islands, and they lose sometimes that system this on can sometimes feel quite overburdened by the rush of decisions that they have to make each day, which can actually mean that principals have less time in reality, working with teachers as instructional leaders or engaging with their local community.

Another example is collaborative networks. So, as I said, these are these generally quite loose formal, sometimes informal peer to peer networks that principals are a part of. They can provide a really important forum for principals to share concerns to support each other, you know, share war stories and, and, you know, often tackle some, some problems that are, that they’re commonly facing.

But what we have, unfortunately not seen, I guess, is these networks being really effective at driving system wide reform. There’s a few different reasons why this might be the case. One is that schools often take quite diverging approaches. So, for example, if you’re a school that’s taking a particular pedagogical approach to math teaching, for example, maybe more of an inquiry approach and a school that’s taking much more of an explicit teaching approach to mathematics.

It can be hard for those schools to work together on a common challenge, perhaps around improving students mathematics outcomes if they’re taking such different approaches to the underlying pedagogy that they’re using. The other challenge is sometimes schools in tight geographic areas actually see themselves as competitors in terms of recruiting staff and also being attractive to students in that area.

So sometimes that competitiveness can make it harder for them to genuinely collaborate. And finally, we do hear often these networks are quite dependent on the different personalities involved. And I think that’s quite natural, but it can mean that the networks are not always as effective as we might want them to be to improve outcomes.

So these examples are quite different, I think, to a multi-school organization, which has a much more formalized structure around that family of schools with that executive leadership and the strong bonds between schools and with that executive leadership to enact that common blueprint.

Amy Haywood: So we’re recommending Australia trial these multi school organizations. What would a trial in Australia look like?

Jordana Hunter: We do think that there’s some really strong research internationally and some strong examples that would suggest that multi school organizations could be a very effective driver of school improvement, and we think it makes a lot of sense for Australia to set up some trials of multi school organizations, ideally in each jurisdiction, each state and territory, and also in the government sector, as well as the Catholic school sector and possibly the independent school sector in this country.

We think trials should ultimately expand to around 10 schools within a decade but they should start small. This is a really important part of the trial design in our view. So each trial should start with just one or two schools, ideally beacon schools that are very effective and have a really strong understanding of how to deliver great schooling in their communities, and then gradually build up from that single beacon school up to around 10 schools in that decade, with the possibility of growing further over time.

We do think it’s important that the trials seek to align their approaches on teaching and learning as well as some of those back office functions and some things like staff recruitment and induction, but really aligning on that teaching and learning creates that opportunity for the strong professional communities around the curriculum and around best practice approaches that I think are really proved to be so valuable and rewarding for teachers in multi school organizations overseas.

We do think it’s important that the trials are rigorously and publicly evaluated. As I said, the MSO structure is not a silver bullet, and it is important, I think, that these trials are subjected to, you know, quite rigorous accountability and transparency. So that should be an important part of the trial design framework.

In terms of funding I think in the long term organizing schools into multi school organizations is quite a cost effective option. It doesn’t require a lot of additional funding for schools but some additional funding to support, you know, the startup of trials and the running of the trials, particularly in the initial years, I think will be important.

And that could be something that the Commonwealth and state and territory governments come to the table to share the cost of that going forward.

Amy Haywood: Thank you so much, Nick and Jordana, for joining me to talk about our upcoming report. Before we do sign off and say goodbye, I wanted to mention our funder the Susan McKinnon Foundation, whose generous support made this research possible. Thank you so much. If you’d like to find out more, you can find this report it’s freely available on our website, and thank you to everyone for listening.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Dr Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economic policy.