There is a great deal of interest in schools facing challenging circumstances, not least from policy makers and politicians. This issue is very much under the media spotlight with newspaper headlines reflecting persistent political calls for quick, robust action to bring about immediate improvement. By contrast, the research evidence paints a much more complex and nuanced picture. This emphasises the need to foster particular qualities in leaders of schools in challenging circumstances so that they build inclusive communities, based on values and a clear sense of moral purpose. The evidence suggests that encouraging such a collaborative identity, to which all can subscribe, would allow schools to deal with the immediate pressures of their challenging circumstances. Such a collaborative identity also helps bring about improvement that is sustained in the longer term.
Schools in challenging circumstances often face considerable pressures that can be counter-productive in terms of being able to address difficulties and bring about improvement. They are identified as facing challenging circumstances through a combination of disadvantage features, such as socio-economic factors and diverse ethnic background, along with under-performance related to the standards agenda, with all the criticism that this can entail.
Some educational researchers have found that while all schools experience the demand to raise standards, these pressures bite more critically and thus have a damaging effect on schools in challenging circumstances.
Read the following extracts of how schools in challenging circumstances experience a combination of multiple problems. Discuss with colleagues the statement that teachers in challenging schools have to work harder than those in affluent schools and have to sustain this effort longer to secure improvement. Are the dice loaded against schools in challenging circumstances – what evidence do you think could be brought for and against this claim?
Schools located in disadvantaged areas suffer a myriad of socioeconomic problems, such as high levels of unemployment, physical and mental health issues, migration of the best qualified young people and, not least, low educational achievement ... To compound this, schools in these areas often face other pressures such as challenging pupil behaviour, high levels of staff turnover, and a poor physical environment. For these reasons, schools in deprived areas have to work harder to improve and stay effective, find it harder to improve, and are more likely to suffer steep declines in pupil achievement levels if a successful equilibrium is disturbed, for example when succession problems occur following retirement of the head...
Muijs, Harris, Chapman, Stoll, and Russ (2004), p.150
Schools located in disadvantaged areas are often the recipients of higher than average numbers of students with diverse ethnic backgrounds and low literacy levels. The net result of the powerful amalgam of social and economic problems means that it is more difficult to improve schools in challenging contexts because of the multiple problems they face.
Students from disadvantaged backgrounds can challenge teachers’ conceptions of what to teach, what to expect of students and even how to communicate with them ... This is not to suggest a deficit model of teaching in schools in difficult circumstances but simply to acknowledge the extent of the task in securing the levels of performance that schools in more affluent areas take for granted … Research has shown that in order to achieve and sustain improvement in schools in challenging contexts teachers must exceed what might be termed as ‘normal efforts’ ... They have to work much harder and be more committed than their peers in more affluent schools. In addition, teachers in challenging schools have to maintain that effort in order to sustain improvement over time.
Harris (2008), p.1