Research School Network: The Tortoise and the Hare of School Improvement: Slow and Steady Wins the Race Our Evidence Lead in Education, Dr. Elizabeth Ford, uses the power of analogy to showcase the new EEF Implementation Guidance


The Tortoise and the Hare of School Improvement: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Our Evidence Lead in Education, Dr. Elizabeth Ford, uses the power of analogy to showcase the new EEF Implementation Guidance

Ah, June. The sun starts peeking through the clouds, birds chirp a little louder, and a collective sigh of relief washes over the school. But for school leaders, June often brings a different kind of anticipation – the anticipation of the annual strategy away day”; that is if you’re lucky enough to get away, or perhaps you’re attempting to squeeze in a strategy meeting into an already busy schedule.

Don’t get me wrong, away days can be valuable. They offer a chance to have a brief escape away from the relentless running of the school, a chance to breathe, think and plan for the year ahead. An opportunity to strategise with colleagues, and (hopefully) bond over something other than standardised tests and budget cuts.

Strategic plans are drafted, innovative approaches are suggested, and the desire to create a brighter future for students burns brightly, creating an exciting year ahead. But between inspiration and impact lies a crucial bridge: implementation. School improvement is a complex and ongoing process, and far too significant to be tackled in a single day or meeting!

Just like the classic fable, school improvement can often feel like a race between the tortoise and the hare. The hare is flashy, and introduces quick-fix initiatives that promise immediate results. Then there’s the tortoise, a slower, more methodical strategy focused on long-term, sustainable growth.

The hare’s approach to school improvement is tempting. We see a new educational initiative touted as a magic bullet. We envision soaring test scores and rapid improvement. We set about to implement the programme with gusto, pouring resources and energy into making it work. But, often these quick bursts of energy fizzle out. The new programme might not be a good fit for the school in terms of context or teacher skillset. The initial excitement fades, and the programme ends up gathering dust in a corner. Corridors are often littered with ghosts of implementation past. Posters of failed behaviour initiatives or word walls that are never referred to.

The Tortoise’s approach, on the other hand, is all about slow and steady progress.

The publication of the revised A School’s Guide to Implementation Guidance Report” emphasises again to us that implementation is a process”, this time emphasising collaboration, and provides three recommendations to school leaders on how to do it well” (Francis, 2024, p.1) so that the potential of any school improvement plan can be unlocked.

A collaborative and social process driven by how people think, behave and interact” (Francis, 2024, p.1)

Recommendation 1: Adopt the behaviours that drive effective implementation (EEF, 2024, p.8)

Three behaviours – Engage, Unite, and Reflect – are powerful tools for driving successful school improvement. We can’t just inform colleagues, we need to involve everyone! By creating opportunities for stakeholders to be involved, we provide ownership of the initiative. Through clear communication on the justification of why” we can unite and encourage colleagues to share best practice, levering expertise within school. As we monitor progress together, we can celebrate successes and recognise where adaptations need to be made.

Recommendation 2: Attend to the contextual factors that influence implementation (EEF, 2024, p.8)

Prior to engaging stakeholders, we have to carefully consider the specific context of the school and the wider community. What worked in one school might not be the best fit for yours. Be realistic about the feasibility of implementation. Take the time to consider factors like time constraints, staff workload, and access to necessary resources. Change-makers can be identified and empowered to champion the process.

Recommendation 3: Use a structured but flexible implementation process (EEF, 2024, p.8)

This model offers a practical roadmap for implementing school improvement initiatives, whilst keeping in mind the unique context of your school and community.

: before diving in, dedicate time to explore data and identify priorities whilst considering the context of the community.

: develop a detailed implementation plan with clear timelines, roles and responsibilities. Engage stakeholders in the planning process, build trust, and provide training for staff.

: launch the initiative with fidelity to the plan, unite individuals by sharing the why”. Monitor progress regularly through data collection and feedback mechanisms. Be prepared to adjust plans as needed.

: don’t let the momentum fade! Embed the successful elements of the initiative into school practice. Regularly evaluate the impact and continue to refine the approach for long-term success.

By adopting the three recommendations as a structured process for implementation, school improvement can be transformed from fleeting ideas into sustainable practices.

Therefore, the key to successful school improvement might not be about choosing between the hare or the tortoise entirely. Perhaps the best approach involves finding a balance. We can learn from the hare’s initial burst of energy to pilot new ideas and spark excitement. But we must always be prepared to follow through with the tortoise’s steady commitment to the process, to explore, to collaborate and secure sustainability. So, before your away day escape” please review the “A School’s Guide to Implementation Guidance Report” (EEF, 2024) to ensure you are familiar with the recommendations for successful implementation. This way, your time will be productive and the day will be the springboard to a successful year ahead.

Don’t be a hare and don’t be a tortoise. Be a haretoise!


EEF (2024) A School’s Guide to Implementation (Guidance Report)

A10 2436

Dr. Elizabeth Ford

Vice Principal, The Stourport High School & VI Form College, Worcestershire

Elizabeth is Vice Principal at The Stourport High School VI Form College. She has held whole school leadership responsibilities for over fifteen years; and during this time she has worked alongside a wide variety of leaders in high profile establishments where for each of them the core value was to ensure that all students had the opportunity to receive high quality education every day. She has been very fortunate to gain experience of working across a number of schools and networks in her career. 

Read more aboutDr. Elizabeth Ford

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