What makes a successful school? Harvard research identifies 5 factors

Janet Downs's picture
There are five factors found in successful schools, according to a recent Harvard report. These are: frequent teacher feedback, data driven instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and a focus on academic achievement.

The researchers found that a school’s underlying philosophy mattered less than these five factors. The more successful schools gave pointers to pupils more frequently, used assessment to plan instruction, met with pupils in small tutor groups more often to discuss their progress, taught for more days and longer hours, and had high expectations.

The report came, however, with a warning. The researchers only looked at a few charter schools in New York and although they sifted through reams of data there were factors which they admit they did not observe, such as the effectiveness of the principal or whether pupils were selected by lottery. They also said that they only considered a subset of charter schools which could differ from other similar schools in such a way as to limit the researchers’ ability to generalize from the results, although that didn’t stop Mr Gove from doing just that in his speech of 4th January. The researchers intend to study public schools to discover if the same factors are present in successful public schools.

Evidence from Finland, the top-performing European country, shows that teachers in Finnish schools frequently assess pupils and use the data to plan teaching, are trained to deal with the whole ability range, and have high expectations. However, Finnish children spend fewer hours in the classroom than children in other countries.

Yet the Harvard researchers found that, as Mr Gove put it in his speech, one of the factors that drive achievement was “the number of hours children actually spent at their desks.” Mr Gove is enthusiastic about longer terms but he should remember that while the successful schools in the researchers’ sample taught for 191 days annually – eleven days more that NY public schools - English community schools, by law, have to offer a minimum of 190 days already. Academies, of course, can opt out of this requirement.

Mr Gove quoted the research to link the “principles that underpin great schools” to academies. But these attributes are not confined to academies. He forgets that a school does not have to be an academy to be a great school. And being an academy doesn’t guarantee high results. In any case, do high results necessarily mean a great school? The Education Endowment Fund found that many “below-floor” schools were, in fact, doing a good job in difficult circumstances. Ofsted failed a grammar school in 2009 for not offering an adequate level of education. And in Ramsgate in 2010 the school with the worst GCSE results in England had a much higher Contextual Value Added score than two neighbouring grammar schools.

So, what makes a successful school? Is it just because of the five factors found by Harvard? Or are there more characteristics? The researchers mentioned an effective principal – is this an important feature? And what is success, and how can it best be measured?

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Rosie Fergusson's picture
Wed, 11/01/2012 - 11:06

It would appear that a key factor for a free primary successful school, is to limit the full year intake to 20 pupils.

That way you can have a well-paid head-teacher doing 2/3s or less of the typical LEA primary HTs job. This will free the HT up for exemplary CPD activities and support teaching.

Which leads me to digress to some top tips ( I may draft a manuscript ..working title .."Primary Free Schools for Dummies" or "Fancy an HT job but not the hours..open your own Free Primary School").
1) Proving demand for a new Primary Free School is simple. Remember you are only proving demand NOT "meeting" it . Avoid asking if they are happy with their school or want more choice. SImply ask of all local parents " Would you like your child to be taught in class sizes of 20 ? ( Answers a) Yes b) Hell Yes! c) NO I want my child to be taught in over-crowded classrooms of 30 kids ( potential for more under new Admissions Code) .

2) Website is important ... elegant, inspiring mission statements about valuing children and education work a treat. Don't worry about composing your own...trawl through a few LEA primary school sites ..there's some great ethos material you can lift directly. Don't worry most inquiring parents fail to read their own schools mission statement ...but when they scrutinise yours in detail they'll believe you've reinvented education.

3) Don't worry about the 20 class size limit. The Government are so desperate for Free schools to be a success they'lll give you the facilities you need ( irrespective of the existing schools full to the brim..well you should at least be reducing their numbers by 1 or 2 pupils each- they should be grateful )

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Wed, 11/01/2012 - 11:16

Another successful factor is manipulation of the catchment area so outstandingly demonstrated by Bristol Free School For Nobs current admissions consultation.


The school has defined a catchment area avoiding the undesirable area and taking in the more salubrious . The new school ( the location of which was not their want ) is located in the far north-east corner of their fabricated catchment area. Further more they will only allow 20% take-up by pupils closest to the school.

80% of the available places will be allocated to those whose home address is closest to a point defined by the mid-point at the junction of Elmlea Avenue and Rylestone Grove; this point lies close to the centre of their affluence catchment area .

From a comment on http://davidwolfe.org.uk/wordpress/archives/1080 it is stated that the founders campaigned to take over a site central to their homes , irrespective of its unsuitability. They were thwarted and had to take a site closer to the "riff-raff" than they wanted .

Outrageous and depressing .

You can of course comment at

Asking the local LEA to mount a formal legal challenge might be an option.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.