However, research also released this week shows that success driven by an inspirational head may be short-lived. On average Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network found the top schools saw a drop in GCSE performance (see the first graph!). Research by The Centre for Education Policy and Research at AQA showed that over a 10-year period most schools revert to the average.
I'd add to this from my own experiences. I was privileged to teach at and see the changes at Watford Grammar School for Girls by (the now Dame) Helen Hyde. I know she was a major factor in improving the school - I spoke to parents, governors and saw the figures for myself in four years there. But will the next head there be as successful? Statistically that's unlikely. And given the need to meet stringent OFSTED targets would anyone take a risk on an untried but radical successor?
Another related issue was tweeted my way as well this weekend - a discussion in parliament of the career paths available for teachers. With the removal of AST status there is now only one path into senior management - this was contrasted with other countries, notably Singapore, where a range of paths are available. From personal experience this is a real issue - in good schools people stay for a long time and career progression becomes difficult - in poor schools, people don't last long! The biggest reason is the specialist nature of teaching, especially in secondary schools - you would never see a talented Maths teacher made Head of English - but waiting for the Head of Maths to retire might take 20 years!
My conclusion from these points is that schools need to be part of bigger organisations - big enough to give support to heads and aspiring leaders and ensure good succession planning. Big enough to give flexible career paths that move staff in and out of the classroom and between schools. Big enough so that they can innovate without fearing the wrath of OFSTED if something goes wrong. But not so big that they become inflexible. Not so big that parents don't have any choice. And not so big that central government is powerless to do anything in the case of serious academic or financial trouble.
Of the ideas being tested in England at the minute, Academy chains do seem to fit the bill best. One of the first people I wanted to follow on Twitter was David Carter, Executive Principal of the Cabot Learning Federation in Bristol. I first heard him speak seven years ago at a Specialist Schools and Academies Trust event. On a platform of Heads, he was the most realistic about the realities of teaching - and about the support needed. It seems that the schools in the CLF are doing well - I know that if I lived in Bristol I'd want to see his schools and consider them for my family, even if I was Deputy Prime Minister - as well as checking out the Oasis Academy Brightstowe of course!
In the end, I may be backing the wrong horse. Some chains will not be as good as others. Some will fail to make the most of their flexibility. Some will grow too big and develop their own bureaucracy. But they may be the best option if you're looking 10 years ahead - and that's the timespan parents are really looking ahead when they're choosing schools! And if I can end on a marketing point - something that those marketing academy chains should really be pushing to parents!