Improving Schools: The High Reliability School

(Reynolds D (1998) ‘Improving Schools: The High Reliability School’, in Topic, Vol.20, pp. 1-4)


School improvement programmes have tried to make schools relatively better, without aiming to make them absolutely effective. All existing school effectiveness research only aims to describe schools that are relatively better than others, not those that are absolutely effective.

The High Reliability Schools Project (HRS) aims to make schools not just relatively better but absolutely good: it aims to systematically eradicate failure by ensuring that all children acquire what only a proportion possess currently. It is based upon insights into the characteristics of High Reliability Organisations (HRO’s), like air traffic controllers, that are not allowed to fail. It is about no fault, right-first-time schooling. At the moment, it is being piloted in secondary schools and from school year 1998-9, it is intended to pilot a primary school version.

What has led to something as radically different as this HRS programme?

Firstly, it is clear that there are global economic pressures which will confine the old industrial economies to pauper status if they cannot generate greater levels of skilled person power. Thailand will exceed Britain in its total Gross National Product within fifteen years on current projections, and many other Asian and Pacific Rim societies appear to have the industrial delivery mechanisms to rapidly advance in prosperity.

Britain used to make its living by developing original, creative and valid ideas and then working on them inefficiently. The information revolution means that these original ideas are now in other countries within a millisecond. There is, simply, no future in a society having originality without reliability and efficiency, and no future in a society having the uneducated trailing edge of the size that is evident in Britain.

Secondly, much of what has passed for ‘school improvement’ or ‘school development’ in Britain and in America has simply increased the range between the ‘leading edge’ of schools and teachers, and the ‘trailing edge’. Pushing up the ceiling of competent practice is something we all enjoy - helping up the floor is less popular. The result has been a more varied and heterogeneous educational system, and of course a more challenging one, than before.

Thirdly, the knowledge base now exists to insist that all schools and practitioners possess it, reliably and without fault. From the academic world, we ‘know’ that some practices actually work, yet this knowledge is not reliably spread within the educational system. However good our ideas about education, we know that the lack of reliability in how they are taken up restricts their validity - that schools’ unreliability puts a ceiling on their validity and on their effectiveness.

Fourthly, it is time that we looked at new areas of knowledge in the search for greater effectiveness. There have been useful insights for education in the thinking and practice of the radical management theorists - how interesting it would be if these insights were from industrial concerns that are not allowed to fail. There have been useful insights from other countries - why not model our practice upon those countries that appear to have virtually eradicated failure to acquire basic skills, like Taiwan?

And lastly, excellent educational practice exists in the majority of British schools, but the problem is that it is not reliably spread. The recent evidence in school effectiveness is that the variation within schools is much greater than the variation between them in their quality, school against school. This means that all schools have relatively some practice that is better than others - some schools will also possess practice that is absolutely good across all schools. And some schools will possess practice that is simply world class. The problem is that the good practice is not identified and not spread universally.


Highly Reliable Industrial Organisations

The HRS project aims to build on our knowledge of what Highly Reliable Organisations (HRO’s) do when they are not allowed to fail, and that on educational evaluation, school effectiveness and school improvement, to create a distinctly new type of educational organisation that will aim to systematically eradicate educational failure.

The characteristics of these HROs are as follows:

• they have a limited range of goals upon which total success is insisted. As an example, the air traffic controller’s job is to land the aeroplane, not to socially relate to the pilot;

• they recruit proactively and train extensively, both on a pre-service and in-service basis;

• they have formalised, logical decision making based upon Standard Operating Procedures;

• they have initiatives which identify flaws and which generate changes - an example of these are the simulations which test human and physical components within the nuclear power industry;

• they pay considerable attention to the evaluation of their performance;

• they are alert to lapses : they take their stand on detail since they are concerned that any minor error may cascade into major system failure;

• they are highly co-ordinated and interdependent;

• they are, crucially, data rich organisations which are continuously monitoring their functioning in order to improve the quality of their decision making.

HROs exist when there is a public perception that failure to do something successfully - like land an aeroplane or operate a nuclear facility - would generate costs that are too great for the wider society to bear. Such a belief seems to be springing up regarding schooling in Britain currently - indeed, one suspects that every few weeks there is the equivalent of the cost of a Jumbo airliner crash of completely avoidable educational failure.

The Mechanics of the HRS

We have now, in close association with Professor Sam Stringfield of Johns Hopkins’ University in the United States, developed a programme to model over twenty schools on highly reliable organisations from other fields outside education. Our programme consists of the following:

1. All schools have joined a system that generates very high quality data upon student achievement, the ALIS (A’level Information System) and YELLIS (Year Eleven Information System) schemes pioneered by Fitzgibbon and colleagues at the University of Durham.

This data feeds back to schools their relative performance on their different public examination subjects, and relates directly to their effectiveness of their Departments.

2. All schools are testing their intake of new pupils as they arrive from junior school. The testing will be repeated at the beginning of each school year, for the existing pupils plus for the new intake. Ultimately all pupils will be tested annually.

This data will reveal those pupils who have unrealised potential, plus also provide a ‘gain score’ for each year that will be a baseline.

3. The schools are being brought the best knowledge available as their standard operating practices.

Schools make available two of their five in-service days each year for HRS activities. One day will be for a formal knowledge input of school/ effectiveness/school improvement knowledge. The other day will be for an input of teacher effectiveness knowledge, plus in both days some skilling of whole school staffs. Both days are orientated around background pre-reading, formal presentations and more group related activities.

4. Schools are to adopt up to four goals to be their ‘HRS’ goals. Two project wide goals will be academic achievement (e.g. percentage with 5+ A-C GCSE’s, staying on rate, percentage with 5+ A-G GCSE’s, plus GNVQ outcomes as appropriate) and the unauthorised absence rate.

Up to two other goals, which must permit of measurement, will also be chosen by each school that reflect school needs, priorities, developmental status etc.

Schools are to generate two to four (Final) targets for the goals to be attained in five years with goals and targets (Intermediate) also for achievement in three years. These will be very ambitious goals as befits an ambitious project, but should also take account of what schools differing ‘start points’ may be. The school targets should therefore represent a move towards greater effectiveness by comparison with the start point.

Schools will then forward (from their intake) and backward (from GCSEs) map the path necessary for a student to obtain 5+ A-Cs. Progress along these maps will be closely monitored, and the maps themselves revised annually as schools gather actual testing and process data.

5. Schools are to develop new mechanisms to ensure the progress of the HRS year towards the goals, plus pay attention to the whole school also. In particular, the necessity of mechanisms to prevent any ‘trailing edge’ of low achieving/disaffected pupils is to be addressed. These could vary according to the social context of the schools, in accordance with the professional judgement of teachers in each school, built upon the objective testing. Focus groups of past pupils, plus their parents, will be utilised. Continuous collection of portfolios across subjects will be used. Questionnaires to pupils coming into school (and their parents) will also be useful. Activities with primary feeder schools might also be tried.

It is accepted that these mechanisms would vary by school, within the overall philosophy agreed by all project schools.

6. There will be a focus upon improving Departmental effectiveness. Once during the first year and twice a year thereafter, each Department will examine the academic products of all HRS students for a brief (two week) period. The purpose will be to determine the extent to which all students are progressing. To the extent to which significant numbers of students are not making adequate progress, the Department, HRS team, and administration will make suggestions for changes in those students’ academic programs.

In this benchmarking against the good Departments, the project will be distinctive in that:

(i) the focus will be on the students’ regular work plus observation of classrooms and teaching in different Departments;

(ii) the psychological processes involved in these various difficult issues will be given very careful consideration.

The overall theme of the programme is as follows:

Year One : schools receive the most valuable knowledge from research about effective practices plus develop ‘data rich’ environments that will give fine grained analyses of where individual pupils are and of where individual Departments are.

The Departments begin to be organised around quality issues.

The schools begin to develop mechanisms to eradicate failure.

Year Two : schools begin to focus upon, and learn from, their own best practice identified in the data on their Departments.

More data, on more years of pupils, becomes available.

The in-service activities from outside move more to the ‘skilling’ of the schools to generate their own knowledge.

Year Three : schools begin to learn from best practice outside themselves in other project schools and in other schools not in the project.

We believe that the results will be dramatically improved pupil achievements and dramatically improved school quality.


The term ‘Highly Reliable School’ and the use of industrial models of course has a ring to it that will cause concern for many. Education for many practitioners of our generation has been mostly about transmitting values, not skills, and practitioners have been reluctant to take their stand on the detail implied in the HRS model, preferring instead a broad brush approach.

The wider society wants defined outcomes from schools in the 1990s and the new century though. Children experience their education through detail, not the broad brush of school improvement programmes and development planning. If the educational system cannot provide education for defined skill outcomes for a very high proportion of children, generated by educational processes that are right in their detail, we believe that the political system will continue to wreak its own particular kind of havoc with our schools.

The Highly Reliable School aims, simply, to transform education by the generation of schools which can ‘think’ based on high quality performance data and which can ‘act’ based upon a knowledge of what constitutes their own and the world’s best practice.