Flipping Schools : Now Is The Time To Turn Schools Inside Out

Malcolm Groves and John West-Burnham, authors of ‘Flipping Schools,’ urge a radical re-think to school improvement, one that offers a culture of community and equality

In “Flipping Schools!” we seek to argue that school improvement initiatives which fail to align with a strategy for community engagement are no longer fit for purpose. The need for reform has never been greater or clearer, with the Covid-19 crisis showing just how unequal our education system is.

School improvement initiatives based on flawed numerical measures that fail to take into account broader factors, such as personal/social development and wellbeing, can become dangerous and damaging. Above all, any school improvement initiative that fails to understand the difference between organisation and community cannot take us to the levels of excellence and equity we need.

Low Equity

The English education system has been characterised by the OECD as a ‘high performance – low equity’ system. Yet one of the defining characteristics of ‘high performance-high equity’ systems is that they are very rich in terms of social capital and community.

This allows for the development of school systems that have matured beyond the classic structures and systems of schools as organisations into schools as communities with significant implications for roles and relationships.

Our present model of school accountability is no longer fit for purpose because it underestimates the role of genetic, economic, social and family factors on educational outcomes, and overestimates the significance of the school.

It is no longer fit for purpose because we have lost sight of the understanding of measurement. We no longer measure what we value but (over-)value what we can measure. It is no longer fit for purpose because it has become over-reliant on top-down compliance.

It fails to empower leaders, staff, parents or pupils to be their own changemakers and involved in defining what success means for them.

Managerial culture

It is easy to caricature or stereotype the traditional school organisation – hierarchical, bureaucratic, systems driven, focused on performance and outcomes. In essence, it is a managerial culture that inhibits choice and is primarily concerned with a culture of control rather than trust.

There are aspects of all schools where there is a tension between the individual and the system; what is worrying is the extent to which schools are increasingly driven by system requirements rather than learner needs. Of course, there are times when the organisational requirements are dominant for good reason, but, too often in our view, schools are adult-focused rather than pupil/learner-centred.

Elements of both organisation and community are necessary in different combinations at different times and in different circumstances. However, an over-emphasis on organisation has led to an under-emphasis on the need for community in many schools today.

And that is a systemic fault as well, not just one affecting individual institutions.

Public performance

On the basis of the dominance of structures and outcomes, students and teachers alike are regarded as being important mainly for their contribution, usually via high-stakes testing, to the public performance of the organisation. Accountability is essentially reductionist, based on criteria over which teachers and students have only limited control.

Relationships are valued in so far as they serve to promote the purpose of the organisation in the marketplace. In other words, the personal is used for the sake of the functional.

To address this moving forward, we must start to turn management upside down, a term we draw from our case study of leadership in one hugely innovative business, Timpson, and start to think about the turning school and community inside out.

By that, we mean the school consciously needs to build its own strong social capital, modelling community in its daily life. It then becomes possible for the school to radiate this capital outwards in such a way as to positively influence its families and communities, and hence profoundly influence the potential for future educational achievement.

In the community-derived model, the functional is both subservient to the personal and expressive of it. Structures and organisation have within them distinct traces of person-centred ways of being. There is greater emphasis on more participatory, less hierarchical forms of engagement and decision-making, and boundaries between status, role and function are increasingly crossed.

Social capital

Any community, irrespective of size or purpose is only successful to the extent that it is able to build social capital. That means it has a focus on:

  • Shared values and common purpose focused on equity and excellence
  • Quality relationships and effective communication, in particular open dialogue based on shared language
  • Trust as the basis for working relationships based on respect and empowerment
  • A sense of shared identity and place – belonging and engagement
  • Shared learning to build confidence and capacity

The four schools whose work we draw on in our study all display most of these characteristics to some degree. All see themselves on a learning journey.

Building community has to be an evolutionary, learning process, not the imposition of alien ideas by enthusiastic demagogues. Community development is an organic process that requires appropriate and empathic leadership and strategies that are fit for purpose i.e. form follows function.

Perhaps the most appropriate area with the greatest potential for real impact is for schools to become model communities in the ways that they are organised and designed. In the book we strongly endorse the idea of schools as micro communities – in other words, villages.

We – both men and women – are happier, healthier and more resistant to disease and despair if we satisfy the need for meaningful human contact. Our loads seem lighter, the hills literally less steep. Genuine social interaction is a force of nature. (Pinker 2014, p.309)

There are some primary and secondary schools that have been designed to facilitate social interaction and successful learning. All too often, however,

schools are essentially a series of corridors with rooms off them designed to accommodate 30 young people and one adult. With the addition, in many secondary schools, of tables set out in rows, it becomes clear that this is the architecture of teaching and managing rather than of learning.

It is equally clear that the organisational structure is essentially linear and hierarchical based on age, perpetuating the myth that learning takes place in homogeneous cohorts with automatic progression for all – irrespective of their stage of development. 

The Dunbar ‘number’

If the concept of the Dunbar number1 is accepted as an indicator of potential community effectiveness and the ‘village effect’, then the size of a school might be a significant factor in terms of its potential to develop a community culture.

The School Census for 2018 shows that the average size of an English secondary school is 948 students, while primary schools average 281 pupils and special schools 114 pupils (Department for Education 2018). While many children do well in the prevailing model of schools as organisations, for a significant number of children school is an alien way of life.

Many of the issues with mental health, engagement and wellbeing might be related to the poor emotional engagement with school for some children. If form does follow function, then it might be that the current form of many schools is not wholly fit for purpose.

Hypothetically, achieving a better structure might draw on the following principles, using the broad numerical groupings from the Dunbar number model:

  • Students are allocated to a family (or team) of between five and eight students drawn from all year groups, with senior students as leaders.
  • Three to four families make up a clan, with one or two adults as mentors.
  • Four to five clans make up a ‘learning village’.
  • Six learning villages make up a learning community/school

‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is one of the great clichés but also one of the great truths. The authentic village is a context in which everyone thrives in the

broadest sense. However it does require very different approaches to leadership in order to enable the structures and processes described above to work, become embedded and so create a new paradigm for what a school might become.

Authentic communities

There are, of course, many examples of schools achieving high levels of social sophistication using alternative approaches to the ones we describe. Special schools and early years provision are powerful examples of different assumptions and philosophies that lead to authentic communities.

Perhaps the most challenging aspects of the principles that we describe in Flipping Schools involve rethinking the norms that define our understanding of leadership. In many ways we are still working with a model of leadership that resonates with historical legacies of hierarchy, control, dependency and deference.

A leadership culture that enables and enhances social capital, and so community, is essentially a microcosm of the qualities of the community as a whole. Our hope is that as social capital grows, so cultural capital grows, and we move towards schools that are authentic communities manifested in kindness, quality relationships and the achievement of social justice.


Department for Education (2018) Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2018. London: The Stationery Office.

Dunbar, R. (2010) How many friends does one person need? London: Faber & Faber

Pinker, S. (2014) The village effect: why face-to-face contact matters. London: Atlantic Books.

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