Most school mergers lead to lower student achievement

The majority of merged schools deliver lower exam results in the first three years according to new UK research.

A study by the Hay Group, an international management consultancy firm, shows that 55% of merged schools in the UK had a sustained decline in student performance in the three years after the merger than the average for the separate schools in the three years before.

The report states that “the number of schools that have not recovered in the medium term is worryingly high.” Russell Hobby, education consultant at the Hay Group, said:

As the corporate sector shows, mergers are complex and problematic transactions. Schools need resources and support to navigate the cultural as well as logistical challenges a merger presents. The number of schools faltering following a merger is worryingly high, and with more mergers planned, this could affect thousands of students. [The Guardian, 24 October 2006]

The findings vary between primary and secondary education, with 68% of merged secondary schools experiencing an ongoing drop in performance and half of all primary schools experiencing a sustained decline.

The Hay Group’s findings are based on a detailed study of 73 full-scale school mergers across the UK over the past six years, involving more than 200 schools in a broad range of socio-economic areas. The study collected data compared student achievement in the three years after the merger (for the combined school) with attainment in the three years before the merger (for the two or three separate schools).

The study found that there are three distinct groups developing among merged schools:*28% of schools experienced a one- or two-year dip and then recovered;*21% of schools immediately exceeded their pre-merger performance and continued to improve; and*51% of schools dipped, and did not recover to their pre-merger levels during the period studied.

The study casts doubt on whether the performance of under-achieving schools can be improved by mergers. While the secondary schools that showed increased performance tend to be those at the lower end of the attainment scale to begin with, they were already strongly improving before the merger.

In these situations merger can be part of a deliberate strategy for school improvement, chosen by the schools themselves. For primaries, it is the already strong schools which tend to do best – although they sometimes seem to stumble briefly in the year before the merger.

The report states that school mergers are a complex process and success depends on successfully combining school visions and culture.

School mergers are not merely a matter of logistics and infrastructure; they are a blend of potentially divergent cultures, ambitions and communities. As such, effective leadership, founded on honest communication, is essential. Above all, however, the processes of team building, visioning, role design and communication must take place quickly so that the senior leadership team can turn its attention outwards again.

It states that the social and cultural difficulties are not always managed effectively enough to minimise the impact on student achievement.

The report concludes that school mergers can form useful part of a strategy for raising school performance. However, success depends on several factors.

First, schools facing a merger need additional resources and support to help them plan and implement the organisational changes appropriately and specific tools should be developed to assist decisions at each stage of the process. Success is often dependent on having the support of outside specialist advice and involvement.

Second, it is essential that the future principal, and preferably the majority of the senior leadership team, is identified and confirmed long before the formal merger takes place so that they have the space to form as a team, develop their vision and begin the communication process with staff, parents and students.

Third, governing bodies have an essential role and could benefit from similar support in setting expectations and monitoring progress.

Link to the Hay Group Report (registration required)

Trevor Cobbold
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