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Can Marginal Gains Change Your School?

Matthew SyedI pinched the headline from the title of Mathew Syed’s recent article for The Times (September 2015), “Marginal gains can change the World.”

A former international table tennis player and now journalist, his first book ‘Bounce’ talked about the practice needed to become a master and The Times article was a prelude to his new book.

In it he talks about how David Brailsford revolutionised cycling and achieved such success by isolating specific areas in turn and finding out what worked and what didn’t work so that they focused their efforts only on things that would have an impact on results.

And by making these small improvements in things that would make a difference, the aggregation of them meant the required outcomes were achieved. It’s the same way that the Olympian rower Ben Hunt Davis associates his teams Gold Medal Success and wrote about in his book, “Will it make the Boat Go faster.”

Rowing eight

Ben Hunt-Davis and the GB rowing eight


They only focused on things that would deliver more speed and removed other things from their thinking and their plans.

So what have these sports analogies got to do with schools?

Syed, asks the question, “Can it be wielded to transform performance, not just in sport, but in business, schools and beyond.” His answer is a resounding yes and I agree with him.



I have been lucky enough to work with Olympic athletes, as well as successful leaders in schools and in business. One of their commonalities is their ability to focus on the things that make the difference and it is strongly support by the work of Joseph M Duran the father of modern quality management. He developed the idea of the vital few and also gave the name to the Pareto Principle (80% of our needed outcomes comes from just 20% of our efforts).

But isn’t it harder in schools with so much going on?

I don’t underestimate the challenge you face. The single main priority for schools is to ensure the required outcomes for their students are met and that each one is able to make the most of their talents (academically and in being able to deal with the things that life throws at them).

It’s why everything we talk about and do is informed by evidence and why we encourage schools, when trying new things, to isolate and evaluate what works. Importantly it is also about stopping doing things that don’t add value and particularly when adding something new. There really is no point piling more things onto people who are already far too busy but it isn’t something I see many schools do well.

I have reviewed the available research on what raises student attainment (you will know most, if not all of it) and there are big opportunities for marginal gains in the area of staff and student wellbeing and in building skills that enable them to better manage school and life challenges.

I have put this into a detailed research paper so if you are interested in making more of your available time and focusing on what works then you can get your copy from our website here. It is a long read so there is also a short summary paper available too.

And if the idea of isolating practices and testing impact and focusing only on things that lead to achieving your purpose is appealing to you then maybe we can help. And particularly if you want to do this in a way where many more people are able to enjoy what they do, then get in touch. I would be very happy to share our experiences.

Just call 020 3303 0496 or e-mail