Building excellence in education.

How do you improve education? Everyone has a theory, arguments rage. Governments around the world are trying all sorts of exciting schemes, and we can all see that there are a few different possible levers we can try and pull. So, which to choose?
Do we crank up accountability? This is a great short-term solution for a sluggish education system. Every new measure results in a short fear-induced jump with people scrabbling to get out of the ‘danger zone’. Ultimately of course the majority of those in safety can and will revert to being just as sluggish as before. Witness the current scrabble to reinstate humanities and language teaching due to EBacc and drop the now frowned-upon vocational qualifications after the previous 5A*-C panic caused the opposite. This method of improvement is something akin to prodding a sleepy animal with a pointy stick, I think. The animal will rearrange itself to move out of the way of the prods where possible, and then settle back to sleep. Should it have a place in the system? Yes. Is it vastly and painfully over-used? Undoubtedly.o we crank up accountability?

How about imposing new rules and methods? The last government loved this one. We had national strategies and literacy hours, an upsurge in bureaucracy and teachers generally slapped about the face unless they were doing nice three part lessons with starters and plenaries with Assessment for Learning in place (even though most of them didn’t really know what this meant). This is another great method for producing a bump in results. Your lazy bottom 10% of teachers will probably improve a wee bit, and the top 10% of enthusiasts will see the potential and incorporate it relatively happily. The rest will wearily comply just enough to avoid being prodded by the pointy stick and carry on the same as before. There will be dark mutterings and resentment at the imposition into teachers’ ‘personal space’, and huge amounts of energy wasted on oodles of utterly superficial change nationwide. Effect on learning outcomes, minimal.

A current favourite is autonomy of course. How about this one? This is fantastic for all those innovative types who were straining at the leashes of all the bureaucracy and compliance. The enthusiasts will rejoice and start doing things differently. Some of them will try new and foolish ideas that turn out to be a bit rubbish, and some will hit on brilliant ones that will be revolutionary. The weary middle will look suspiciously around waiting for the next inevitable pointy stick and carry on teaching the old way. The lazy ones will sink gently bag into the bog of incompetence with a smile on their faces.

Everyone’s favourite though is structural change. Create whole new categories of schools, change legal designations, alter funding streams, add or remove layers of management. This is stunningly helpful for the small minority who were genuinely trying to innovate and enthuse but were blocked by bureaucracy (probably the ones who were shouting most loudly at the government when they came in to power). Some of the existing enthusiasts and innovators will dismay as they discover their existing growth base has shifted, while others will attempt to adapt. Plans will go on hold all over the country as people try to re-engineer their working practice, finances and development plans. Some of the enthusiasts will adore the new systems, the weary middle will grumble at being made the change, again, and assume that it’s a way of making a new type of pointy stick, and the lazy incompetents will remain blissfully ignorant. Potential for improvement for some? Yes.  Improvement for all? a guaranteed no. Lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth about ideology, rights, politics and change? You betcha!

So how do you actually improve education? Is it by tinkering, foisting, poking or restructuring? Well, ultimately each of these imposed top-down things either unleashes a small pent up need at one end of the spectrum or vaguely squashes a section of incompetence at the other. The only real way you can really improve things is by getting as many teachers as possible on board with improving themselves in a self-sustaining way.

I don’t mean smile winningly and say “off you go lads ‘n lasses” and hope the teachers will improve by magic, I mean system-wide evidence-driven change with teachers in the driving seat.

There are some great examples of all types of change, of course. Laptops for Teachers unbunged the improvement pipe who just needed the kit to get on with it. Banning corporal punishment stamped out an outdated and harmful practice. The London Challenge (and similar projects under the Excellence in Cities banner) created structures, funding and time with which schools could identify problems, collaborate, share expertise, and continuously work to improve outcomes for students. And it is this last one that I think provides the real model for radical school improvement for the UK.

We’ve all seen countless studies that show, time and again, that the biggest thing a school can do to improve outcomes for its kids is to improve its teachers. Apart from the statistically insane and wilfully stupid we’ve discounted the idea that we can simply fire all the incompetent ones and hire new ones. The weary middle, who grow remarkably tired of being poked with a pointy stick will shout about making parents sort it out, but the answer is actually really rather clear. We need systems in place that promote teacher professionalism, systematically grow and develop teacher expertise and sustain this in the long term. Teaching Schools, while a nice idea, are a drop in the ocean. Every school needs to embark on the journey to put in place proper professional development, and fortunately there is a very strong evidence base to tell us just what this looks like. I’ll be blogging more about what this means for schools, teachers and training providers quite soon over at the Teacher Development Trust.

Ok, clearly you still need the right number of working schools with non-leaking buildings, decent finance, a steady stream of new recruits and all the other bits. But on the whole, the English education system is doing reasonably well at those things. You could tweak of course, and I’m sure people will, but the really big changes in outcomes won’t come until leaders, teachers and administrators all start focusing heavily on creating better student outcomes using the lever of teacher professional development combined with the research on how to use it effectively.

Just, please, no more tinkering, prodding and poking.

As always, your thoughts and opinions are most welcome. Let’s start a discussion.

PS Here’s a link to a great recent Harvard research paper suggesting that the key factors affecting student outcomes are (wait for it)…. teaching and learning factors. http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/fryer/files/effective_schools.pdf

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