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Same Difference

The problem with research is that sometimes it discovers things that are inconvenient. This is particularly irksome when someone takes a detailed, analytical look at something into which you’ve invested quite a lot of time, energy and faith, and discovers that the evidence says that your investment is based on inaccurate information and so is unlikely to pay the dividend you’ve hoped for. When this happens, the best strategy is usually to look away and hope nobody notices – after all, what do the so-called ‘experts’ know anyway?

This might be the scenario following the paper published this week by the Nuffield Foundation, and carried out by UCL and NFER: Better Schools for All: School Effectiveness and the Impact on Pupils. It’s a fascinating analysis of large-scale data designed to answer some key questions about the factors that influence student attainment and school performance. The authors, Alex Bryson, Lucy Stokes and David Wilkinson, provide a clear-eyed and readable summary which throws up some fascinating findings.

There are two in particular that caught my eye and which raise some awkward questions for policy-makers in education. The first is that ‘schools account for a relatively small share of the variation in pupil attainment (not usually more than 10%)’ and the second that ‘Head Teacher characteristics … explained a relatively small part of the variation in school performance’ and in fact the research found ‘no impact on attainment of a change in Head Teacher’.

Academic language sometimes allows remarkable things to slip through, so let me repeat and rephrase. The data shows that the school you go to and the performance of the Head Teacher have a very small impact on how well you do in our education system.

Why is that so significant? Well, we’ve built a system that is absolutely dependent on the opposite being true. How do we deal with school failure? We re-broker, change the Head, ‘turn the school around’. We pay huge salaries to CEOs of favoured Trusts, and laud them for the difference they are making to children’s life chances. We’ve hard-wired competition into our education system through league tables and unlimited parental choice. We have engineered huge penalties for inclusivity and rewards for exclusion. We’ve treated Ofsted judgements as an outcome, as an end in itself. All based on the belief that if only all schools were as good as the best schools, and all Heads were as good as the best Heads, the problem would be solved.

Turns out, according to this data, that’s not true.

Now, that’s not the same as saying that school performance and quality of leadership is unimportant. Although the authors of the report do conclude that ‘attending a ‘good’ secondary school only adds a small amount more value than attending a ‘bad’ secondary school’ this is about the variance between schools, and does not imply that schools don’t have an impact overall. However, it certainly begs the question whether a relentless focus on competition between schools is likely to make the difference. In other words, given that the difference between the best and the worst is so small, the only sensible response is to develop a system designed to improve all schools. A system, in other words, based on collaboration and shared ownership.

Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Recognise that school improvement is not about the ‘best’ showing the ‘rest’ how it’s done. Every school has good practice and every leader has wisdom to share;
  • Make sure that all the schools in a locality have a shared ownership of the outcomes of all students in that locality – no incentive to ‘off-roll’ or tactically exclude;
  • We do know that teacher quality matters. Give as many opportunities as humanly possible for teachers to collaborate, share and network, in person and on line. Develop teaching through open research and opportunities to study;
  • No more ‘hero’ Heads – understand that this is a team effort;
  • Use current accountability systems – inspection, assessment data – to inform improvement. What a difference might all of that knowledge make if it was focussed on improving the system as a whole?

If there is little difference between the impact of the best and the worst, then trying to improve by closing the gap between them won’t achieve much. The only thing that will make a difference is by working across the system as a whole. A rising tide lifts all ships, as the cliché goes. Like all good clichés, it has more than a grain of truth. Just look at the research.

By Dr Heery

I'm the Executive Principal of the White Hills Park Trust, a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher. I am interested in schools and school systems built on generous collaboration, collective responsibility and strong values.

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