Improving the school system in England – three priorities for 2013

Arguments rage about how good the English school system actually is. When the results for the tests in Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) were published in early December 2012, some argued that they showed English schools were making good progress. But for the government the tests underlined their view that England’s education system was failing to match the levels of the world’s leading performers.

The truth, as is often the case, lies somewhere in between. English schools  are performing more strongly than the government suggests but they could still be better. So as we enter a new year what are the strategies that for making further improvement? Here are my three priorities.

First, the self-improving school system that the government rightly aspires to, needs steering at a local level. The emergence of effective academy chains, teaching school alliances, federations, Challenge Partners and other forms of collaborative school activity are all hugely encouraging. Giving schools and school leaders the responsibility for school improvement is the right way to go. But it is naive to believe that by some serendipitous process the combined efforts of these initiatives will result in the school improvement needs of all schools being identified and addressed. Leaving aside whether local authorities, school commissioners, or A N Other are the appropriate means,  someone or some body should be tasked with joining up the dots and efforts of the various school improvement players in each locality. This is not to argue for eroding school autonomy or reimposing a bureaucracy. Rather it is to make the case for giving shape, direction and cohesion to local school improvement efforts – and making sure no school gets left behind.

Second, teachers need to be empowered, equipped and affirmed (and each of those verbs is significant!) to become leaders of their own learning. The focus of education policy needs to move away from structures to supporting improving teaching and learning for pupils and students. We know that teacher quality is the single biggest driver of in-school pupil progress. We also know that teacher  improvement comes fastest when teachers are able to plan, observe and review their work  together in a disciplined way.  So we should be empowering and encouraging teachers to move away from a professional development model primarily based round courses, insets and conferences to one based round collaboratively testing and evaluating the impact of their practice. We should be equipping new qualified teachers and teaching leaders with the coaching and action research skills to lead this change. And we should be affirming the role of teachers as professionals – committed to continually developing and improving their knowledge and practice.

Third, policy makers in England must provide a stable platform that will enable school-to-school working to mature. Since the coalition came to power in May 2010 there has been a torrent of education reforms. A government with a mandate (or a coalition agreement) and a Secretary of State with a mission will always want to make change in a hurry.  That is as it should be. But we are now at the stage where the torrent risks washing away much of the good that is intended.  Just about every aspect of school life – curriculum, qualifications and assessment, funding, pay and recruitment of teachers, special needs, accountability, inspection and governance – is subject to fundamental change. Reform fatigue will set in unless changes are well-considered, build on what is working well, are part of a coherent strategy and take the views of school leaders seriously.

Underpinning these three priorities is my belief is that if you want change and reform that takes root and lasts you are better off doing change with people rather trying to do it to them.

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