Could do better – end of term report on government’s school improvement strategy

Below is the end of term scorecard I presented to the London Teaching School Council’s conference on 8th July 2016 on the government’s performance on school improvement. With the end of the Cameron era, now is a good time to take stock on where the school system in England is.

The 10 principles or descriptors against which the government’s performance is judged are based on work by Ben LevinMcKinsey and Company  and the background research that I undertook in 2013 as part of a broader report for the Welsh government on school improvement.

The commentary for each principle summarises the government’s school improvement policy approach and highlights what I see as the key challenges and weaknesses – which then leads to an overall grading for each area.  The gradings are, of course, subjective but do serve to highlight relative areas of strengths and weaknesses. The overall verdict must be ‘Could do better’ – particularly in the areas of alignment, co-ordination and pace of policy of policy development and implementation and building a guiding coalition for change.




  • Set high expectations for  all school to improve and succeed, focused on a small number of ambitious yet achievable and well-grounded goals
The Government has clearly raised the bar and set high expectations at each key stage

All schools are expected to improve but it’s more arguable whether the focus on ‘resits’ for KS2 and Ebacc contributes to the success of all pupils

There are lots of metrics but what are the key “ambitious yet achievable well grounded goals”? 

  • Prioritise the quality of teaching by recruiting, training and developing teachers to high professional standards
The Government recognises the significance of this but sees teacher development as a professional rather than a system issue

Reforms to teacher training aim to improve the quality of new teachers but the ITT system is fragmented and we are struggling to recruit and retain sufficient teachers

Professional development and coaching is episodic and variable and classroom-based, inquiry-led learning far from being embedded

  • Engage and win support from leaders at different levels of the system to build a ‘guiding coalition’ for reform


MAT CEOs, headteacher boards and members of Teaching School Councils have a growing, though still limited, role in the system

There is no consent or consensus on the key areas of the reform agenda – not has there been a serious attempt to build a ‘guiding coalition’

Local authorities – even good ones – have been frozen out of the picture

  • Empower school leaders to set direction, lead learning, develop staff and school capacity and manage performance
School leaders in England enjoy considerable autonomy to lead and be accountable for their schools

The prescriptive nature of key stage assessment, GCSEs and A levels constrains curriculum and assessment autonomy

Watch this space for the freedom of school leaders to lead within MATs 

  • Build the capacity of the system to improve by enabling school leaders to support, work with and learn from each other and lead improvement across localities and networks
The roles of NLEs and Teaching School Alliances reaffirmed and given a sharper focus

Ofsted breathing space for RI and inadequate schools and new National Teaching Service

Support for sector-led leadership development but how will the new system work?

No recognition of the role of peer preview

MATs can potentially develop and move good practice across schools quickly but how well will they interact with other schools?

  • Use timely transparent data to monitor progress, evaluate the impact of interventions, diagnose schools and groups of pupils with problems and enable schools to learn from each other
The English education system is data rich – at pupil, school and system levels – but does less well on knowing the impact of interventions – though the work of the EEF and the use of RCT is starting to change the culture

Performance tables for MATs are welcome

Use of data for benchmarking is the exception rather than rule

Too much of the data is used to support high stakes accountability rather than to develop and improve schools


  • Co-ordinate school improvement programmes at a city or sub-regional level in order to integrate network activity, deploy expertise and identify and target problem issues, areas and schools
Model separates leading/co-ordinating school improvement from dealing with ‘failure’

No recognition of the sense of locality felt by many heads or of the growing number of LA/school partnerships

Will RSCs be able to cope and will LAs play more of a role than planned?

How will sub-regional networks of Teaching School Councils and Head Teacher Boards evolve?

The emerging City Mayors agenda overlooked


  • Align priorities, reforms, accountability, inspection, capacity building and funding with careful implementation ensuring policies all pull in the same direction
The components of a reform programme are present but they are at risk from:

  • A disproportionate focus on structural reform – i.e. mass academisation
  • Flawed implementation – e.g. life beyond levels, baseline and KS2 assessment, late A level syllabuses, interaction of new grading systems and performance tables and sustainable MAT models for small schools

Arrangements for admissions run as a fault line through the system

  • Address inequities in student performance through good early education, classroom support for pupils falling behind and a reduction in inequalities more generally


Pupil Premium sustained and Alternative Provision reformed

Achieving Excellence Areas and MAT sponsors targeted on underperforming areas

How will funding pressures impact on support for vulnerable pupils?

Children who arrive at school in the bottom range of ability tend to stay there

Links to wider drivers of educational inequality not addressed

  • Sustain reform over time and over more than one electoral cycle but adapt strategies to reflect the performance of the system and growth in capacity


The reform programme has been sustained and there is broad continuity in the general direction of travel towards a school-led self-improving system

However, the scale and pace of reform seems indigestible

All aspects of the system – curriculum, assessment, teacher training, leadership development, accountability, funding and structures – are being reformed (and in some cases re-reformed) at the same time






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