Self-improving schools: Four features of the world’s best school systems - RSA

Self-improving schools: Four features of the world’s best school systems


  • Education
  • Schools
  • Creative Institutions and Systems

Education secretary Damian Hinds, in a speech to the National Association of Head Teachers last Friday, acknowledged the links between workload, the demands of accountability, and the rising problem of teacher recruitment and retention, and implied that an overhaul of the accountability system may be necessary to allow teachers to “get on with the job”.

This speech marks a remarkable shift from thirty years of education policy emerging from the 1988 Education Reform Act, which established a system of high stakes accountability, and ever tighter control from the central government – a system that has driven the growing problem of  “gaming” discussed by Julian Astle in The Ideal School Exhibition last year. Given what appears to be a major change in direction in education policy, what can we learn from historically high-performing school systems around the world? What common ingredients create some of the world’s best performing school systems, and what barriers and benefits could emerge when introducing them to our own?

1.       Make sure teachers are the “education experts”.

Finland, Singapore, Boston, Estonia, and South Korea attribute their excellent education systems to the high status of, and high levels of trust and autonomy granted to, their teachers, who are expected to have received a Masters’ qualification in education before entering teaching. Trust in teachers to lead innovation, improvement, and best practice is at the heart of the Finnish system in particular, where teachers are so trusted as masters of their field that they are not expected to provide lesson plans or marking for their annual evaluations. There, and in South Korea, teaching, particularly at a primary level, is a high-status, highly valued career, in which entry to teacher training is tightly controlled and significantly oversubscribed due to its high status. By making sure that only the best candidates become teachers, they create a system where these candidates can be trusted with a high level of autonomy and trust once they enter the classroom. They are also placed in the driving seat of innovation and system improvement, given the autonomy to experiment within the system and to share the results of their research with their co-workers, both within their school and more widely.

In England, this approach has been championed by the Association of School and College Leaders in their Blueprint for a Self-Improving System, and by Christine Gilbert’s 2012 report Towards a self-improving system: The role of accountability in schools, where she reasoned that: “in any system, it is the difference in teachers – most particularly the quality of their teaching and the relationships with their pupils – that makes most difference to children’s learning. Teachers themselves have to be at the centre of a self-improving system. They have to own it and drive it.” In contrast, a key refrain in the “workload crisis” has been the lack of trust and ownership teachers are given by a “Big Brother culture” perpetuated by Ofsted and by policymakers. By listening to the voices of practitioners, Damian Hinds has already taken a step towards bridging this gap, but there is still significant work to be done in placing English teachers in the driving seat of the education system.

2.       A supportive middle tier

A self-improving system cannot be driven by teachers if they are isolated in individual schools or academy chains. The most successful school improvement systems evaluated by the McKinsey reports above have a strong “middle tier” connecting individual schools and teachers to a wider network of support for innovation from other areas, current best practice, continuing professional development, and the eye of a “critical friend” from within the sector and outside the school. The 2010 McKinsey report refers to the Aspire network of charter schools in California as using both an online platform and in-person coaching to spread best practice around its chain of schools. In England, this was most successfully trialled in the London Challenge, where a small, fast-moving taskforce connected individual schools, academy chains, local authorities, school improvement partners and policymakers to understand the needs of London schools, trial improvements, and rapidly spread successful trials to the rest of the network, now incarnated as the Challenge Partners network of schools.

Today, however, the school system suffers from  a “missing middle” – that tier between schools and central government which is needed to monitor standards and provide timely challenge and support to schools. While those schools with a high performing local authority or MAT behind them can still benefit from that support, but many – isolated rural schools and struggling “orphan” schools in particular – do not.  If we want a genuinely self-improving system, we need to ensure all schools are properly supported, and that the best innovations and practices are shared and spread, rather than hoarded within schools or chains of schools who have little incentive to help the “competition”.

3.       A collaborative approach to school evaluation

The sheer quantity of publicly available school performance data – capturing the attainment and progress of different groups of students across different groups of subjects – marks England out from most other education systems, and high performing systems in particular.  And using this data to rank schools in league tables is something that is rarely seen in other jurisdictions.  One of the conditions of participating in the London Challenge was that evaluations would not made public before schools had the chance to put them into practice, allowing school leaders to take a more constructive approach in working with external evaluators. In Finland, external evaluations are tools to support and develop schools to reach their full potential, rather than tools of external control or sanction from a threatening outside agent, and they are used in tandem with more regular, in-depth self-evaluations. Since 2006, Estonia has shifted to a similar system of self-evaluation backed up by less frequent, more targeted external inspection. This focus on the primacy of self-evaluation, with external evaluation becoming a collaborative tool rather than a driving force in improvement, allows individual schools to take ownership of their mission in educating children and to take initiative in their own development and improvement.

While the 2005 New Relationship With Schools introduced mandatory self-evaluation as a core part of the Ofsted process, it was often viewed with suspicion by schools as an external demand from Ofsted rather than an internal tool for self-improvement, and eventually abolished by the coalition government. A new drive towards self-evaluation would need to take the failures of the previous system into account: namely, that schools viewed self-evaluation forms as a document for external consumption rather than internal change. A culture shift in both schools and in Ofsted would be necessary to create a collaborative environment in which a self-improving system would thrive.

4.       Placing students on an even footing

A key feature of the much-lauded Finnish and increasingly-praised Estonian education systems is the importance they place on ‘equity’ – a task that is admittedly made easier by their relatively low levels of child poverty and income and wealth inequality.  Private schools cater to a relatively small slice of the population in Estonia, while there are none in Finland. Both countries have also abandoned streaming or setting students according to ability, as the negative impacts on low performing pupils were deemed to outweigh the positive impacts on the high performing.

This stands in bleak contrast to England, where school segregation along class and wealth lines is still common, and free schools more common to affluent areas receive 60% more funding than their local authority equivalents. A system rife with inequality is unlikely to show rapid self-improvement across the board, and schools tackling rising child poverty will struggle to be at the forefront of innovation and development.

With schools’ ability to “get on with the job” undermined by a lack of funding and the demands of excessive accountability, with serious consequences for teacher recruitment and retention, the goal of a genuinely self-improving, world class education system may feel a long way off. But the substance and tone of Damian Hinds’ speech hints at a determination to work with the sector to tackle these problems. This is to be welcomed. After all, lasting change requires buy-in from everyone with a stake in the system, both the powerful (Ofsted, RSCs, the large MATs, the Unions) and the small: the individual teachers, pupils, and parents who will bear the cost of bad decisions and reap the benefits of good ones. If we want a better education system, we must work together to create social, cultural, and political environment in which this self-improving system can take root, be nurtured, and thrive.

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