It is not often that researchers and policy wonks have the gratification of instant results, but a new report by RSA Education, ‘No School an Island’, is already helping to stimulate new thinking and create the impetus for school improvement in Suffolk and beyond.
Commissioned by Suffolk County Council, the report is the culmination of a ten month inquiry conducted by the RSA to investigate what action is needed to address stubborn and systemic underperformance in Suffolk schools.
Our analysis showed that although ‘low aspirations’ by parents and young people is one of the most commonly cited reasons for low attainment, there isn’t in fact any evidence of pupil or parental aspiration in Suffolk being any lower than anywhere else. Indeed, studies consistently show that personal aspiration explains very little of the attainment gap either locally or nationally.
Studies consistently show that personal aspiration explains very little of the attainment gap either locally or nationally
The key question, then, is what is holding back improvement in the quality of teaching in Suffolk schools: here, our research identifies features of the school culture and wider environment which have resulted in a lack of challenge for individual teachers and a lack of impetus for wider improvement, problems which are compounded by a lack of capacity for leadership and collaboration.
To transform the culture of learning across the county, we urge Suffolk schools and local communities to take action to become better connected, less complacent, more innovative and more inclusive:
Connect more routinely and systematically with people and ideas outside their traditional networks
Drive out complacency and ‘satisficing’ about existing results
Innovate and improve practice by drawing on the best available evidence to inform teaching and learning
Create a more inclusive educational culture, which empowers learners from all social backgrounds and helps create a sense of common purpose.
The power of collaboration to make the ordinary extraordinary is the guiding theme of the report. Research shows that by working together and sharing knowledge between schools, teachers and headteachers are able to gain a better understanding of their own practices and performance – to see whether what they are doing is actually working and identify the changes that will help them be more effective.
Although some of the analysis is specific to the Suffolk context, many of the recommendations have relevance for schools in all parts of the country. For example, all schools are advised to undertake a review of their existing partnership arrangements to determine whether they are ‘fit for purpose’. One of the hardest decisions for any organisation to take is often to stop partnerships and practices which are not actually effective or purposeful. By auditing their working relationships with other providers, schools will have an opportunity to decide whether to strengthen or terminate existing arrangements, as well as spotlighting areas of school isolation where new partnership could usefully be formed.
One of the hardest decisions for any school to take is often to stop practices and partnerships which are not actually effective or purposeful.
Having a critical friend can also be a highly valuable way of helping schools to look afresh at what they do. The ‘Families of Schools’ approach developed in the City Challenge programme provides a useful model for Suffolk, as for other areas, by encouraging ongoing peer review and critical evaluation. By linking up with schools serving similar pupil intakes in other locations, schools can interrogate data and identify areas for improvement in each setting.
One of the key proposals is for Suffolk to join forces with an East London Borough, to create a programme of cultural, professional and educational exchange offering benefits to both areas. Responding to the RSA’s recommendations, schools in Suffolk and the London Borough of Hackney have already announced a new long-term Hackney-Suffolk partnership, which promises to broaden horizons, enrich pupils’ learning, expand teachers’ professional experience and strengthen leadership at all levels.
At a time when schools in England are under greater pressure than ever to achieve higher standards – and when even high-attaining schools and local areas are complaining of chronic stress – we believe that the principle of collaboration offers important lessons for all localities. It is not often that a rising tide lifts all boats. But by creating the conditions for effective school partnerships, the message from Suffolk – and its new partners in London – is that improving outcomes for some children and young people can be a platform for wider success for all.