This is a guest blog by Ben Gibbs, Director of Restart-Ed
What is efficacy in the context of school improvement? That was the question posed at the second of the RSA’s planning for real impact series, run jointly with Pearson.
It proved to be a thought provoking one. The subsequent discussion was broad, but included a focus on outcomes relating to schools’ moral obligations: helping young people get ready for the complexities of the lives ahead of them; developing a love of learning and a drive to understand the world around them; nurturing students’ agency and engaged citizenship; building resilience and the ability to self-sustain wellbeing. When asked what it is that gives a school efficacy, people talked about having a clarity of purpose, based on a clear understanding both of carefully considered intended outcomes and the changes required to achieve them. People talked about organisational effectiveness: having very clear lines of accountability, transparent governance, a culture of innovation, and distributed power. People also talked about holding the line on the things that are important to them as professional educators; standing firm in the face of policy initiatives that run counter to their own considered intentions.
That’s all well and good. Fantastic in fact. But where does it leave the school improvement ‘industry’? When asked to explain what outcomes they and their schools should be aiming to achieve, the school and system leaders in the room paid only very scant attention to outcomes relating to Ofsted judgements, league table position, or performance measures. These, it seemed, were seen as targets rather than outcomes; necessary bureaucratic formalities one has to face up to whilst battling on towards greater things. And yet a whole industry has grown around providing advice to schools on how to achieve these targets.
As both chair of governors at a large secondary school and a consultant in the schools sector, it concerns me greatly that so much time, energy and money is spent on commissioning advice from school improvement advisers who, as former heads and inspectors, have earned their stripes by excelling in the achievement of the outcomes that matter to the current system rather than the ones we really want. How are we going to achieve the sort of transformational changes we know we need in schools by just recycling old ideas; by doing more of the same; by opting for the tried and tested?
We certainly need the sort of sustainable school transformation proposed by David Crossley in his introductory presentation, but it also struck me that there is a need for creative, innovative renewal in the school improvement industry, starting perhaps with the idea that all stakeholders should have a say in the definition of intended outcomes. What if we engaged students, parents and communities more in the process of defining the outcomes they’d like to see from their schools, and got them involved in the school improvement process too? What if each school established a ‘school improvement (or ‘efficacy’) panel’ to identify and agree intended outcomes, and then decide on how best to measure their achievement? Such a panel would seem to sit above the governing board, whose job it would be to set new outcomes-oriented strategies.