New proposals for the reform of the English education system are outlined in a report written by Mel Ainscow CBE and Alan Dyson, Professors of Education and co-directors of the Centre for Equity in Education at The University of Manchester, and their colleagues Sue Goldrick and Dr Kirstin Kerr.
The English school system is in a mess. After nearly three decades of relentless reform, it finds itself becalmed in terms of overall improvement and stranded in mid-table in terms of international comparisons. Student achievement is strongly linked to social background, and gaps in achievement between those who do well and those who do badly are large and growing. If there have been gains in achievement over those three decades, they are have been bought at the cost of narrowing the meaning of education, and there are real doubts about whether students know and can do more, or whether schools have simply got better at drilling them through tests.
The governance of the system is also a mess. It is not clear how the system is being led, much less how it is being developed. Schools look in a range of directions for leadership – to governors, to sponsors, to local authorities, to other schools, to the Secretary of State. Some of these bodies are democratically accountable and have a public purpose. Others operate with no obvious concern for the wider public good. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State runs increasing numbers of schools from Whitehall.
This control is exercised most strongly through a perverse set of accountability measures. Schools are accountable not for improving the skills, knowledge, well-being or life chances of their students, but for following centrally-determined procedures and getting their students through tests and examinations. If necessary, they do this by gaming the system, while policy-makers play catch-up, outlawing ‘easy’ examinations, devising new forms of league table, and seeking arbitrary ways of ‘raising the bar’. At the same time, Ofsted has become more and more powerful, sometimes seeming to be the Secretary of State’s attack dog, and sometimes seeking to establish its own, independent power base. As a result, schools are held accountable by an unpredictable and unstable organisation, changing its focus and expectations at a moment’s notice, and resolutely refusing to engage in dialogue or understand the contexts within which the schools it judges operate.
Despite the mess, there are plenty of examples of good practice that can be used to develop a more effective strategy for developing the English education system. It seems that, whatever the failings of policy-makers, not every policy has been wrong, and in any case, teachers, head teachers, local authorities and other education stakeholders have tended to salvage something positive from even the most unpromising situations.
The examples cited in our report are drawn from different levels of the school system – from the internal practices of schools and classrooms; from the relationships between schools; and from the relationships between schools and other services. This is no accident. On the basis of our research, we argue that if we are to have a genuinely developmental and equitable school system, we need to think about what happens within school, what happens between schools, and what happens beyond schools in the rest of children’s lives.
What unites the examples is that they show how it is possible to develop approaches to schooling that do not exhibit the kinds of simplistic thinking which undermines the system currently. They show how teachers and other school staff can be supported to understand the complexities of the situations in which they practise: how they can explore how their students experience school, the challenges those students face, and the ways in which changes in their practices help or hinder students. This is not an alternative to knowing what research evidence says about ‘what works’. However, it recognizes that ‘what works in general’ has to be translated into ‘what works here and for these learners’. It also recognizes that there may not be ready-made interventions to address every issue and values the creativity that teachers can bring to bear on the situations they face.
At the same time, schools can be helped to develop through the critical friendship of other schools. Again, this is not an alternative to holding schools to account for their results or to rigorous external inspection. However, it brings to bear ‘insider’ views of how schools work and can improve. It creates a supportive dialogue between schools, and, crucially, it supports the imperative to improve with the material – and more importantly, human – resources that make improvement more possible.
Finally, schools can play a part in tackling the wider social issues that impact on their students’ learning. Again, this is not an alternative to an intensive focus on learning within the classroom. However, it supports schools in understanding the complex contexts within which schooling takes place and the complex challenges which students face in their home and community backgrounds. It also recognizes the interdependence of educational and other outcomes for children and young people, and so the crucial importance of schools working closely with other child, family and community agencies.
The implication of all of this is that policy-makers need to shift their thinking away from simplification towards a recognition of complexity. In this respect, what policy makers say matters just as much as what they do. The stories policy-makers – both ministers and chief inspectors – have told over recent decades about how education is simply a matter of test and exam results, how poor results are straightforwardly the fault of the school, and how improving the system is simply a matter of getting better heads and teachers, have undermined the system. It would not be difficult for policy-makers to acknowledge that matters are more complex than this. This might involve them in getting themselves off the treadmill of having to produce constantly improving results, but it would free the system to think more creatively about the real problem it faces.
The full report can be accessed here.