Quality of teaching isn’t helped by ad hoc policies

Ministers might mean well with their frequent education sector overhauls, but school leaders must find ways to stay optimistic in the face of constant upheaval
17th March 2017, 12:00am
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Quality of teaching isn’t helped by ad hoc policies


As chief executive of an international education-improvement organisation providing consultancy and programme delivery for governments around the world, I have spent several years observing how different education systems operate. Many seem to be caught in a struggle between state- or country-level policy on the one hand and the action or inaction of individual schools on the other. As Michael Fullan and I wrote in a recent think-piece: “Policy pushes in one direction, the profession pulls in another. The result is a type of friction which produces heat but not light: plenty of activity but not enough systematic change or improvement in outcomes.”

When it comes to securing improvement in any education system, external accountability is important but insufficient. Without corresponding support and capacity building, it fails to motivate people in the long run.

Too many governments are introducing policy changes at national level that mean well, but which have little or no positive effect on the cultures of individual schools. To be blunt, ad-hoc policies from whatever new minister is in power rarely make a positive difference to the quality of teaching; they are more likely to reduce coherence and damage long-term sustainability. As Michael and I concluded: “The end result, in too many systems, is exhausted, discouraged teachers and leaders, stretched on the rack of contract accountability but not given the capacity - the time, resources or support - to make any of this really work”.

Nerves under pressure

Nobody is saying that governments don’t mean well or don’t want to make a difference. But it is hard to improve the quality of teaching and leadership in schools across a whole system, and this is what makes the most positive impact on children’s learning. It requires long-term planning and multiple facets woven together, as we know from our work in many jurisdictions around the world.

For governments faced with challenges from the profession, the media and the opposition, being able to hold your nerve, especially when instant results are not available, is difficult. So it is not hard to see how many governments struggle. The temptation is to turn to changing structures, amending the examination system, reviewing the curriculum, spending money on attractive ICT-based solutions or introducing new short-term initiatives that are quietly dropped a few years later. As far as the system in England is concerned, like many others around the world, more change is on the way.

Governments can’t easily improve learning in schools, but school leaders can

Funding is going to be challenging even for those schools that will do better from the fair-funding proposals; with resources tight, the ability of schools to respond proactively to the new assessment and accountability measures is going to be very difficult. Ministers’ proposal to open more grammar schools is hardly convincing the profession that this is a government that is “evidence informed”.

Of course, many schools are thriving, but others are struggling, with leaders worrying about how to replace the expert teacher who is moving on or concerned that their whole careers may end up being judged by the performance of a single cohort of students.

So, how do school leaders remain positive and enthusiastic?

Joy amid hardship

I am writing this article in Nairobi, where I have spent the morning at a slum-based school. Barefoot children play in the dust and the classrooms are dark, dingy and hot, with walls made out of corrugated iron. But there is a joy and a resilience in this school and a belief in the power of education to transform lives that transcends the local conditions.

The leaders and teachers can see the progress that the children are making and are committing themselves wholeheartedly to that endeavour, despite the numerous obstacles - and they are doing it with a sense of fun, too.

The commitment and joy that I saw in the slum school, I also see in many schools in the UK, despite different challenges. I saw it at a free school I visited last week in Wokingham. It occurs to me that, in the end, this is all about the attitude of mind we adopt as leaders and, indeed, as human beings. As American civil rights activist and poet Maya Angelou said: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

The challenge is - within whatever context we find ourselves - to find a way to remain resilient, and stay strong and optimistic as leaders. If it is a lot to do with attitude, then stepping back and reminding ourselves why we are school leaders, what a positive force for good we can be, and what a privilege it is to be a leader in education, is immensely important.

Governments can’t easily improve teaching and learning in schools, but school leaders can. Connecting with others from around the country and from around the world, who are part of that same mission and who have that same shared moral purpose, can be a great energy booster.

Hearing leaders tell their stories of triumph and disaster, of hardship and success, can help to remind us of the positives in what we do. Isolation is the enemy of improvement, but collective commitment to working together in the interests of all children can be empowering and energising.

As the headteacher from the slum school said to me, “These are our children and we must do all we can to give them better lives through education.”

Steve Munby is chief executive of the Education Development Trust. He tweets @steve_munby

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