Ask a parent about the goal of educational reform and the answer is simple - why can't every school be a great school? It's a no-brainer.
This is the challenge facing the Welsh Assembly government as it contemplates its new education, lifelong learning and skills department, and the launch of The Learning Country 2 (TLC2), its revised strategy to 2010.
These events provide the opportunity for the Assembly government to ensure that every school in Wales really is a great school.
This aspiration has implications that challenge the resolve of many governments. First, its avowed social-justice agenda needs to be communicated as such. Second, it focuses reform on enhancing teaching quality and classroom practice, rather than structural change. And third, it requires a commitment to sustained change, because a focus on individual school improvement always distorts social equity.
Despite the political boldness required, this is an agenda that the Assembly government would do well to adopt. It should also heed the lessons from England, where despite the initial success of national prescription there is a growing recognition that schools need to lead the next phase of reform. But this must not be a naive return to the 1970s, when a thousand flowers bloomed and the educational life chances of too many of our children wilted.
This is much-contested terrain, as seen in England with the ideological and confused debates over the education white paper. But it is also here where the Assembly government could become genuinely radical. The crucial insight is that large-scale reform is neither only nationally-led nor only schools-led, but both supporting each other. In increasingly dynamic policy contexts, schools must use external standards to clarify, integrate and raise their own expectations. Equally schools must be enabled to lead improvements in teaching and learning with the support of particular, but not prescribed, best practices.
This means replacing numerous national initiatives with a national consensus on a limited number of educational trends. Four of these can deliver the promise of every school a great school. They are:
* personalised learning to provide a bridge from prescribed forms of teaching, curriculum and assessment to an approach to classroom practice predicated on teachers tailoring teaching and learning to enable every student to reach their potential. National initiatives must focus unequivocally on capacity building - for example, providing teachers with a toolbox of curriculum and pedagogic strategies capable of effectively personalising learning;
* informed professionalism, with teachers increasingly focused on how they use data and evidence to apply a rich repertoire of pedagogic strategies to meet their students' needs. This implies radically different forms of professional development with a focus on coaching and establishing schools as professional learning communities;
* extended schooling implies networks of schools collaborating to build curriculum diversity, extended services, professional support and high expectations. Groups of secondary schools should be encouraged to collaborate outside of local control. This would be on the condition that they provided extended services for all students within their area;
* intelligent accountability to better support educational goals by creating a balance between external standards and internal assessment. This will involve self-evaluation and bottom-up target setting, value-added analyses and assessment for learning processes, and national standards reflective of moral benchmarks rather than absolute time-bound targets.
Although each of these trends is integral to a social democratic settlement for education, responsible system leadership is needed to mould them to the local context. This implies heads becoming almost as concerned about the success of other schools as they are about their own. Practical strategies should be widely shared and used as a basis for local alignment so that school diversity and collaboration are exploited.
There is no doubt that the improvement in standards in New Labour's first term was due to a boldness of vision and resoluteness of approach. The challenge facing the Assembly government requires perhaps even more boldness, but of a different type. Crucially, a balance needs to be achieved between national prescription and schools leading reform, with the presumption towards the latter, except when schools find themselves in very challenging conditions. Every school a great school - you bet!
Professor David Hopkins is the HSBC iNET chair of international leadership in education at London university's institute of education
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