School improvement - could Scotland learn from England?

Scotland could follow the English system of councils commissioning schools to help other schools, says Andrew Sutherland

Andrew Sutherland

Improving schools: Scotland could learn from school-improvement systems in England, argues Andrew Sutherland

I read with interest headlines on social media before Christmas about Scotland’s performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and its comparison with England. I reflected that during my time in Scotland there were many opportunities to collaborate with international colleagues, but rarely, in my experience, did this happen with our neighbours from south of the border.

There are several cultural and political reasons that perhaps help explain to this, and I have heard strong views expressed in both nations about the merits, or otherwise, of our respective education systems. However, I would suggest that there is some learning to be gained from the unique nature of each education system in the British Isles.

A colleague lightheartedly said to me recently that I must be "bilingual" in the education systems of Scotland and England, given my role in Oldham over the past two-and-a-half years following a long career north of the border. It's certainly fascinating how different both countries are in their approach to school improvement.

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Pisa: What does Pisa tell us about Scottish education?

School improvement in England, as in Scotland, remains the statutory responsibility of local authorities. However, the way this is discharged varies considerably.

Driving school improvement

The philosophy in the English system is driven by the David Hargreaves proposition that "only schools can improve other schools". Consequently, all school-improvement activity is predicated on building up the capacity and using the most effective and successful schools in the country to support those who are in more challenging circumstances.

This has influenced the evolution of schools into teaching schools and research schools; highly respected headteachers and practitioners have honed their school-improvement craft and some work in schools across England or particular regions, as national or local leaders of education (NLEs, LLEs).

Given this model, my school-improvement resource in Oldham is not wholly spent on recruiting set numbers of quality-improvement staff. I do retain a small core team who keep a monitoring eye on schools requiring improvement. They lead on gathering and analysing school data, to quantify where intervention is required.

The key point, however, is that this team is not actually "improving schools". The main resource at my disposal to improve our schools is utilised on a commissioned basis: we commission schools to lead on school reviews, pinpoint next steps and offer solutions based on data and intelligence.

We commission both within and outside local authority boundaries across North West England. This helps to ensure that the high-performing schools commissioned have similar socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds to those they are supporting and challenging. This is necessary to ensure credibility with the host school. It also reinforces the fact that schools in all socioeconomic backgrounds can succeed with strong leadership, good support and clear evidence-based interventions.

The commissioning model is interesting because it is dependent on the school or individual taking on the commission to work to very clear terms of reference, and the expected impact is built into the proposal. If a school-improvement "expert" has been out of school for more than two years, their credibility wanes in this system.

Therefore, the flexibility of the commissioning model also helps to keep the best practitioners and school leaders in education establishments. They can, at different times of the year, work within their designated core role or be commissioned as a school-improvement champion.

The "regional improvement collaborative" model in Scotland has explored this philosophy of utilising schools to support schools, but one challenge it faces is managing the exercise systemically, given staffing problems in schools.

Indeed, successful Scottish schools tend to be full, with large classes and more pressure on staff not to be released. These schools have not been able to build capacity in their establishments in the way colleagues in England have, through funding coming in on an annual basis from commissioning contracts.

There will be critics who argue that the Scottish local authority officer model improves schools. This is unquestionably true for some local authorities. If, however, a local authority  – or indeed a regional improvement collaborative working across several local authorities –wanted to think differently about how it supports its schools to improve, the commissioned model may be worth some consideration.

The notion of a local authority as a commissioner of services, rather than a deliverer per se, is growing in momentum in many council areas in the UK. Education in Scotland, then, could perhaps benefit from thinking slightly differently about its provision in this space.    

Andrew Sutherland is director of education, skills and early years at Oldham Council. He previously worked in various roles in Scotland, including as a secondary headteacher and local authority education director

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Andrew Sutherland

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