Over the past three years, much thought and planning has gone into developing the school effectiveness famework in Wales. "SEF" has entered the lexicon of policy movers and shakers across Wales and has received attention from places as diverse as Canada, Australia, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
Yet there is some way to go to make SEF the the main talking point in staffrooms and playgrounds. Good progress has been made in the provision of data sets, establishing professional learning communities (in over 1,000 schools) and the development of system leadership, but the challenge now is how to build on this momentum and maximise impact. The time for thinking and planning is over: if SEF is not to go the way of so many grand policies introduced in education across the world, it has to meet the implementation challenge. Only when it influences all schools, teachers and classrooms in Wales will it have succeeded.
But what does SEF stand for and why keep faith with it? We must go on improving educational performance in Wales, because we can. Over the past decade it has become clear that high-performing education systems display some of the following characteristics:
- Wide support for the importance of high standards for all students in all settings;
- Intelligent use of accountability systems;
- Getting the right people to become teachers and assisting them in acquiring effective practices;
- A focus on an appropriate curriculum and the skills required for the 21st century;
- Professional collaboration, networking and innovation.
We know the factors that make for success, but do we have a method for introducing them, system wide, in Wales? Here, our knowledge is at best rudimentary. So how are we approaching system-wide change?
First is the achievement, learning and wellbeing of young people. Putting children first equates with the moral purpose of SEF: at its heart is the aspiration that the system and the school will create the conditions to allow every student to reach their full potential.
Second, surrounding its moral purpose and central goal are the various levels of the education system - the classroom, school, local authorities and the Assembly government itself. These levels need to work together if the system as a whole is to improve.
The third feature is probably the most radical. School reform often assumes change comes "outside-in". The logic runs thus: a high-quality programme is developed and then implemented, with the assumption that it will impact on the school and be internalised through the school's planning processes, which in turn it is assumed will impact on classroom practices.
But in those schools that have made significant improvements in performance, the linear logic of policy implementation has been inverted. They start from the centre of the circle and move outwards. These schools put student needs and learning first; then, through widely distributed leadership, find ways to respond to those needs, and then ensure staff are fully engaged in appropriate teaching strategies that address the learning needs identified, and so align the school-level change to national priorities.
It is clear from the evidence about high-performing schools and school systems that to ensure every student reaches their potential, schools need to lead the next phase of reform. We need a transition from an era of prescription, with an over-emphasis on standardisation, to an era of professionalism - where those in schools and local authorities lead change. Wales is already making much progress, but there is still a way to go. Although teachers, schools and local authorities are embracing this agenda, more capacity needs to be built into the system through sharing practice within, between and across schools and local authorities.
We should therefore be confident that through SEF we now know what to do. As this knowledge is put into practice in the form of tangible change within schools, we need to remember who the reform is for. The focus has to be on all young people in all settings - improving literacy and numeracy and reducing gaps in achievement between students and schools.
Implementing SEF will be a challenge, but we are well on the way to showing how system reform works in practice. In so doing, Wales can join the growing number of countries that have found a systemic method of securing large-scale improvement by involving professionals at all levels.
Professors David Egan and David Hopkins have acted as senior policy advisers to SEF during its development. Professor Alma Harris is seconded as a senior policy adviser to the Assembly government.