Don't rely on quick fixes

4th May 2007 at 01:00
You need both short and long-term strategies to raise standards, argues Andy Hargreaves

it was the summer of 1969. The anti-war protests were over. The weather was good, and I had my A-level results to collect. I entered the school office with apprehension. My history teacher stood there.

"I don't understand this," she croaked. "I-I'm very pleased, but I really don't understand it." There it was, in bold red ink: History Grade A.

You couldn't blame her for her disbelief. I'd barely scraped a pass the previous year, my mocks had been a disaster, and every essay I'd written for her had teetered on failure! How could she possibly know the truth? When I realised that I would be subjected to another tedious year of popes, monarchs, battles and treaties, I had taken flight to the reference room of Accrington public library and looked up old exam papers.

Then the gloom lifted. Every paper contained at least three questions on economic and social history - the history of my people - although it barely appeared on the teachers' syllabus. So I pretty much learned all my A-level history after school, despite my teachers, and against the evidence of my pitiful essays, securing for myself an improbable A grade.

Years later, I would come across research showing that students who calculatively take or seek out cues get higher grades than those who study everything conscientiously. Exam-taking tricks are as old as the hills.

So direct no slings and arrows at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust for promoting such tactics. White middle-class families have known how to play the system for years. It's high time these opportunities were made available to all young people, especially those who are most at risk.

Getting young people over the CD GCSEborderline yields immense benefits for them as well as to the system.

My colleague, Dennis Shirley, and I have evaluated the trust's Raising AchievementTransforming Learning (RATL) project. More than two-thirds of the 300 previously under-performing secondaries taking part improved within two years (including their results for five top GCSE grades) at double the rate of the national average.

In this high-trust system of schools helping schools, the core of the improvement effort is a menu of short-term, medium-term and long-term strategies for change that benefits vulnerable pupils now, as well as attempting deeper transformations in teaching and learning.

The biggest success has been with the short-term strategies. Heads and teachers find the experience of visiting each other's schools and sharing immediately successful strategies - such as paying past pupils to mentor existing ones or bringing in motivational speakers for Year 11 boys - exhilarating and empowering.

The real difficulty is connecting this short-term success to longer-term transformations. Schools become so addicted to the quick lifts of these "gimmicky and great" strategies that they don't want to face the long term.

Drawing on business literature and our experience with the 300 schools, we have compiled eight strategic guidelines (see box, left) that we are sharing with the trust to help join up the dots.

Act now before it's too late. The long and short of school improvement is that today and tomorrow both matter. We are mastering the tricks for today.

Now let's also build a better tomorrow.

Andy Hargreaves is the Thomas More Brennan chair in education at Boston college, USA, and visiting professor at Manchester university and London university's Institute of Education

Eight ways to sustained improvement

1 Establish correct valuation. Small companies shouldn't compare themselves with big ones, and schools should mainly compare their performance with ones that deal with similar challenges.

2 Develop sustainable growth rates. Neither too fast (risking early burn-out), nor too slow. Don't always try to get the biggest, quickest increase you can. It will cost you later. Like marathon-running, school improvement needs the right amount of energy at the right time.

3 Be ethically consistent so you express your long-term principles in how you deliver short-term growth by respecting people, building trust and keeping focused on learning as well as results.

4 Balance investments, earmarking equal funds to long-term as well as short-term objectives.

5 Prioritise planning so long-term considerations precede short-term ones on meeting agendas, and so there are overlapping teams for both long and short-term improvement efforts.

6 Broaden the vision beyond management, monitoring and mentoring (ie, customisation) of existing learning to truly personalised learning that engages all pupils and connects with their lives.

7 Create intermediate indicators of moving towards long-term objectives (such as levels of pupil engagement or changes in teachers' beliefs) to motivate and monitor progress along the way.

8. Develop shared targets rather than reacting to externally imposed ones.

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