Hackney zero-tolerance captures Wales Zeitgeist

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
A project has reaped such rich rewards that it's been exported to London

A project based on running schools like clockwork has reaped such rich rewards that it is to be exported to London's East End.

It has been credited with changing the education Zeitgeist in Wales.

Now the high-reliability programme, which has helped raise GCSE results spectacularly in 12 Neath Port Talbot secondaries, is to be exported to disadvantaged classrooms in Hackney, east London.

In 1996, academics from Wales and the United States produced a plan that would shatter the "myth" that pupil poverty equals failure. It showed that more efficiently run schools can beat the odds. Earlier this year, they released a final report detailing the success of the project.

The programme is based on research into business, which found that all effective organisations share a number of core characteristics. Most crucial among these is having a strict set of targets.

High-reliability schools are expected to run like clockwork. This is achieved largely through data collection and systematic benchmarking against other schools.

Another key principle is targeted professional development. Teachers get extra time to develop their skills, and there is a strong emphasis on the sharing of good practice.

Every Welsh school involved has seen a dramatic upturn in its GCSE results. Meanwhile, the gap between the best and worst-performing schools in the rest of Wales has grown by up to five times.

The project was led by two US education researchers, Sam Stringfield and Eugene Schaffer, both specialists in pupil deprivation and underperforming schools. David Reynolds, professor of education at Plymouth University and a resident of south Wales, was also in the team.

The former Assembly government adviser told TES Cymru that the project had influenced government policy and led to the launch of the attainment- raising school effectiveness framework (SEF), which focuses on narrowing the performance gap between schools.

"I think it has had an influence on the Zeitgeist in Wales," he said. "When we created SEF, the high- reliability project was in people's minds. It was certainly in my mind."

Professor Reynolds said the focus on data and benchmarking was the secret to the programme's success.

"The phrase `data rich' was originally ours, as was `zero tolerance of failure'. Now they are everywhere," he said. "Schools need lots of data. and, after a couple of years, they can go off on their own."

Four years into the programme, the increase in GCSE passes in Neath Port Talbot was more than double that of Wales overall. The area is now one of the top authorities in Wales for contextual value added scores - measuring pupil improvement - at key stage 4.

In Hackney, where GCSE and A-level results are below average for both England and London, the programme is due to be introduced in September. Last year, 56 per cent of pupils were awarded five high-grade GCSE passes compared with 70 per cent in Neath Port Talbot.

Earlier this year, Professor Reynolds ran in-service training in the method for members of Hackney council. Schools and teachers are also receiving training.

Mike Gibbon, head of Sandfields Comprehensive in Port Talbot, is not surprised the programme has attracted attention in England. It has had a huge impact in his school.

In 1996, 14 per cent of his pupils were awarded five high-grade GCSEs - much lower than the Welsh average. Last year, the figure had more than tripled to 55 per cent.

The school still uses lessons from the project, but as a pilot SEF school it has extended its remit.

"I wanted to get involved because the projects are similar in terms of looking at exactly how you operate and what processes you use," Mr Gibbon said. "They get back to data, looking at high standards, challenging staff and supporting them."

More than 10 years later, Neath Port Talbot's secondary heads still meet up to discuss standards.

"That sharing of good practice has now become a standard part of Assembly government policies," he said. "It's not rocket science; it's about common sense. This is about achieving consistency and making it almost difficult for anyone to fail."

Efficient schools

The high-reliability schools project is underpinned by 12 characteristics, the most important of which are:

  • Heightened awareness of the big picture
  • A clear and finite set of goals
  • Constant and targeted professional development
  • Aggressive recruitment of new staff
  • Alertness to surprises or lapses.
    • Analysis

      The good teaching versus good funding argument is always a hot potato, and one that divides the Welsh teaching profession.

      Schools in some of the most deprived areas of Wales buck the trend and produce outstanding results, making it difficult for less successful schools to plead poverty.

      Certainly, Welsh officials, who have come under fire for low per-pupil funding, often argue that there are many schools in communities crippled by poverty that perform well. Others would argue that these schools could do even better with more funding.

      The problem is that, while some schools in poor areas do perform outstandingly well, others fall spectacularly short.

      This phenomenon formed the basis for much of the reasoning behind the widely lauded school effectiveness framework pilot last year, an initiative geared towards the sharing of good practice.

      Now a new edition of a book first published in 2006 backs up the argument that good teaching can overcome poverty.

      How Very Effective Primary Schools Work cites 18 outstanding primaries spread across Wales - in Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Caerphilly, Carmarthenshire, Conwy, Gwynedd, Merthyr Tydfil, Neath Port Talbot, Pembrokeshire, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Swansea - as examples of what can be achieved with effective school management.

      All the schools, which are not named, were in unenviable circumstances. Parents ranged from convicted drug dealers to the disaffected. Surrounding towns and villages were described as bleak, while rates of employment were said to be "pitiful" and free school meal entitlement ranged from 13 to 50 per cent.

      But the authors - education experts Chris James, Michael Connolly, Gerald Dunning and Tony Elliott - concluded that the schools shared one central characteristic: a productive, strong and highly inclusive culture that focused on ensuring effective and enriched teaching for all pupils.

      Nicola Porter.

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