The UK has one of the highest levels of variation in pupil attainment in the world, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). And a 2002 study by the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment showed that 80 per cent of this variation was attributable to in-school variation (ISV) rather than disparities between institutions.
This was corroborated by the former Department for Education and Skills' 2003 study, which found that, at key stage 3, in-school variation was 11 times greater than inter-school variation. By KS4, this increased to 14 times.
In 2008, the Labour government launched a pilot scheme through the Training and Development Agency for Schools and the National College for School Leadership, in which 20 institutions trialled different approaches to rectifying ISV. Although budget cuts spelled the end to Government funding for the project last year, All Saints Catholic School and Technology College in Dagenham, one of the original 20 institutions, has remained committed to championing "student voice" as one of the most effective solutions.
As one of the pilot schools, All Saints had to complete an "action plan framework", mapping the variation within their school. This uncovered a significant disparity in results between departments.
Staff at the school explored numerous ways to tackle the problem, including greater use of data, standardisation of procedures, and examining teaching, learning, leadership and management. However, they found that one of the most effective mechanisms for improving the school's less successful departments was student feedback.
"We realised we had to take into account a student perspective on what they thought would help them improve," says head Kevin Wilson.
Students were given a greater voice through year councils and a student council, as a well as a survey commissioned from an external company.
"Pupils provide high-quality feedback when they are asked about the teaching they receive" says deputy head Robert Fitzgerald. "Most students are evaluating lessons anyway. We just give them the structure to feed back."
The school also paired departments. The design and technology department saw an improvement in students' results after it worked with the art department. Similarly, once the three science departments started to work more collaboratively, A-level physics and chemistry began to see grades previously enjoyed only by biology. Two departments attended a residential weekend, which Mr Wilson says fostered a positive attitude of "we're away together to get things right". Although the school no longer uses this approach, it helped the leadership team realise what areas needed greater focus.
All Saints now works with other schools to train them on how to implement these systems.
Tips from the scheme
Mr Wilson says it is important that the department-pairing approach is regarded as mutually beneficial - not a high achieving department telling a less successful one what to do, but rather all departments looking at what strengths they have and then sharing them. "In every school there are pockets of good practice that, if shared, would benefit others," he says. But he adds that it must be handled "delicately and diplomatically".
Evidence that it works?
In the three years since the scheme began, there has been a "significant" improvement in the results of the weaker departments in the original pairings: a trend that Mr Wilson says is attributable to the counter-ISV programme. Other schools that have adopted All Saints' approach to pairing and student feedback have also seen improvements.
Approach: Pairing departments and gathering student feedback to counter in-school variation
Leader: Kevin Wilson, headteacher
Name: All Saints Catholic School and Technology College
Location: Dagenham, Essex
Intake: Co-educational secondary school with 992 pupils
Ofsted overall rating: Outstanding.