Let loose the 'hot-wirers' in schools

3rd October 2008 at 01:00

The 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill once argued that there are as many possible centres of improvement within our society as there are individuals. More recently, writers in the fields of business and education leadership would suggest that organisations, as well as individuals, can be catalysts for change. The major challenge for our schools in Wales in the next decade is to stimulate and facilitate innovation.

We know that lasting and sustainable change in education comes from teachers and the local authorities that support them. It does not stem from politicians or civil servants, any more than it does from academics. They have important roles to play in envisioning change, facilitating its implementation, providing new knowledge, critiquing it in practice and, most of all, in stimulating innovation. But they do not bring about real change in the way that those in direct contact with pupils can do.

But to what extent is innovation in teaching stimulated and supported within the Welsh education system? The answer appears to be far too little.

There is growing consensus in the profession that the experience of young people as they enter secondary school needs to be rethought. Some schools are beginning to explore this area, but where is the encouragement for such innovation?

We know that the biggest difference of all is made by the quality of teaching and reducing variations in standards within schools. Where, then, is the impetus to improve the standard of those entering the profession, the quality of initial teacher training, and the stimulation and sharing of innovative practice through networking?

Will Wales follow the example of other countries that have achieved or aspire to a high-quality teaching profession, by moving it to a masters level of qualification?

As the school effectiveness framework moves forward, where will the incentive be for those schools that have already achieved high levels of effectiveness - often with no extra funding - to share their knowledge and take their work to the next level? We know that this school-to-school "hot wiring" is the most potent way of sharing what works, just as we are aware that collaborative endeavour is the most beneficial form of teacher development. This is why nearly two-thirds of our secondaries in Wales have joined iNet - the International Network for Educational Transformation - so they can tap into good practice from around the world. But what incentives exist for them to develop such networking in their own country?

Leadership is another area where there is too little support for innovation. It is clear that it is becoming increasingly challenging to recruit sufficient high-quality senior leaders to our schools. But where is the vision to address this fundamental issue?

All these areas have a particular salience for the challenge that lies ahead - the need to improve educational outcomes in our most disadvantaged area. It is in these schools that we need the best teachers, the greatest improvements in effectiveness and the most capable leadership.

So what needs to be done to stimulate greater innovation? In the first place, we need to recognise that we have become too dependent on the Assembly government. Politicians may champion innovation, but their civil servants are generally more cautious and comfortable in their audit role. What this usually leads to are countless initiatives, often innovative in concept, and always well intentioned, but which soon become mired in bureaucracy and regulation, and have no lasting power.

If tri-level reform - the collaboration of schools, local and Assembly government - is to succeed, one of its central tenets should be an acceptance that central government can facilitate and promote innovation, but it cannot lead or achieve it.

Of course, this all inevitably leads back to resources and funding. For the foreseeable future, there will not be significant increases in public spending. Therefore, it will be a matter of releasing existing funding to stimulate innovation. Where additional funding does become available, this should be prioritised for innovation and achieving greater equity of outcomes.

Within tri-level reform, the Assembly government has a critical role to play. We know that simply making grant funding available for innovation and sharing it around the system doesn't work. We need to back winners and cherish the increasing body of knowledge on what works. We know, for example, what constitutes effective pedagogy. The characteristics of effective schools are well evidenced. The traits making for successful leadership are now well established. These are the things that will need to be supported by the Assembly government through empowering the teachers, schools, networks and local authorities that are most powerfully taking them forward. We also know that top-down and bottom-up change doesn't work. What enables innovation is lateral networking between teachers, schools and local authorities, utilising specified, precise and well-evidenced interventions.

So we need the Assembly government and the Department for Children and Learning, Lifelong Education and Skills to set us free and allow our education system to become confident and innovative in its own right. In the second decade of devolution, this is the only way we can achieve better outcomes for all our young people in Wales.

Professor David Egan, Director of the Institute for Applied Education Research at UWIC and former adviser on education to the Assembly government.

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