Let's talk teaching before we talk structure

4th June 2010 at 01:00
Improving practice should be our immediate concern, but we can also find ways to make free schools work for all

As we move forward into a period of potentially seismic change in our education system, the need for a progressive force which can influence policy is more pronounced than ever.

The Progressive Education Network was launched earlier this year and is led by experienced heads and teachers. We aim to challenge and engage policymakers to ensure future reforms build on past successes.

We are passionate about access to good education for every individual student and quality provision and good outcomes for all. We believe that the best way to achieve this is to include our professional educators at the very highest echelon of the policymaking process.

Now that the general election is over it is important that educators and politicians work together, focusing on evidence and practical action, and leave behind overstated pre-election positioning. So we congratulate Michael Gove on becoming Education Secretary and wish him and his team the very best. Cradling the aspirations of parents and the life chances of so many children means that Mr Gove's is one of the most important jobs in Government.

After last week's Queen's Speech it is clear that the coalition Government is determined to implement an agenda of radical reform of the system. This is the new mandate.

At a recent seminar, Professor Dylan Wiliam, of London's Institute for Education, revisited why raising achievement matters. On an individual level higher achievement in school brings increased lifetime salary, improved health and even longer life. At a societal level we benefit from lower criminal justice and healthcare costs.

However, if you are a parent in a school deemed to be underperforming, or cannot get your children in to a hopelessly oversubscribed school, you are not going to be comforted by academic discussion on what a perfect system could look like. You want action now and at local level. And your parental wish for the best day- to-day experience for your child is what we should be providing.

If we are going to get that right we need to acknowledge a fundamental and blindingly obvious truth. We need to talk teaching before we talk structure

The report How the World's Best-Performing School Systems Come-Out on Top, published by McKinsey in 2007, shows that between the ages of eight and 11 the variation in achievement of a child with a high-performing teacher as opposed to a low-performing teacher can vary by as much as 53 percentile points. The debate for the last 20 years has been about which school you go to, instead it should start with which class you are in.

So, lesson one is that no amount of structural change will matter if we are not focused on classroom practice and a national commitment to improve day-to-day teaching and learning.

To return to Professor Wiliam's seminar, in the same way that teachers cannot do the learning for their learners, neither "the system" nor individual leaders can do the learning for their teachers. Teachers need an individual and collective commitment to the continuous improvement of practice. School and national leaders need to engineer effective learning environments for teachers by:

- creating expectations for the continuous improvement of practice;

- keeping a focus on the things that make a difference to students;

- providing the time, space, dispensation and support for innovation; and

- supporting risk taking.

The network would like to work with a variety of partners to bring together examples of outstanding practice in these areas, so that we can build on a shared understanding of how best to institutionalise these behaviours in a variety of contexts. The new Government can build on the most buoyant teacher numbers in a generation to refocus in this way.

This brings us to structure.

Now that there is a new mandate for education, it is pointless to spend time re-running the debate around Mr Gove's much-loved Swedish "free schools" and the US charter schools. If this type of education is to be added to the present system, and if the development of chains is to continue to expand the idea of schools leading the system beyond their own institution, then perhaps we should insist on a new national duty from free schools too. If we agree on the need to improve the classroom as the most significant factor of all, we must develop a system capable of delivering improvements across the board.

So rather than merely copy our Swedish and American friends - whose systems can allow the few, most able to draw resources away from the many - let's set out to implement these developments in a way that benefits all.

A lack of formal connection between free schools and the bulk of the system could be fatally unhealthy for the most disadvantaged in society. Free schools could be perceived as "educational lifeboats" to allow highly capable and driven parents to leave the main system, relieving pressure on the Government and communities to continue the serious business of improvement of the main system.

Any study of models of innovation in other domains show that the most dynamic consist of a group of large organisations surrounded by very small start-up groups around the margins. In this model, new structures act as tugboats adding extra "pull" to the drive to increase universal standards, not the innovations dragging much-needed resources away from the fleet. Those smaller organisations take more risks and learn lessons quickly so that the larger groupings then speedily adopt and adapt to the mainstream.

If we can develop free schools to become crucibles of innovation on behalf of the whole system, working for the sake of all children as well as meeting the needs of parents who are seeking different provision, then the sum continues to be greater than the parts. And so every school, regardless of its status, works for itself and for the whole system.

Mike Gibbons, Chair of the Progressive Education Network and chief executive of the Richard Rose Federation.

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