Look closer to home for reform

16th July 2010 at 01:00

With any change of government, there is always an imperative to demonstrate immediate impact, particularly in the sphere of education. The desire for rapid results encourages policymakers to hunt down "quick fix" solutions, often from countries where education systems and structures are profoundly different.

Finland, the top performer in the Pisa league table, has been besieged by policymakers from other countries seeking the holy grail of improved national performance. Similarly, the turnaround in educational fortunes in the Canadian province of Ontario has resulted in other education systems adopting some of its improvement strategies.

While borrowing good ideas from other countries has its merits, there is the issue of contextual fit. To what extent can we successfully transplant education policy and practice from very different education systems? Is it sensible to ignore the powerful cultural differences in countries such as Finland and Canada? It seems odd to have faith in ideas and approaches generated thousands of miles away, but not to consider approaches to education reform being implemented much closer to home.

In Wales, a major education reform process is underway that has the potential to improve the learning outcomes and life chances of all young people in the principality. The School Effectiveness Framework (SEF) seeks to transform educational standards and provision in local authorities and schools over the next decade. It is underpinned by international research and is based on whole-system reform.

While the idea of a framework might conjure up notions of overly-tight prescription or heavily-mandated change, the reverse is true. The SEF guides system-wide reform rather than dictating it, and its success depends on all levels of the education system working collaboratively, for the good of all children and young people.

There are six drivers of this system-wide change. These are:

- the robust use of data (including inspection figures) to benchmark performance and to signal areas for development and improvement;

- strengthening teaching and learning through coherent opportunities for continuing professional development;

- strengthening distributed leadership within schools and local authorities;

- the development of professional learning communities;

- clear lines of accountability for schools, governors, local authorities and the Welsh Assembly government;

- capacity-building at school, local and national level.

These action-orientated approaches are a welcome departure from the strictures of target-driven accountability and soulless standardisation that have become the usual suspects of education reform in so many systems across the globe.

In Wales, reform underscores the central role that teachers will play in transforming learner outcomes through forming professional learning communities. Empowering teachers in this way and building professional capacity at all levels is a welcome departure from models of change predicated on a deep mistrust of those working in schools and local authorities.

This does not mean the framework lacks a hard edge: it has a clear focus on improving literacy and numeracy levels, and reducing the impact of deprivation on attainment. There is an absolute imperative to reduce within-school variation and to improve performance across the system. Schools and local authorities are accountable for improving outcomes and are responsible for implementing the framework. The major difference between this approach and that experienced in other countries is the reluctance to use national tests, targets and strategies to force up performance, whatever the consequences.

In his book Good to Great, the business lecturer Jim Collins advises that improvement is only possible if we "confront the brutal facts". In Wales, the brutal fact is that of significant within-school variation. It is the issue that keeps policymakers and educators awake at night, and reducing this variation is a top priority.

Research shows that within-school variation is at its most acute at the level of the individual teacher - so it will only be effectively reduced if classroom practices improve. Even the best teachers can improve their practice, no matter how good they are, and they can play a major role in helping their colleagues improve. The question is how to accomplish this quickly, effectively and to scale?

One of the pillars of Welsh reform is the establishment of professional learning communities. The central idea is that teachers work together - within, between and across schools - on an issue or area that has a direct impact on improving learner outcomes. In the past, there have been too many examples of networks of teachers engaged in well-intentioned but unfocused collaborative activity. The non-negotiable position for the professional learning communities in Wales is an absolute focus on learner need and improving learner outcomes.

Progress to date has been encouraging. More than 850 schools in Wales are setting up professional learning communities, and the rest are set to engage with the related training and development activities next academic year.

Unlike Finland or Ontario, there is no hard proof of improved education performance in Wales - yet. To expect it would be unwise in the short term: the Welsh Assembly government has chosen the more principled route of generating real system-wide reform. In time, we should see performance improve, but only if politicians and policymakers hold their nerve and allow professionals to make the difference to the system from within.

Alma Harris is pro-director at the Institute of Education, London, and is currently seconded to the Welsh Assembly government. She writes here in an independent capacity.

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