No magic bullet for our failing schools

24th April 2009 at 01:00
Forget the quick fixes and politicians' hype. Let's find local, long-term solutions to help challenged institutions improve

Like the poor, failing schools are always with us. The issue of how to improve underperformers has become a fixation for governments worldwide.

For politicians, they are one of the worst problems and best solutions. No matter what improvement approaches are tried, schools continue to underperform. They seem resilient to external intervention and stubbornly resistant to the latest policy. However, improvement in failing schools equates with better system performance and guarantees votes.

Tackling underperforming schools is a central target whichever brand of politics is in town. While politicians demand tough action, teachers struggle with the day-to-day reality of working in our most impoverished contexts. Despite the efforts of many governments over many decades, the task of improving underperforming schools is still firmly on the policy radar. So has anything worked?

Approaches have ranged from large-scale interventions and initiatives such as Excellence in Cities and education action zones, to the portfolio of "challenges" (London Challenge, Black Country Challenge, Manchester Challenge and the National Challenge). Other smaller initiatives have come and gone as the political temperature has changed. Despite huge investment, many have produced false dawns and failed to deliver improvement.

The 2007 McKinsey report, How The World's Best Performing School Systems Come Out On Top, highlighted that millions of pounds, it seems, have been wasted on initiatives. But what makes educational change and improvement so difficult to initiate and sustain? Why do well-funded solutions so often fail to make the expected gains in performance?

The issues are complex, but there are some clear reasons why external approaches do not reap huge or immediate rewards. First, deep-rooted and sustainable improvement, particularly in schools in the most challenging contexts, takes time.

While tactical approaches to improvement can work, they rarely serve schools well in the longer term. Many on the roller coaster of quick-fix improvement are expected to show progress in a year. This can be done, but all too often this success is short-lived and the gains in performance are not sustained. The improvements are cosmetic. Real school improvement means changing cultures and practices, which cannot be achieved overnight.

Second, policies and programmes aimed at improving underperforming schools are often time-limited and stand-alone projects. Typically, initiatives are announced with a flourish. For a while they remain high profile but, as returns on investment decrease, they disappear into the policy twilight.

A great deal of money has been spent on top-down initiatives where there is no evidence of impact and where adoption is difficult to achieve. While some external programme evaluations, such as London Challenge, have been very effective at helping schools in disadvantaged contexts, others reveal variable and patchy success. In short, their one-size-fits-all approach to improvement actually fits no one.

Third, identifying and labelling schools as failing, at risk or coasting is unlikely to be met with enthusiasm by those working in them. Placing schools in the policy spotlight is an approach unlikely to secure sustained progress.

The National Challenge represents the latest attempt to prise improvement out of a group of schools where socio-economic disadvantage is the main common denominator. Ofsted reports and value-added figures underscore the extent of the effort and progress being made by many of these schools every day. Now they have a share in a Pounds 400 million windfall and the excitement of external scrutiny, intervention and interference to face.

Schools in these circumstances are often hamstrung by red tape, policies or interventions that actually make it more difficult to improve. Not one of the 12 outstanding schools in a recent Ofsted report identified a particular external initiative or intervention as the catalyst for their success. They achieved excellence by maintaining rigour and consistency around teaching and learning while continuing to innovate and develop. They had the latitude to make their own decisions about improvement strategies, to address context-specific problems and to implement changes without constantly being scrutinised, weighed or measured.

The central point here is that many of the policies aimed at improving schools in the most challenging circumstances are actually hindering rather than helping. The current improvement story is one of standards and standardisation, and the returns on this investment are waning. We need a new improvement story for education, one that is characterised by localised action, responsibility and accountability.

We can secure success for all students in all contexts if we persevere and shift away from short-term approaches. It is important to see each community and the schools therein as socially and culturally unique, with their own distinctive set of issues and problems to which there is no automatic solution. This is not to abandon standards or accountability, but rather to suggest that we look to localised solutions rather than national prescriptions.

A new improvement story requires an infrastructure that supports and rewards collective and community good. This infrastructure has to embrace local agency as well as localised responsibility. It has to place schools at the epicentre of a wide range of services and provision for the community. It has to be a reciprocal relationship, one that empowers schools to seek, deploy and be responsible for raising achievement by working in collaboration.

If we are serious about raising standards of achievement for all, this can only be secured by a form of local agency that represents and acts upon the voices of those in disadvantaged communities, that distributes resources in favour of disadvantaged schools and young people in order to reclaim education as a public instead of corporate commodity.

To realise this will require a reconfiguration of the relationships between schools and their communities. It will also require schools working together for the collective good instead of individual gain. This will undoubtedly bring its own set of challenges, but the alternative is to sit and wait for the next initiative.

Professor Harris gave her inaugural professorial lecture yesterday at the Institute of Education, London University.

Professor Alma Harris, Pro-director (leadership), Institute of Education, London University.

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