Research will show us the way forward

3rd August 2012 at 01:00
And Carey Oppenheim has some radical ideas she believes schools should be testing out

While schools have been winding down for the summer, the government has been on turbocharge, announcing a multitude of education policies, whether it's a new primary curriculum or a return to O levels.

I watched these announcements with special interest, as someone who has made the journey from working at Number 10 to becoming a front-line teacher at Quintin Kynaston Community Academy, an outstanding school in St John's Wood, London, with a challenging intake of pupils. My experience has given me an unusual vantage point from which to witness and participate in the inner workings of a school.

For me, two key questions jump out: what are schools for in the 21st century and how do we narrow educational outcomes? To answer and, indeed, solve these questions, schools have to embrace research and development as a core part of what they do. It is odd that a sector worth about #163;38 billion spends so little on research at school level. We know that research within and between schools is a powerful motor of improvement.

So, with this in mind, I have some ideas for radical research and development, many of which are already being tried out in some corner of England. They focus on three areas: school organisation, the role of teachers and examinations.

Schools necessarily require regimentation, but the structure of the school day and types of learning are too rigid. The organisation of pupils into groups of 30 by age, largely confined to a classroom, limits engagement and creativity. Some of the most powerful encounters I have had as a teacher have been outside the formal classroom norm: in a small group, on a trip, in a one-to-one setting. So a radical shake-up of how pupils' learning is organised - from large lectures with small subgroups to seminars to independent and team projects - would develop a wider range of skills, create a greater variety of experiences and in turn help with behaviour, as teaching would be more individualised.

A second proposal is to rethink teacher roles. Rather than expecting teachers to be brilliant performers, superb organisers, creative and consistent, sensitive and tough, we could better match their skills to tasks. This could be tested with a skills audit to capitalise on everyone's strengths, including teaching assistants and non-teaching staff. Organisers and performers could be twinned; some could coach and mentor, others could work with large groups. NQTs could be encouraged to develop a specialism - for example, in behaviour management.

Exams are the dominant currency for how schools are run and judged, how pupils experience them and how teachers teach, and they are vital in measuring the progress of pupils and school performance, but they are limiting how children learn. Ofqual's current consultation on A levels and Michael Gove's plans for the exam system are a recognition of some of these problems.

But the suggestion of a return to the traditional final examination is misplaced; it will be to the detriment of disadvantaged students, who gain confidence from modular examinations. It is similar for coursework. I am also struck by the almost complete absence of verbal and communication skills from most exams (apart from drama and languages). In a communication-dominated world where soft skills are essential to succeed at work, we must find ways of rewarding oral skills. My third set of research and development proposals would include widening the matrix of what is assessed and developing an Extended Project Qualification at key stage 3.

All these suggestions would benefit disadvantaged pupils, but here are two further proposals: a major shift in resources to Year 7s to ensure that they are ready to begin Year 8 and a programme of home visits over a school career for those pupils facing difficulties. Children spend 75 per cent of their time outside school and we need to rethink the boundary between school and home.

In future, schools will need to continue to research and develop, and rethink the core assumptions of how they are organised and how pupils learn. This is the key to preparing pupils for a future in which we don't know what skills and knowledge will be needed, while also narrowing educational inequalities.

Carey Oppenheim is a teacher and a former senior policy adviser at 10 Downing Street. Listen to her "Classroom experiment" podcast at bit.lyORCw7c.

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