Wales knows a thing or two about reform

9th July 2010 at 01:00
Never mind emulating Scandinavian systems, the English should pay attention to events here

Any change of government brings with it an urge to demonstrate immediate impact - particularly in education. The desire for rapid results encourages policymakers to hunt for "quick fix" solutions, often from countries with profoundly different education systems and structures. 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 of Ontario, Canada has led other systems to adopt some of its 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 and cultures? It seems odd to have faith in ideas generated thousands of miles away, but not to consider approaches to reform from much closer to home.

Here in Wales, a major education reform process is underway that has the potential to improve the 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 education 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 Estyn inspection figures) to measure 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; and capacity-building at school, local and national level. These action-orientated approaches are a welcome departure from the target-driven accountability and soulless standardisation that are the usual suspects of education reform.

In Wales, comprehensive reform relies on all parts of the system working together to transform it from within. It underscores the central role that teachers will play in transforming learner outcomes; the emphasis on empowering teachers and building professional capacity at all levels is a welcome departure from models based on a deep mistrust of those working in schools and local authorities.

This does not mean that 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 employed 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 the significant variation in pupil achievement within schools. This is the issue that keeps policymakers and educators awake at night, and reducing this variation is a top priority if Wales is going to improve its performance. 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 get better in some areas, 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 relationship to 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. Through enquiry, structured collaboration and innovation, these communities have the potential to improve the practice of participating teachers, and also that of their colleagues within the school.

Supported by system leaders in the shape of heads, teachers or local authority advisers, professional learning communities can be sustained across schools and local authorities. Progress to date has been encouraging - more than 850 schools in Wales are setting up 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 has chosen to generate real, system-wide reform rather than manufacture a rapid improvement. In time we should see performance improve - but only if politicians and policymakers hold their nerve and allow professionals to change the system from within.

Ultimately, policymakers should ask themselves whether they want to rent the mechanics of reform that belong to another country or buy in to their own model of system-wide change. In Wales, the latter is true - and this could make all the difference.

Professor Alma Harris, currently seconded to the Welsh Assembly government, Professor Harris writes here in an independent capacity.

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