Why can't every school be a great school?

1st July 2005 at 01:00
Professor David Hopkins on the simple question that every parent asks - but successive governments have struggled to answer.

Ask any parent what the goal of educational reform should be and they are likely to reply: "Why can't every school be a great school?" It's a no-brainer yet this simple demand challenges the resolve of many governments.

First, it requires an agenda for social justice with moral purpose which needs to be communicated as such. Second, it needs to focus directly on enhancing teaching quality and classroom practice rather than structural change. And third, it needs a commitment to sustained, systemic change because a focus on individual school improvement leads to social inequity as some schools inevitably do not do as well as others.

Despite the political boldness required for this approach it was an agenda enthusiastically adopted by New Labour in 1997. Most agreed that standards were too low and some direct state intervention was necessary. The resulting "national prescription" proved very successful, particularly in raising standards in primary schools. But progress plateaued in the second term and while a bit more might be squeezed out (particularly in underperforming schools) a new approach seems to be needed. There is a growing recognition that schools need to lead the next phase of reform. But if the hypothesis is correct - and it is much contested - it must categorically not be a naive return to the days of the 1970s when a thousand flowers bloomed and the educational life chances of too many of our children wilted.

Large-scale reforms should be neither nationally or school-led, but demand both support each other. Schools must use external standards to clarify and raise their own expectations. Equally schools, by themselves and in networks, must lead improvements and innovations in teaching with the support of highly specified, but not prescribed, best practices.

Realising this future demands that we replace numerous national initiatives with a national consensus on a limited number of priorities. I believe there are five key drivers that if pursued relentlessly cna make every school a great school: Personalised learning to move from prescribed forms of teaching, curriculum and assessment to teachers tailoring teaching and learning to enable every student to reach their potential.

Informed professionalism with teachers using data and evidence to apply a rich repertoire of pedagogic strategies to meet students' needs. This demands radically different professional development with a strong focus on coaching and establishing schools as professional learning communities.

Segmentation to provide a highly differentiated approach to school improvement. Intervention should be in "in inverse proportion to success" and '"responsive to each school's context and need". Through self evaluation, schools become aware of how to improve and contribute to improvement in other schools.

Networks and extended schooling to develop a vision of education that is shared and owned well beyond individual school gates. This implies networks of schools collaborating to build diversity and specialisms, professional support, extended services, and high expectations.

Intelligent accountability that creates a balance between external standards and increasing emphasis on both internal accountability, such as self evaluation and bottom up target setting, and "formative" assessment, such as assessment for learning.

Each of these trends is integral to a social democratic settlement for education. But it is systemic leadership that has the power to maximise their impact in schools and make them work in different contexts. Such leadership needs to be reflected at three different levels:

* Leadership at the school level - with school principals becoming almost as concerned about the success of other schools as they are about their own.

* Leadership at the local level (for example, across a city) - with practical principles widely shared and specific programmes for "at risk" groups.

* Leadership at the system level - with social justice, moral purpose and a commitment to the success of every learner providing the focus for transformation.

Labour must build on its bold reforms. First, a balance needs to be achieved between telling schools what to do and schools themselves leading reform - the presumption must be towards the latter, except when schools find themselves in very challenging conditions.

Second, national initiatives that remain must focus unequivocally on capacity building, so for example the national strategies would be restricted to providing teachers with a toolbox of curriculum and pedagogic strategies capable of effectively personalising learning.

Third, networking should be developed and groups of secondary schools in particular should be encouraged to work together outside local control.

This would be on the condition that these schools provided extended services for all students. Students most at risk would also get significantly more funding.

Finally, moves towards a more intelligent accountability framework need to accelerate. National standards are vital in raising expectations, but they need to become benchmarks that support the exercise of professional judgement rather than short term targets that too often serve to prescribe and demotivate. Every school a great school - you bet!

This is a summary of a speech delivered yesterday by David Hopkins at the launch of the London Centre for Leadership in Learning at London University's Institute of Education. Professor Hopkins was recently appointed to the inaugural HSBC Chair in International Leadership. He was chief adviser on school standards at the Department for Education and Skills between 2002 and 2005

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