What does 'world-class education' actually mean?

The desire and ability to unleash greatness in our system is already there, says Geoff Barton. What we now need is a national sense of purpose

Geoff Barton

Man standing on a globe, among the clouds

What do we mean when we talk about making our education system “world class”? 

It is, after all, one of those feel-good phrases much loved by politicians. Saying we aim to be world class used to signal our aspiration, our ambition. But I suspect that, in the world of education, it’s a phrase that rarely gets forensically defined.

So quite what would a genuinely word-class education system look like? What would we be doing differently? Without such a definition, the swirling rhetoric remains simply that: swirling rhetoric.

If we agree that doing more of the same is merely likely to deliver more of the same, then now is the time for us to step back, look at our education system as it is, and start to define what it could be. 

That leads us to understand what we should do more of, less of, and what we could do differently, as the stepping-stone to world-class status.

Already good

This discussion will form the core of ASCL’s annual conference in Birmingham over the next two days, as the leaders of our schools and colleges discuss the future of the education system.

So here are my starting points.

We begin with the recognition that ours is, by any standards, already a good education system. Those Pisa rankings, upon which some people are so fixated, show us that England is significantly above the OECD averages in reading, science and maths

We know from our own experience that, if you come from a middle-class home and you go to a popular local school, you are likely to do well. You will emerge clutching a decent set of qualifications, probably go to university or a higher apprenticeship, and end up in a well-paid job. All things being equal, you will have a sense of success and security.

But – and it’s a significant but – for too many children and young people in our country, this is not their story at all.

They live in left-behind communities, in areas of the country that have not only suffered generational disadvantage, but have been further ravaged by the impact of austerity over the past decade. Poverty and hopelessness are entrenched in our social fabric. 

The schools that serve these communities often do heroic work in extremely challenging circumstances. But their reward is an unforgiving accountability system, which labels and stigmatises them, making it harder to recruit the leaders and teachers they need. 

A system that does well for all children

Their pupils are less likely than their more affluent peers to emerge at the end of 12 years of school, clutching coveted grade 4 GCSEs – or better – in English and maths.

They are less likely to do A levels, go to university, win apprenticeship places, and embark on glittering careers. And, in turn, their own children are less likely to enjoy the trappings of middle-class life too.

So, what I mean by “world class” is an education system that does better for these young people: a system that does well for all children, regardless of background and starting point. A system that finally breaks the vicious cycle of generational disadvantage.

And this aspiration isn’t a million miles away from the rhetoric of the new government with its recurring refrain about “levelling up”. It’s a government, what’s more, which has a thumping majority in parliament, and therefore the political power to do something genuinely transformational in education.

But does it possess the will, the boldness, to do so? 

Because what will most certainly not produce this transformational change is yet more managerial tinkering with accountability measures and policy minutiae.

Badge of honour

Transformational change is about revisiting our qualifications and curriculum, to make sure that they are fit for purpose for every young person.

It is about reforming the accountability system, so that it is less punitive, more supportive, and incentivises collaboration across institutions on behalf of our most vulnerable young people.

It is about ensuring that all our teachers are properly paid, and benefit from a culture of career-long training and development. 

It is about actively making it a badge of honour for teachers and leaders to work in a challenging school, rather than expecting them to defy the odds in choosing to do so. 

It is about giving our schools and colleges the funding they need to deliver the expectations society has of them, sufficient to support the needs of all their pupils. 

It is about looking strategically at how we can fully take advantage of the technological innovation which is out there right now, in order to revolutionise learning in the classroom.

No more of the same

Today, ASCL will be putting out a call for evidence to flesh out this thinking – a blueprint for a fairer education system – which will look in detail at how we might do these things.

We have initiated this work, because of the firm belief among our members that it is the profession itself that should step forward and set the highest possible aspirations. We will release our findings and recommendations later this year.

We hope that the government, with its democratic mandate, will listen with an open mind. Because, as I say, more of the same will inevitably produce merely more of the same.

The leadership in our schools and colleges is evident across the country right now in the shadow of the coronavirus outbreak.

Heads and teachers are calmly going about the business of reassuring children and families, making their contingency plans, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

They are debunking myths and rumours, keeping a level head amid the swirl of headlines about lockdowns, disruption, and panic-buying, and staying focused on the task at hand: education.

I have seen this same sense of quiet, determined, responsible leadership in many different situations and contexts in schools and colleges I have visited across the country over the past three years as ASCL general secretary. 

The will and ability to unleash greatness in our system is undoubtedly there. What we now need is a deeper sense of national mission, of collective ambition, about how we do this: government and the profession working together to bring about the real change needed by the country and its children.

And then we’ll be able to look at what we’ve achieved: an education system that is genuinely and proudly world class.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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