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Why curriculum and the quality of teaching has to be at the heart of school improvement

'Justine Greening's social mobility action plan is solid and sensible. But we need to retain the clarity, that ultimately, it's school leaders who are responsible for the improvement of their schools'

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'Justine Greening's social mobility action plan is solid and sensible. But we need to retain the clarity, that ultimately, it's school leaders who are responsible for the improvement of their schools'

There is a lot to commend in Justine Greening’s Social Mobility Strategy: the specificity of actions that need to be taken in the early years, the focus on the FE which the strategy says has been overlooked by successive administrations and the focus on place. As Ed Dorrell says, this is solid, sensible policy.

However, I think we need a little more clarity on the school improvement focus. Despite years of school effectiveness research, I’m not sure we have a shared language or theory of school improvement as it has emerged since the early 2000s.

I’d like to posit that there are two "epochs" of school improvement. In the last three decades, the disciplines of school effectiveness and school improvement merged to encompass common perspectives about methodology, orientation and purpose. All three, however, take the individual school as the unit of improvement. And there is a view that improvement or effectiveness "expertise" resides outside the school. This is the epoch of the school improvement service.

In this mindset, when we think about school improvement, we think of specialists from outside of schools – from school improvement services – coming in to advise on what a school should do to improve. And sometimes "experts" with different remits have different views on what to do to improve. The job of the headteacher or principal is to aggregate this advice into an improvement plan and execute that plan. This, I believe, is a legacy model of school improvement. The epoch of school-to-school support. 

More recently, there has been a shift in thinking away from this legacy model of a school improvement expertise as being outside the school, towards a view that schools can work together to improve each other.

From the mid-2000s education policy in England began to create an infrastructure for school-to-school support. In Autumn 2005, acting on the advice of the (then) National College for School Leadership, the government formalised the role of excellent school leaders and their schools in driving school improvement by commissioning NCSL to establish a programme of National Leaders of Education and National Support Schools.

National Leaders of Education have been supporting other schools since the first NLEs were designated in 2006. Successive reports by Hill and Matthews (Schools Leading Schools) have charted the impact which NLEs and their national support schools are having in terms of school improvement, supporting other schools and the wider system, and building collective capacity. The term "system leadership" entered the education lexicon.

In November 2010, the Schools White Paper "The Importance of Teaching" set out the (then) government’s plan to establish a national network of teaching schools as part of the policy aim of developing a self-improving school system. They are an increasingly important structural feature of the education landscape in terms of school-to-school support and school improvement.

More recently, we’ve seen the rise of multi-academy trusts, enabling groups of schools to work together to improve in hard accountability arrangements.

This is the epoch of the school-led, self-improving system.

A key difference between the two epochs of school improvement is a view about where expertise lies and a mindset about who is responsible for school improvement. In the first epoch, school improvement expertise is perceived to lie outside of schools and the prevailing mindset was that local authorities were responsible for improving schools they maintained. In the second epoch, school improvement expertise is perceived to lie within the system – within schools themselves – and the prevailing mindset is that school leaders are responsible (and indeed accountable) for improving schools they lead.

I welcome the clear statement in the Social Mobility Strategy: “At the heart of our approach is a recognition that our teachers and leaders are the key agents for improvement in the school system.”

We need to retain the clarity that it is school leaders who are responsible ultimately, with their governing boards, for improvement in their school or group of schools.

The Social Mobility Strategy is right to want to ensure that the consequences of accountability are increasingly seen to be about securing the right support at the right time, but it is perhaps wrong to juxtapose this with structural change. This is not an either/or. It is a both/and.

We appear to remain locked in the structures versus standards debate. This binary opposition is unhelpful and stultifying. Teachers teach in structures, pupils learn in structures. Most effective school systems combine and align a range of different improvement levers, so I want to argue for the logic of ‘and:’ structures and standards – and a whole lot more.

And I’d like to advocate that we need to do some theory-building. What does school improvement look like in the new landscape? Not as a series of piecemeal initiatives, but as a complex endeavour which puts curriculum and the quality of teaching – the ethical and pedagogical formation of the teacher as a professional – at its heart.

Leora Cruddas is the Chief Executive of FASNA. She tweets @LeoraCruddas

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