Why we need a paradigm shift in school improvement

For too long, the focus has been on the rapidity of improvement rather than sustainable and deep transformation

Les Walton, who is launching the Association of Education Advisers.

In 2016, I wrote this: "We have come to the natural conclusion that our focus has to be on the quality of advice and challenge that schools receive. A consistent quality standard will achieve cohesion across our education system and ensure that those who support our schools are of the highest standard."

In April 2017, supported by a team of highly talented educationalists, including expertise from Ofsted, the Department for Education, multi-academy trusts, teaching schools, universities and local authorities, we set about constructing a national standard for those who advise and support schools and colleges. The conclusion we arrived at was to establish the Association of Education Advisers. The purpose was simple: shift the focus from compliance and checking to improving the quality of advice and support schools receive.

Unsurprisingly, there was widespread backing from many of the sector's unions and professional organisations. The most common response was: "Why hasn’t this been done before?" My answer is that, since 1988, we have been too focused on structural and compliance solutions without enough emphasis on supporting and enabling our schools.

And now, in 2020, Ofsted, under chief inspector Amanda Spielman, is now echoing what I and key national education professional organisations have been stressing for some time: "The focus should instead shift to improving the quality of advice available. There is a need to improve its quality."

'Too much advice from too many directions'

Ofsted is right. There is a necessity to address one of the major voids in the "middle tier" of education: the requirement to develop the capacity for schools and colleges to access independent, high-quality, consistent advice and support focused on the needs of children, schools and colleges.

In the same report Ofsted also said: "Schools feel they receive too much advice from too many different directions and, although this may have helped some schools, the quality of those delivering it is too often questioned."

The reason for so many "different directions" is that, too often, advice promotes a particular external objective rather than focusing on the needs of the school and the children. Would you buy a financial package from an adviser who was not "independent" and had a stake in the solution?

One of the report’s most significant passages goes on: "The separate systems of inspection and support are not working together as effectively as they could."

There is indeed too much confusion and duplication. My good colleague, former senior HMI Tom Grieveson, describes differentiated frames of reference between advisers and inspectors. He would argue that, while there is an overlap, we need to be clearer about the major differences between them. Those who focus on enabling improvement rather than inspection and compliance will work in accordance with a transactional relationship, with the length of involvement and time of feedback based on this relationship. Those who support and advise will earn authoritative influence. The inspector's frame of reference is based on a legislative brief and legislative authority, is time limited and the findings are published.

Rebalancing the education climate

I would have liked Ofsted’s missive to consider whether part of the problem is not just the lack of separation between systems of inspection and support, but also the lack of balance.

I am not, certainly at my age, positioning myself as the Greta Thunberg of education. However, the school improvement climate has been gradually changing over the last quarter of a century. The boiling frogs among us may not have realised how far we have moved towards a highly centralised, highly compliant and regulated system. Perhaps we have gone beyond the tipping point, or is there time to rebalance the education climate?

Which brings us to another quote pulled from Ofsted: "Improvement support is rarely seen as transformative."

Transformative and sustainable solutions take time. I do recognise the need to address how those who support and advise schools and colleges operate. However, we are too quick to jump into structural solutions, or there is too much focus on the rapidity of improvement rather than sustainable and deep transformation. In order to achieve transformative improvement, we have to challenge the present school improvement thinking.

Moreover, we need to provide high-quality continuous professional development for those supporting and advising schools and colleges, including the skills and knowledge of how to address complex strategic issues, manage real change, support organisational development and implement quality systems. Adopting creative and radical solutions to complex intractable situations requires all parties to drive out fear from our schooling system. In this, Ofsted must play its part.

Finally, Ofsted makes this statement: "There is enough capacity within the school system to support schools."

I would have been happier if it had said there was a need to further develop the capacity for consistent and high-quality school improvement support. We are also missing out on significant capacity by fishing too narrowly in the NLE/ NLG pond. Being a great leader does not necessarily make you a great adviser.

On my travels around the country, I have been finding isolated examples of superb school improvement support. Unfortunately, much of this expertise is not eligible for central funding. This is such a waste of resources. That is why AoEA is developing the means by which school leaders can access a wider range of capacity across the UK and beyond. This is a big task.

As I said at the beginning, the AoEA is an outcome of the increasing need to re-engineer our school improvement system. I believe the surface of a modern and radical approach to school improvement has barely been scratched. It requires all players to reflect on their contribution, whether it be DfE, Ofsted, local authorities, or school and college leaders.

As with climate change, there is a need for the country to invest in the future and the quality support that our schools need. Maintaining a system that cannot deal with the most challenging and complex issues within our schools and their communities is unacceptable.

Les Walton is chair of the Association of Education Advisers. He tweets as @LesWalton500

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