England's school system needs to give teachers more freedom to be creative if it wants to move from "good" to "great", according to a study from influential global consultants published this week.
The report by McKinsey uses international examples of other, more successful systems to suggest the type of reforms needed to take England to the next level.
They would be "characterised by more highly skilled educators (and) provide only loose guidelines on teaching and learning processes because peer-led creativity and innovation inside schools becomes the core driver for raising performance at this level", the study says.
McKinsey's last major schools report in 2007 argued that teacher quality was the key ingredient of the world's best performing education systems. It did much to change the terms of the global debate on school reform, and was cited by education secretary Michael Gove as one of two key influences - alongside the need for international benchmarking - on last week's white paper.
The new report finds that England's performance has plateaued at "good" for more than a decade.
Singapore, by contrast, is shown as being at the same "good" stage as England at the start of 1999, but it quickly progressed and has achieved "great" standards for more than a decade.
The report charts how Singapore introduced reforms in 1997 that focused on pupils' ability and "required schools to be given much greater flexibility and responsibility for how they should teach and manage their students". They also "gave teachers greater freedom in classroom practice".
The report says any school system can make "significant" gains in six years or less providing they employ the reforms appropriate to their particular level of development.
But it argues that today's debate on school reform places too little emphasis on changing processes such as curriculum and pedagogy, and tends to concentrate on changing structures and increasing funding or staffing.
The consultants note that while all the systems they studied used data to monitor progress, only the least advanced, and Anglo-American systems such as England's, used it to set school targets. Asian and Eastern European systems, by contrast, avoided target setting.
One leader from an unnamed Asian country said: "We have never used targets... No good for our students could ever come from making school data public and embarrassing our educators."
The report, co-written by Sir Michael Barber, former head of Tony Blair's Downing Street delivery unit, pinpoints a leadership change as one of the factors that can ignite a system's reform. It goes on to identify Sir Michael himself as the "strategic leader" who made the difference in England.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "The move away from centralised direction is very welcome, but only if the schools have the resources they need."
McKinsey: How the World's Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better
Report key points
Moving on up
- Greater freedom for teachers is needed to take "good" systems like England's to the next level.
- School systems can make "significant gains" in six years or less, whatever level they start at.
- Public debate on school reform focuses on structure, funding and resources but neglects key points such as pedagogy and curriculum.
- Continuity in leadership is "essential" for success.