Whatever happened to the self-improving school led system?

“…even the best teachers can be rendered ineffective in a dysfunctional school, or that a great principal can turn into a good teacher into an extraordinary educator. But even today, reformers rarely take the impact of the principals into account” Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago.

“I dwell in possibility” Emily Dickinson, poet and writer.

“It’s not the structures but the outcomes” Sir David Carter, former National Schools Commissioner.

“So, education is generally dysfunctional and chaotic in England?” the nodding heads of teachers and school leaders in Chisinau, all agreeing with the question their Eastern European colleague had just put to me once I had finished speaking to them. My reply was “not exactly” and I certainly hadn’t set out to convey that impression when I spoke a few weeks ago about the systems, changes and reforms in England over the last decade. I had in fact set out to illustrate the dynamism, innovation, energy and leadership that the English education system has in abundance and in many, many inspirational examples as an education system to be admired globally, especially compared to post-Soviet societies where the pull away from authoritarianism especially in the public services, still has a long way to go. I had felt very confident in fact when comparing the approaches taken in countries like the UK to Eastern European countries in areas of leadership, school improvement, teaching and learning, safeguarding, curriculum, diversity, well-being, to name but a few. My mind quickly did a reflective spin on its rolodex-like recall over the last 30 or so minutes as I blustered a very poor Hugh Grantesque Englishman abroad impression. I was sure that what I had said wasn’t how the questioner had described back to me but I soon realised to my audience, the system, processes, practices, culture, direction and vision of education in England must seem very alien to an audience of educators where a centralised ministry of education still has so much sway. A system where leadership is often summed up by one word “Soviet”, where public workers are more akin to civil servants, and public buildings and infrastructure are in urgent need of capital investment.  On the plane home I reflected on making sense of what has been happening to education in England for so many years, in almost a permanent revolution of constant new ideas and innovation all against the very real backdrop of severe underfunding and a chronic lack of investment across the board.  One of the reasons I am a passionate global educator advocate is because there are so many ideas and innovations to be gained through cooperation and collaboration between systems around the World. The students I had spent some time with in Chisinau talking about the state of the World in lessons were articulate, fluent in a second language and had an extraordinarily focussed ambition to study and learn.  I would like to export that back to the UK alone.  The dedication and professionalism of teachers is also something that is always inspirational to have the privilege to see if I am invited into a classroom in the UK or abroad.

I want to return to the idea of “Soviet”  leadership (management) which seemed to crop up in so many discussions. There is a legacy of the Soviet Bloc that still lingers understandably in this part of the World and I remember having a similar conversation on the same lines with the eminent academic Professor Maria Mendel, in Jagiellonian University in Krakow in the autumn of 2017.  Professor Mendel, both a fellow of the University of Gdansk and John Hopkins University, is well placed to comment on this model still pervading in education in Eastern Europe. Where her research has been particularly prominent recently in offering a different lens to view with is how the model of education in the UK and the USA was supposed to release greater freedoms and leadership based on schools and their communities 10-15 years ago but the reality is that has not always happened. When I speak about Wyedean I speak about the place it has serving the people of its community here in the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean borders. Anchoring the school in its community and educating the children of the community is one of the central tenets of state education in the UK for me as a school leader. When I spoke with Maria and  when we have corresponded I highlight as one of the strengths of the English system how self-improvement has been given back to schools and school communities to lead in the system.  I read with interest an article I Used to Preach the Gospel of Education Reform. Then I Became the Mayor in The Atlantic by President Obama’s former chief of staff and now mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, on how he reformed the Chicago school system. He realised and believed in the power of school leadership to be one of the main drivers of reform in the schools. He highlighted the need for principals to be autonomous, have flexibility and how this would establish the right culture and teams in a school.  I have quoted the lines that stood out and resonated for me from Mayor Emanuel at the start of this blog because they illustrate a self-evident truth about where the transformative power of positive change and educational gains in our local community schools comes from.

The need for this type of leadership that is genuinely leading self-improving schools is also advocated by the Canadian Education writer and leadership guru to many, Michael Fullan, in his latest book “Nuance”. Fullan acknowledges as we enter the 2020s society is worsening and education is becoming less effective in its central role of producing the better citizens we need and want especially when schooling seems no longer up to the challenges learners face in the 21st century. This call for new leaders, he calls them “nuanced leaders”, will be characterised by leaders who can get beneath the surface and what he describes as “leverage deep change for the better”.  These leaders can motivate, mobilise and have the best knowledge for solving complex problems.  The following lines from Fullan are central in the debate to why we need a self-improving school led system:

“We are bombarded with massive connections to others that ironically are superficial”.

“We need leaders who are expert at humanity and expert at networks”.

“In threatening times, surfacers (the opposite of nuanced leaders) provide false clarity that allows perverse hidden forces to fester”.

“The World is becoming more demanding at the very time that regular schooling is standing still – actually going backwards as fewer and fewer students and teachers buy into what they are required to do”.

I believe strongly as a school principal that a self-improving school led system allows the development of leadership that writers like Fullan call for and the system of education is developing which tackles the problems and purpose of education in the 21st century. It shouldn’t be for a minister of education to grab the headlines over a weekend blindly proclaiming that all mobile phones should be banned in schools. It should be up to that school community to decide how they will approach mobile phones in their schools.  It was interesting that the minister didn’t talk about smart watches or other devices. The disengagement of young people from the curriculum and schools can be reversed if they were listened to more and some of the issues that are at the forefront of their minds like the uncertainty of their World from Climate Change to university places to job insecurity to better mental health support should be prioritised. If the relentless focus of schools stopped being competitive against one another and fearful obsession on narrow data targets and instead a more holistic collaborative approach was allowed a self-improving school could then lead on this for wider benefit. Teachers would want to stay in the system instead of leaving in droves if they felt they were respected, listened to and allowed to practice teaching for the very reasons they came into the profession; to make a transformative learning and life difference in the lives of young people. Not to be soul destroyed and made to feel worthless by an illogical punitive quality assurance system often led by remote bureaucratic managers obsessed with targets and not human beings as a priority. And before someone cries “standards” the best examples of self-improving school system led by nuanced leaders prove that accountability is much stronger because of personal integrity, professionalism, trust, respect and a common sense of shared purpose in the school and school community. Too many “surface leaders” provide short term false clarity and allow the problems to keep manifesting.  But they have moved on and up at that point. They would have fitted in well with the Soviet management system back in the heyday of the USSR.

The Nuffield Foundation’s UCL Institute of Education (IOE) four year study evaluation of the government’s self-improving school led system released in the summer of 2018 made interesting reading for anyone watching education’s progress in England. One of the reports main findings was this:

“…despite the government’s claims to be ‘moving control to the frontline’ and giving schools more autonomy, the reality is very different. Schools are more tightly regulated than ever, facing pressure to get good exam results and OfSTED grades or face being taken over by a MAT. Many schools have felt the need to narrow their curriculum and focus relentlessly on test outcomes in response. The government has encouraged schools to collaborate with each other to share their ‘expertise and to support schools that are struggling. But competitive pressures in the system have made this challenging, with schools also incentivised to prioritise their own interests to attract pupils and funding”.

I believe that this paragraph is a fair summary of what the vast majority of school leaders and teachers in the system would agree with as a picture of our system right now but it is a damning indictment and should be a call to arms to spur on the tribune voices to get us back to the opposite of what the IOE found in their case study. What isn’t really mentioned here is the severe financial climate and real terms reduction of funding and services in schools over 10 years that is having a detrimental impact on education in England. Professor Toby Greany, one of the co-authors from IOE went on to add; “The idea of a “self-improving” system in which schools collaborate on behalf of all children is appealing, but we cannot simply rely on the goodwill and moral purpose of school leaders to make it work. The problem is that the system is hard-wired to encourage selfish behaviour,”

‘Chaotic’ government reforms are failing to tackle education inequality

So, whatever happened to the self-improving school led system? At least self-improving schools could continue developing what they see as a curriculum model for their school community given the autonomy they have in this area and a key reason I personally came back over the border from Wales as that education system embarked on a very centralised top-down approach with its curriculum reform.  We have been developing at Wyedean School for the last years a broad and balanced curriculum, both informal and formal, with an holistic learning approach that allows a focus on strands linking subjects like STEM, creativity, sustainability, cyber and of course global learning. Our culture and vision has been developed for Wyedean as an outward facing school engaged in networks and partnerships that are genuinely collaborative, equitable and serve best interest of our school community.  It is one of the things we are most proud of here and to have Latin and Classics stand alongside Mandarin, DofE, gardening, Coding and to be invited to become a pilot school for the IB shows what we are doing is right for our community.  We have attracted an additional 200 students in the last 3 years who want to be educated here because of our curriculum approach.

OfSTED’s new framework was recently put out for consultation and it wasn’t the best kept secret that the focus will come onto the curriculum and a new measurement of “education” will replace outcomes for students and quality of teaching and learning. The debate on #EduTwitter and other places has rightly pushed OfSTED on its repeated line that is has “no preferred pedagogy and no preferred curriculum”. The EBacc fits the OfSTED belief, in their words, of “a strong academic core” at Key Stage 4. Stephen Tierney’s recent blog brilliantly shouted no clothes at the OfSTED Emperor on this very issue – Ofsted’s Great Colon Problem (Plus Other Curriculum Issues) . Stephen went onto warn; “The profession is effectively sleep walking into the new framework; many schools will be ill-prepared for the curriculum debate. Equally, I can see inspectors repeatedly asking schools for their curriculum ‘intent, implementation and impact’ with nothing more than a few training slides and a wing and a prayer of understanding of what they are asking and the response being given”.

 I am flying out on Sunday to Tunisia for half term as I am delivering training and a number of talks to colleagues from North Africa and the Middle East for the British Council. As I have been collating materials I have thought about the conversations in Chisinau in January with Eastern European educators and school leaders. Here’s what I think.  The best defence of the self-improving school led system comes from one of the prime architects of the MAT model, former National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter.  Sir David is an extraordinarily inspirational figure in the English education system and I have been fortunate enough to hear him speak a few times, work with him in his “Race to Outstanding” group and I know well his legacy in Bristol with his brilliant schools in the Cabot Learning Federation.  Sir David believes everyone in an organisation is a leader and for me, what I take most heart from, is that he believes it is the outcomes and not the structures we should get focussed on for school improvement.  Sir David advocates leadership in the system not “Soviet” managers.

The self-improving school led model has been very successful at Wyedean in all sorts of ways. It has anchored a school back in its community stewarded by dedicated local governors and trustees who epitomise the very notion of critical friendship as they challenge and support the school. It is the development of leadership to create the very nuanced leaders that Michael Fullans describes. Leaders at middle and senior level who have integrity, are dedicated, professional, caring and serve fully the school community and its students. Wyedean has a wider community it engages closely with, and our parents and carers have shown remarkable generosity and support at all levels for their school. Our non-silent corridors are full of incredible young people who smile and say hello as they engage their teachers.  The support staff of Wyedean are the bedrock of the organisation and ensure the school can undertake its primary purpose of educating young people. We are professional, commercial, supportive, and above all else, a human organisation with well-being at its centre that believes in young people and the transformative power of education.  We are not ego driven or beholden to one “charismatic hero”. We are a team who all work together daily for the students. I have colleagues giving up valuable family time next week to take the ski trip to Italy or the Year 12 MFL work experience to Spain on an Erasmus programme.  I have had staff and students in all weekend working on the final arrangements for the performance of “Sister Act” this week.  I have PE colleagues who give up their time to ensure students get to fixtures. I have colleagues who inspire engaging learning every day and raise the status and pride of those students who never get the loud shouts such as the amazing work last week of my colleagues Jodie Coggins and Marie Groucott, ably supported by Sue Johnson, as GCSE Food Tech students cooked and presented their incredible menus for feedback to staff.  One of the best moments all year for me is seeing those students full of pride as people tasted their food and were amazed at the high standards.  It’s also the daily diligent pastoral work for example, of Head of Year 11, Laura Crum, getting students ready for their exams in 3 months and the meticulous and calm leadership of Sam Bishop and the Sixth Form team as they complete UCAS, interview Year 11s and work on supporting 12 and 13 through the daily trials and tribulations of young adulthood. I was bowled over by the dedicated and hard working school leaders and teachers I met in Chisinau.

Rahm Emanuel concluded his piece for The Atlantic by stating; “It’s high time we stop fighting about brands, because the only thing that really matters is whether any school is providing a top-notch education”.  I couldn’t agree more and we need as an education system to look at what happened to the self-improving school led system and attempt to get back to it to allow schools their autonomy and freedoms to innovate and do what is right for the community they serve. We all want “top-notch” education for our children, it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter about the label or the structure. I am looking forward to seeing what I can learn and bring back from the Tunisian schools I am visiting next week as part of our outward facing ambition for Wyedean School.



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