Learning from existing examples of great practice is at the heart of what Whole Education does. There are a great many schools already moving to broaden their curricula and offer a more engaging, relevant experience for their students. Indeed, the growing Whole Education Network of schools is all about enabling those at the leading edge of this sort of innovation to share their experience more widely.
Because international best practice tells us that this is what works as a catalyst for improvement in the best school systems. And of course, now that school improvement is not just about being as good as the best in our own country, but about being ‘world class’, this is important.
McKinsey and Company’s influential 2010 report ‘How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better’ suggested that, for good and improving systems like ours, attention needs to turn to the professionalisation of educators. In their words:
“Whereas the success of previous improvement journey stages largely relied on central control over the system and its educators, the good to great journey marks the point at which the school system comes to largely rely upon the values and behaviours of its educators to propel continuing improvement.”
Whole Education’s 3rd Annual Conference – Becoming World Class – what can we learn, what we can do – is all about how we can best enable professional educators to improve their schools and the wider system.
In advance of the event, I propose a five point manifesto for change. This will be developed in a forthcoming article in SecEd, and subsequent publications. Broadly:
1. We need to make the most of the teachers we have and unleash their creativity
This requires a move from the ‘teacher’ as technician’ model, in which their activity is prescribed and their performance is assessed accordingly. Of course, a key theme in the Coalition’s 2010 white paper, The Importance of Teaching was a focus on teacher-led school improvement “replacing top-down initiatives”, influenced explicitly by the far less regulated systems in some of the world’s best performing jurisdictions. More recently, the IPPR’s 2012 paper Oceans of Innovation argued that schools “need both teachers and researchers, and people who combine both roles, and systems need to be constantly testing new techniques to continuously invent best practices, with the system acting as a forum for sharing and scaling these best practices.”
2. Offer a curriculum that really meets the needs of C21st learners
Whilst the general message is that only academies can do what they think best with their curricula, in fact all schools have more choices than they often think or feel. Yes, it requires a bit of confidence in a context of accountability pressures and floor targets, but again, just look at what’s happening in the best global systems. Schools like High Tech High in San Diego – which will be presenting at the conference – and the New York iZone show what can be achieved, even in the most difficult social settings, and offer lessons for us all. One of the purposes of the Whole Education Network is to demonstrate that improving breadth is not necessarily at the expense of depth. Some of the Network pathfinder schools will talk about how they have chosen to be bold, innovative and forward-looking and still be designated as outstanding by Ofsted! It’s not ‘either/or’. It’s ‘and’!
3. Developing an approach to assessment that meets future needs
Assessment has been in the headlines more than usual over the last 18 months but, while important, the grading process and issue of competition between boards somewhat obscures a more fundamental set questions. For example, do we really need high stakes exams at 16 when the real leaving age is 18? Or what exactly does a three-hour handwritten terminal examination assess, and are these the learned skills and attributes we really value, or which have lasting relevance in the modern era? We need a more central role for teacher assessment; we need to consider what skills and competencies we really need to develop and how best to evaluate them; and we need to make space for digital assessment resources.
4. Develop a smarter approach to accountability
The current Ofsted model was a good for ensuring compliance with government policy and measuring performance against centrally defined curriculum standards, but it is not fit for the system the government says it wants, or for getting the best out of schools. Put more simply, it is not the best way to create a world class system. As we seek to move our system from good to great, there may be more lessons to be learned from Finland, where they don’t even have a word for accountability! Rather, they focus on something they describe as professional responsibility, and on forms of what they call smart accountability.
5. Making the most of the choices we have
In England, schools control the bulk of the country’s educational resource … they have real choice and real options, but only if they choose to use them, and how best to deploy them. As John Dunford, the Whole Education chair and former ASCL General Secretary, often remarks, this is the time for us to stop looking up and to start looking out. Whole Education offers schools a call to action, and the opportunity to work with others who are on the same journey, maybe even trying the same things. The key to becoming world class is to look at how others managed it, and to apply the same practices in one’s own context … it’s about what we can learn, and what we can do.