Reporting back from what we hope to be the first of many Progressive Education Network seminars in the lead up the General Election; events which make up an important part of our efforts to promote steady progressive debate during the campaign.
Last week’s event was a fascinating session led by Professor Dylan Wiliam, Deputy Director of the Institute of Education. Professor William’s research focus is the professional development of teachers and adapting teaching to better meet student needs.
It was a real privilege to attend this event along side a selection of educational leaders including head teachers, practitioners and theorists. Those of you who know Professor Wiliam and his work will know he has a real skill for drawing fascinating conclusions from complex data sets, and this seminar was no exception.
The session opened with compelling evidence that the development of a truly progressive education system, which can equip our society for the employment challenges of tomorrow, is a social imperative. In the last decade the UK shed the equivalent of 400 ‘no qualification’ jobs every day. Unless we can build an education system which allows students to add value for employers there is a distinct possibility of unemployment rising inextricably in the coming years.
Such statistics are a compelling call to arms for members of the Progressive Education Network. We must take a role in building our future education system and ensure that we remain a steady and reasonable voice in this debate. This is of increased importance as the partisan voices in rival camps become more shrill as we move towards May 6th.
It is our aim to resist sound bites and quick fix solutions to ensure that the investment and focus on education in the past thirteen years is built on and not squandered in the coming parliament. The reforms made over the last decade have much to commend them, but are by no means perfect. It is the responsibility of education professionals to ensure that we do not throw the baby out with the bath water in the coming policy round.
We must work to promote a mature dialogue which seeks to address core issues, rather than accepting many of the peripheral reforms and initiatives which occupy much high level policy debate. This is something of which all political parties are guilty. The recent Conservative announcement that they will be ‘brazenly elitist’ about teacher recruitment sounds like a powerful policy statement, until you consider that at present only 5% of teachers hold a third class degree. Furthermore, studies have shown that the link between a teachers performance and their academic qualifications to be weak.
These policy ‘red herrings’ and others like them – the Swedish school model, the recertification process to name a few- degrade and neutralise the debate around real progressive reform. In relation to the Swedish model, Professor Wiliam argued that evidence from first year university students shows no difference in attainment of pupils from ‘free schools’ and although they can be effective in certain environments, an over reliance on this idea is not an effective or progressive development model.
The American equivalent experience is that only one sixth of free schools show real progress, according to these statistics, the lesson is that there has to be a very high level barrier set for entry into the market by a new provider.
The current policy energy surrounding the Swedish system gives excessive focus to one small section of this Scandinavian model, According to Professor Wiliam, a great deal of debate is needed to show how a small ‘boutique’ solution such as this could effectively be applied to a much larger country with diverse educational needs. It is the core aim of the Progressive Education Network to ensure that such debates do take place, and that ‘policy tourism’ such as this is not given excessive credence. Debate is crucial, but the highly combative election campaign trail is not necessarily the best place for such important ideas to be addressed. Indeed much of the highly politicised point scoring regarding good and bad schools and various development models fall, according to Professor Wiliam, into this ‘red herring’ category.
Statistics prove that only 7% of the variance in GCSE outcomes for students can be attributed to ‘school effect’. 93% of the difference is down to other environmental factors such as the demographic of the catchment area, quality of teachers and the effect of exposure to other high achieving students. Indeed, when studies have been able to control these variables when comparing public and state schools, the quality of education in private sector has been shown to be on the whole worse. The implication of these findings is that the debate around school choice is a redundant and ultimately metropolitan concern; it matters far less which school you end up in and far more which classroom and with which teacher. Undoubtedly some schools offer better opportunities than others, but this relates to the quality of teaching within their classrooms rather than some overarching notion about a ‘bad school’. Statistically the middle 50% of our schools are no different from each other in terms of contextual value added. These schools are as important targets for reform as the failing schools frequently mentioned in policy debates. Schools don’t matter- teachers do! This reality goes directly against the gradual commoditisation of teachers of which all political parties have been guilty.
A real policy deficit exists around how to address the challenge of utilising non-fiscal resources to narrow the attainment gap in our schools. Professor Wiliam argues that the single biggest difference we could make in our education system would be to implement a structure which could direct our best teachers to the most challenging learners. Of course, such a policy is complex to realise and would certainly meet vocal opposition from the parents of children towards the higher end of the attainment grade.
These realities are unpopular with politicians in incoming governments. All governments are reluctant to use excessive political capital in pursuit of technical reform which may not produce short term results. Indeed, this short-termism, when combined with the ‘political economy of reform’ which dictates that political parties must seek to occupy ground which is distinct from their opponents, lends its self to unnecessary tribalism of approach. As we are all aware this effect is heightened at election time. We must make sure the next government hear and accept our warning, that the education system requires long term strategic thinking, led by research and experience rather than ideology.
Although Professor Wiliam argued that there is no ‘silver bullet’ to address these issues, he was clear about where we should be focusing our resources- professional development. In place of a system where too few schools take performance development seriously we must build a ‘coaching culture’ where teachers feel safe to take risks and show a “disposition to permanently improve”. This is easier said than done in an environment of targets and assessment. We need to find a way to effectively decouple performance assessment and peer observation; to build a ‘door open’ culture in which teachers feel comfortable asking for feedback on their performance in a non judgemental setting- much like the student teacher relationship we all cherish.
It is in this respect that the role of the head teachers and educational leaders is crucial; as we move forward and seek to achieve these more challenging reforms we must develop effective systems which can direct our most positive leaders to the neediest schools. It is crucial that we can build a system which is able to direct both the most exciting and dynamic teachers and the most visionary leaders into the schools which need them most. Indeed, as highlighted during the seminar, progress and leadership in the school system will only become more challenging as we are forced to climb higher into the tree after picking the ‘low hanging fruit’ of early reform and investment. The mark of a true leader is some one who can stop teachers from doing good things in order to dedicate time to even better things. From building in better use of Baker days to allowing set time each week for development feedback, Professor Wiliam presented various compelling ideas about how this transition in culture could be achieved. The concept of ‘tight but loose’ is central to his idea of effective leadership. Really effective leaders appreciate that teachers are already experts in their fields, but also that continuous improvement, and a cultural willingness to change is vital. Therefore, we must be ‘tight’ in our demands that teachers seek to increase their skills, yet ‘loose’ in so far as we allow them freedom to choose the areas that they develop.
This is our real challenge, which can only be addressed through hard work and consultation between front line practitioners and policy makers. Policy direction must reflect the real day to day realities of teachers, and seek to build their capacity for development and improvement. Our education system is not broken, and we must ensure a mature dialogue with all parties to guarantee that future developments do not divert us from our current, positive course. Indeed in the ever concise words of Professor William “changing the way you work is like engine repair in mid flight – too much and you will crash.”