The Highs in Education

March 27, 2014
Stephen Tierney

I think we have finally made a break through.  #Vis2040, the SSAT Vision 2040 Project Group, has been together for just over a year.  We have struggled to define ourselves and the unique contribution, to the education debate, we could make.  Much of what we have seen and done as a group has been much more 2020 than 2040.  The decision to move away from an action research approach – others are better qualified to do this and finding time was proving impossible – towards co-constructing a compelling meta-narrative; a values rich, engaging and ultimately aligning story, fits the group far better.

What Do We Want?  When Do We Want It?

Photo Credit: sebastian.barre via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: sebastian.barre via Compfight cc

I’ve suggested before in a series of #Vis2040 blog posts that by 2040 we want to produce one of the highest, if not the highest, performing school systems in the World.  This is not simply a laudable aim.  Given the time scale chosen and the willingness of many people to work together it is an achievable goal.

If you were building a World Class Education System what would be the values you would put in place to guide future actions and decisions?

For example, does treating people fairly mean that everyone is given the same (imagine a vegetarian at a steak dinner) or that everyone’s needs are equally met (who defines need or draws the line between needs and wants)?

High Equity

High equity seems an appropriate starting point.  We need to address the long tails of underachievement that has for too long blighted the English Education System.  The number of young people classified as NEETs and the relative underachievement of students, classified as entitled to Pupil Premium funding, is morally wrong and damaging for both the individual and our society.  All our children must be challenged and supported to achieve at the highest possible level.

Andreas Schleicher Quote

I don’t know whether you’ve heard the one about the head teacher of a selective school, a faith school and an independent school … well, we sat in a room and agreed that high equity would be a cornerstone of any Vision 2040 statement.  In many ways you couldn’t get a more diverse group of school leaders in a room unless possibly we added in one from a fee paying school.

The high equity and much lauded Finnish system is built around similar schools and is central to the how they have become one of the highest performing systems in the World.  In England we currently have a very diverse school system which is becoming more diverse.  If we either decide to retain this diversity or considered it so deeply ingrained that too much unproductive time would be spent restructuring it, for which there seems no political will, how can we define high equity within a diverse system?

Two possible “highs” which might be used to guide decision making, at both policy and implementation level, in a High Equity, Highly Diverse System are High Moral Purpose and High Challenge.

The Kornati Islands National Park

#Vis2040; Island or Archipelago Education? presented a rationale for the need to cluster schools together within a locality model.  Many school leaders and governors, I speak to, are working on plans and projects to deepen the relationship between their school and a neighbouring school.  The key mindset shift is defining “our children” and defining this beyond an individual school’s fence.  Improvement has to become more of a system thing as well as a school thing.  The moral purpose that underpins taking responsibility for the outcomes of children across an area is at the heart of the current trend towards greater system leadership.

I’m not sure whether this second high should be _High Challenge _in terms of Attainment (an outcome in terms of a grade, mark or level) or Achievement (progress as a number of levels progress or value added).  Achievement seems much fairer given the very different intakes that schools have but here is my issue:

If a student currently starts secondary school with a Level 3, from the primary school, then attaining a grade D, three levels progress, is seen as success.  It is for the school, and possibly the student, but it does not change her/his life chances.  If we want to help lift a young person out of poverty then we need to help them attain 5+A*-CEM as the current passport to many Level 3 courses post-16.  Equally at eighteen, the choice of universities opened up by attaining AAB grades at A-level is significant.

Should we be focussing on high achievement or attainment if we want high equity?

What would an accountability system look like that focussed on achievement (progress) at a school level but attainment (grades) at a system level?

High Trust

These changes outlined above will need trust to succeed and will in turn build trust as schools journey together.  Trust is difficult to gain and can be lost in a moment.  It requires integrity (I back up what I say through my actions) and reciprocity (the give and take that occurs in all long term enriching relationships).

Photo Credit: giftedtypist via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: giftedtypist via Compfight cc

High trust is part of a network of relationships both within schools:

  • staff:staff
  • staff:students
  • staff:parents

And within the wider educational system:

  • school:school
  • school:further & higher education establishments
  • school:government
  • government:union
  • union:school .

You can see the complex web of relationships, currently totally misaligned in a low trust culture, which need to be co-ordinated and become mutually supportive of each other.

What would admissions or funding look like in a high trust system?

High trust may be built on three more highs: high coherence, high sustainability and high enjoyment.   High Coherence requires an aligned set of policies which are congruent with a set of widely agreed, underpinning values.  Coherent and congruent policy at a national level needs similar implementation at a local level.  Too much energy is expended devising and implementing initiatives that pull in different directions or occur outside of an agreed values framework which acts as a guide.

Linked to this is the issue of sustainability for people within the system.  If I was critical of myself, as a leader, it isn’t that I come up with bad ideas or make too many bad decisions (please note others may disagree), it is that I come up with too many ideas and make too many decisions to implement this or that.  Whilst I could explain some, many even possibly all of these changes, too much change becomes unsustainable producing both lower quality implementation and an erosion of trust – people become exhausted and do not trust that  you have their best interests or well-being at heart.  I sometimes wish I had done fewer things better over the past fourteen years of headship.

I do not wish to work in a static system but I need to work in a sustainable one.

High Enjoyment seems an odd one to include.  However, when I speak to parents seeking a place for their child at the school, they always tell me that they want their child to be happy.  I re-interpret this as wanting a sense of joy, that deeper sense of fulfilment and purpose, a reason for living which brings us joy, is not the same as happiness or fun.  These latter two are not bad things but they are not the end point of what we are seeking to achieve within a high trust education system, though they will both hopefully appear on the journey.  Enjoyment and a sense of fulfilment talks to me of the development of the whole person – think about applying this to the adults who work in our school as well as the students – not an easy thing within the current system.

Photo Credit: Istvan via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Istvan via Compfight cc

High equity and high trust are interdependent, mutually supportive and produce a positive spiral of improvement, feeding off each other.  In essence they form the key stones on which a World Class Education System can be built.  It would, however, seem simply inconceivable to attempt to build a High Equity, High Trust System without High Professional Capital.

High Capital

If you are unfamiliar with the idea of Professional Capital, from Andy Hargreaves & Michael Fullan, please take a moment to follow the link and read the post, it is a powerful concept.  Professional Capital is a function of the human, social and decisional capital we explicitly build.

In_ #Vis2040 - Our Top 3 Priorities High: Teacher Quality, Quality, Quality  _I made an argument for making teaching a more attractive but difficult profession to get into.  By selecting the most suitable people, from the pool of top graduates, and then providing them with outstanding initial teacher training and education and on-going professional development, at a level seen too infrequently within our system, we could build and sustain a World Class workforce that would be at the heart of a World Class School System.

The need for High Collaboration – teacher to teacher, school to school and with other educational establishments – returns me to the way we structure our education system.  Clustering helps increase the professional Capital available to schools but more important would also help increase it.

Current Highs Which Must be 2040s Lows

As we journey towards 2040 we need a process of abandonment – what current practices are simply unacceptable and what good things might we have to give up to do great things (to misquote Dylan Wiliam).

A very topical example was the recent article from Michael Cladingbowl in which he proposed a different way of inspecting Good Schools.  It is the start of a process in which Ofsted is seeking to re-invent itself – anyone heard anything about the renewal of inspection contracts for external providers? – but it missed the point.  Good schools don’t need more frequent inspection visits, even if they are “light touch” – Ofsted should be seeking to make itself redundant, that’s its real measure of success.  Ofsted doesn’t exit, not because the schools don’t want it but because the system doesn’t need it.  By 2040, schools need to be taking full responsibility for high standards for all and early intervention when required.  Alongside removal of Highly Unproductive External Accountability there are a few more highs we need to lose by 2040:

  • High Unproductive Stress
  • High Burnout & Drop Out
  • High Incoherence or a lack of values congruence in Policy Development (and in its implementation)

The What & How

Photo Credit: Steve Snodgrass via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Steve Snodgrass via Compfight cc

Whether you see the “Highs” as a compass to guide, set of key stones on which to build or lenses through which to view education; we need to ensure we have a set of values that guide our direction of travel towards 2040.  How else will we separate the wheat from the chaff of education ideas, the non-negotiable from the individual choice or the profound from the irrelevant?

Will this policy or initiative produce greater equity, develop greater trust or build greater capital?

Don’t forget @HeadsRoundtable and their work on Building a Manifesto or the work of @ASCL_UK and the #GreatEducationDebate.

The #Vis2040 Group would be delighted to receive your thoughts, proposals or comments.  If you leave any comments on this post I will feed them into our next meeting.  Over the coming months and years we will be seeking to engage with people, those in the profession or generally interested in education, in many different ways.  Of particular importance are the young teachers, possibly those in their 20s, currently in our schools who will be the ones actually leading our schools in 2040.

Some Blog Posts which may be of Further Interest:

#Vis2040: Island or Archipelago Education?

#Vis2040 – Our Top 3 Priorities: Teacher Quality, Quality, Quality

#Vis2040 : The Inverted Doughnut Curriculum

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In September 2013, Stephen (@LeadingLearner) became the Executive Headteacher of a Blackpool federation. He is one of SSAT’s  long standing advocates and his contribution to the early System Redesign and Four Deeps research is__valued highly.