Aspiring to be “good” – would this provide space for improvement?

Amongst a number of  other duties the Standards in Scottish Schools Act 2000 sets out two key responsibilities for Scottish Local Authorities in respect to school education, namely Raising Standards and Reviewing School Performance.

Yet I was wondering if it’s time to reconsider these duties in light of the impact – or otherwise – that Local Authorities have had upon schools in their charge? As a headteacher, and in my ten years a member of school senior management teams in a variety of schools,  I would have to question what impact Local Authorities had upon raising standards in the school and whether or not the School Review process made a positive contribution to the raising of said standards. I want to make it clear that I am not denigrating in any way the efforts and support given to schools by Local Authority colleagues but that the very assumption that an external force can drive improvement within a school is perhaps founded upon a false premise.

For the reality is often that the standards in a school are directly related to the quality of leadership and commitment from staff in that same school. However, by giving responsibility for raising standards to the Local Authority it creates an expectation – from all – that the authority can make an impact from an external position.  This is turn gives rise to what I’ve previously described as the “Dae Sumthin”  mentality where Local Authority managers are under pressure to be seen to be taking action – even if this action doesn’t necessarily result in any observable consequence.  The important thing is that action is taken. 

In a similar fashion Authorities have gone to considerable trouble to create a range of means of “Reviewing School Performance”  . These mechanisms have taken many different forms all with the intention that we can “know our schools”.

What I want to question is the assumption that there is a direct causal relationship between how well we know our schools and how well we can raise standards? ( in the case the “we” are those outwith the school).

It would be my contention that the responsibility – and much more importantly the capacity – to raise standards lies with those who work in a school.  That was always my belief as a headteacher, a principal teacher, or even as a teacher and I’ve seen nothing in the last five years as an educational administrator to change that opinion. I’m not saying here that all of our efforts in Local Authorities are wasted but that there is an unintended consequence of our adherence to the notion that the more we do from “outside” the school the better things will be “within” the school.

So if the responsibility for raising standards should lie with the school does that mean that the Authority can abdicate from it’s responsibilities for school education?  I would argue that the quality of school education should still lie with the Local Authority – yet the responsibility to raise standards should lie with the school.  Now if this seems like “having one’s cake and eating it” I can understand how such an assertion might appear peculiar.  Yet what I have in mind is much more of a commissioning approach, whereby the Authority commissions the school to deliver education on its behalf.  Just as Children’s Services currently commissions a charity to deliver an aspect of its service, the overall responsibility still lies with the  commissioning body. It is the role of the commissioner to ensure that those who are commissioned are delivering the service to the agreed standards – it is not the commissioner’s responsibility to raise standards, simply to ensure that the standards set out in the agreement is achieved.

This actually chimes with something which Pasi Sahlberg said recently at a  conference when describing the success that is Finnish Education. For Pasi said that in Finland to be “good”  is “good enough”.  They do not aspire to excellence as a system but focus on ensuring that everyone is at least “good enough”.  I know this seems to lack the aspiration of our Journey to Excellence – but I actually think that this provides exactly  the kind of space in which teachers and schools can flourish. 

So in such an environment what should happen to the Authority’s responsibility to “Review School Performance”? Perhaps the clue lies with the last couple of sentences in that particular section of the Act when it describes how where the Authority concludes that following a review that where:

” the school is not performing satisfactorily they shall take such steps as appear to them to be requisite to remedy the matter.”

It’s here that I would want to refer to the model of practice which is emerging from many directions, namely Risk Assessment.  What I’m wondering is whether or not a Risk Assessment approach might provide schools with much more space to innovate and develop local solutions to raising standards?  Would it be possible for an Authority to assess the “Risk” relating to the quality of education provided by a school.  Rather than stating that a school’s performance is somewhere on the six point scale we instead provide a simple statement to parents and others that the risk that the school is not providing a “good” education is low, medium or high.  Schools would aspire to be in the “low” risk category.   I would reckon that only around 5% of schools would fall into the high risk category and that the Authorities’ resources could be targetted on those same schools – with others being given ever more freedom to innovate and create local solotions without external interference.

4 thoughts on “Aspiring to be “good” – would this provide space for improvement?

  1. They do not aspire to excellence as a system but focus on ensuring that everyone is at least “good enough”.

    Wow – what a powerful idea! And as you say, one that could provide the much needed space for teachers to develop the curriculum without the fear that is so often attached.

    Thanks for another thought provoking post!

  2. Pasi Sahlberg’s language suggests that the Finns are using quality management approaches to create systems which produce consistent

    satisfactory outcomes.

    If we were to go down that route, we might expect to see much more attention paid to the health of our school systems and processes, and less to the outcomes they generate. We would simply have less need to worry about the outcomes.

    Our current approach is more reminiscent of the “inspecting in” of quality that car factories used to do, before they changed the focus of their attention to the processes they used, so that the outcomes looked after themselves.

    These systems extend beyond the boundary of the school, though, and schools may not have the capacity to change them on their own.

    Out of curiosity, I just Googled “finland schools quality management” to see if I came across information confirming such an approach. Almost immediately I found an OECD case study,”School leadership for systemic improvement in Finland: A case study report for the OECD activity Improving school leadership”, Hargreaves and others, Dec 2007,
    That study confirmed a lot of attention being paid to systems, not outcomes.

    It provides some particularly interesting perspectives on how the Finns address those parts of systems beyond the four walls of the individual schools.

  3. The real question is performance of what, for what? The current orthodoxy sees the schools in most difficult circumstances as not ‘performing’, and then subjects them to micromanagement. That just demoralises them. These schools need to innovate too, perhaps even more so, to find new solutions, or for us to acknowledge their differences and work with them, not against them. What we really have is a spectrum of difference across schools. We need to work with staff, not do something to them, or even worse impose fixed notions on them, as we do in the current quality control model. We need to get rid of fixed indicators and fixed notions of what constitutes performance.

    Pasi Sahlberg is right. Excellence is a hiding to nowhere. It enshrines one world view. I’ve seen staff engage with the most challenging and disaffected children, who manage over time to gain their interest, respect and productive engagement (some of the time). But walk in the room and you won’t see anything that jumps out at you as ‘excellent’. But if you get to know those staff, and those pupils, you may find they have genuinely excelled themselves in what they have achieved over time. That is the difference.

    I asked Pasi Sahberg the question which led to his answer. I asked him whether, if he was in Finland at a similar gathering of educationalists, would the rhetoric and issues be similar or different. His answer was ‘very different’, that there would not be all this emphasis on excellence, but on equity, and that ‘good is good enough’.

    For me too, good is good enough because it allows the working space for ‘better than good’ to emerge. But it often springs up unawares and unbidden, when nurtured, and takes quite unexpected forms, ones which no ‘snapshot’ will pick up:

    As per the commentators above. We need to shift to a systems approach in school quality review to generate higher order perspective and knowledge, integrating issues and cases, at such a time of change. Six-point scales and fixed indicators do not do that.

    As a head teacher and teacher, I welcome external engagement, if respectful in intent. My message is: deal with us in terms of what we are doing, in the terms by which we are doing it, in regard of what we are dealing with, where we have come from, where we are intending to go, and what we are seeking to achieve. And not all at once.

    I’d make a slight shift from Don’s notion of risk, which is about imposing labels, and adopt higher education’s new model, Enhancement-led Institutional Review, which seeks confidence in the enhancements an institute has selected. The Quality Assurance Agency then engages with these, the reasons for their selection, and seeks ‘confidence’ in the institute’s enhancement pathway. Not a quality indicator insight, no imposed action planning, and no ‘what are we looking fors’. It opens up a new discourse of enhancement rather than the deficiency-led connotations of ‘improvement’.

    A learning systems model, already in our midst, within Scottish education. Can we have it too?

  4. Great conversation – a reminder of the value of looking outside in order to look at the inside differently. The quality journey of the college sector in Scotland will be of interest.

    Essentially the model which has been applied to colleges over the years has mirrored that of schools. For various reasons, a few years ago that approach had begun to be seriously questionned. Colleges had ‘matured’ – how was that to be reflected in the external quality regime? Colleges were funded by the some body which funded universities and yet quite different approaches to quality were applied – why? So there was debate.

    From my perspective in the college national support agency, the debate was welcome. I had become increasing concerned that the external quality regime was limiting progress towards what the ultimate aim should be which was strong institutional quality cultures. Too many folks were doing things because of an interpretation that is what HMI wanted; too many folks waiting to do things until HMI provided clarity. It wasn’t that HMI wanted that to happen – just an inevitable consequence of strong external audit regimes with a public reporting responsibility. Things had to change.

    I remember writing about it at the time and drawing the analogy with cycling. It was time I felt to move from rear shifting – incremental adjustments – to front shifting. After all, HMI were reporting colleges were delivering with ‘Very Good’ grades commonplace.

    The changes have been significant. There are no external grades awarded; these have been replaced by confidence statements. The role of the governing body in coming to terms with the quality of learning and teaching has been emphasised. There are annual professional dialogues between college and HMIe – a respectful process designed, hopefully, to deliver NEXT practice rather than a focus on what really happened.

    We explored ‘Journey to Excellence’ and there was no appetite in the sector to follow this approach though the resources were useful. Essentially, the conclusion was that excellence was to come from institutions working it out for themselves rather than a grade awarded by externals. In my view, excellence is a state of being rather than a particular standard to be achieved.

    We seem to be going in the right direction. There are still folks who yearn for grades and HMI ‘guidance’. The last external evaluation (yes, there is evaluation of the evaluation) suggested colleges were continuing to make progress in developing their quality cultures.

    As boundaries in the system become blurred, these differences will become more evident. There is rich learning in there.

    John McCann, Director of Next Practice

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