Review by Zoe Enser

Specialist adviser, The Education People

23 Jan 2022, 5:00


'Essential reading for anyone in or aspiring to school leadership – but be prepared for challenge'

The next big thing in school improvement by Rebecca Allen and others

By Rebecca Allen, Matthew Evans and Ben White


John Catt Educational




22 Oct 2021

Anyone working in education knows that significant time and energy are devoted to school improvement. How do we encourage pupils to learn? How can we ‘see’ this happening and how can we measure it? In The Next Big Thing in School Improvement, Professor Becky Allen, Matthew Evans and Ben White set out to tackle this complex topic by presenting us with the ghosts of school improvement past, present and future, and much of it makes for bleak reading for those of us working on it!

From the outset, the authors argue that school improvement is messy and even potentially impossible. This is especially true, they say, when scaling up, out, or seeking universal answers to recurring educational conundrums. They remind us too that even the most successful academy trusts as defined by outcomes can still have schools within their communities in which they struggle to replicate those same results. However attractive the idea might be, the complexities of schools are unlikely to allow simple transference of ideas and systems.

Allen and her co-authors go on to state that as a species, we find comfort in patterns to help us create meaning, but this means we can kid ourselves into believing learning is much more manageable and visible than it is. We can also believe the knowledge we hold is sufficient to understand this process. But the truth is, they say, that learning is varied, and difficult to define and measure. We can get caught up in positive feedback loops which create an illusion of causation, but the “inherent complexity of the school system means we know far less about how we would like schools to function”. Our intentions are good but our attempts to improve are built on shaky ground.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for school improvers. The experience, knowledge and insights within the book are vast, and it covers a huge range of topics. I found the chapter on the hidden lives of teachers particularly interesting, for example. As co-developer of Teacher Tapp, Allen has opened the doors of countless classrooms and invited teachers to share their unique perspectives. Acknowledging that variety within the profession is a key factor for our consideration if we really want to improve ̶ something the book seeks to emphasise.

The other key emphasis throughout the book is on the idea that for real improvement to happen we need to let go of some of our preconceived ideas. Being conscious of what we don’t yet know, as opposed to focusing on what we think we do, offers some interesting possibilities. Some readers might find a concentration on the gaps in our knowledge frustrating, but it is refreshing to read something that doesn’t claim to be ‘the next big thing’ or the answer to all our problems.

Each chapter comes replete with questions, designed to encourage deep reflection on, and exploration of, what we don’t know. This is very much in keeping with the thrust of the book, and is a marked difference in approach from the usual formula of recapping what we have learned and how we will apply it.

Overall, The Next Big Thing tells the story of an education system conceived of as a ‘beast’ which continually ‘resists our attempts to tame it’. It highlights the complexity of the problem, the attempts we have made to resolve them and the significant gaps we still have in our understanding of what ‘improvement’ means.

Sometimes, it feels like it somewhat over-emphasises the impossibility of the task that would-be school improvers have set themselves. Some readers will certainly find it makes for uncomfortable reading. But evidence-informed challenge is never a bad thing, and it’s hard to disagree with the authors that understanding what we don’t know (and appreciating what may indeed be unknowable) is key to honing our efforts.

It isn’t without some useful suggestions, either. How we might make more precise and streamlined use of educational research particularly stood out for me.

All of which makes it essential reading for anyone in or aspiring to school leadership – albeit that readers need to come to it prepared for challenge.

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