As our system continues to struggle to improve the achievement of learners from poorer backgrounds, Mel Ainscow argues the ‘what works’ mantra is symptomatic of a failure to grasp the complexities of change management

This month, another school in England has been rapped for off-rolling in the full knowledge, and with the support, of its local authority. Days later, Ofsted’s first batch of new reports revealed criticism of ‘3-year GCSEs’ and low EBacc entries, as if both of these things could be reconciled without marginalising a raft of vulnerable learners.

Part of the problem is the failure to deal with the systemic issues in a sustainable and systematic way. Another is that the conception of research that underpins the ‘evidence-informed’ policy drive typifies those systemic issues.

In our new book, to be published in November, Christopher Chapman, Mark Hadfield and I analysed efforts to use research within three large-scale education improvement projects: City Challenge in England, Schools Challenge Cymru in Wales and the Scottish Attainment Challenge. The experiences that informed Changing education systems: a research-based approach led to a number of lessons system leaders of all persuasions ought to heed.

First, there is usually more expertise within an education system than is used. Where we witnessed success, it was through moving this knowledge around – amongst teachers and between schools.

Second, a host of barriers make it difficult to maintain such collaborative approaches. This often results from existing ways of working, which, although well intended, consume time and resources, and delay action in the field.

A secondary headteacher described the problem thus: School improvement, he said, is like trying to drive more quickly down a road with speed bumps every few yards. These ‘bumps’ include pressures placed on schools – particularly those facing challenging circumstances – that have a tendency to demoralise the very agents of change: the staff in schools.

There is usually more expertise within an education system than is used

Some barriers are political. The most striking evidence of this occurred following national elections in two of the countries. New ministers immediately resulted in the Challenge projects losing much of their political mandate. Though projects did continue, they did so with less power to make things happen.

Further barriers resulted from different views on priorities and timescales for change. While government officials were primarily concerned with rapid impact on examination results, intervention leaders’ preoccupation tended to be with longer-term, sustainable change.

Some of our involvement was in contexts characterised by high levels of cooperation. Surprisingly, this can also create social barriers, such as where tightly knit educational communities can be both supportive and, at the same time, restrictive. So much so, that it can sometimes lead to a reluctance amongst practitioners to share their ideas and discuss their worries. A primary head commented, ‘We don’t bare our souls round here’.

With all of this in mind, we propose a way of thinking about system change that seeks to move knowledge around. Since effective change requires coordinated efforts at all levels of education systems, this has implications for all the key stakeholders.

In particular, it require teachers – especially those in senior positions – to see themselves as having a wider responsibility for all children and young people, not just those that attend their own schools.

It means too that policy makers must recognise that the contextual specifics of policy implementation are not amenable to central regulation.  Rather, these should be dealt with by those who are close to the local contexts where policy must be turned into practice.

Our study of system change and educational reform is a robust challenge to the current fashion for the ‘what works’ approach. Practitioners are hobbled if they are there only to adopt practices designed and evaluated by researchers.

What is needed instead is an approach rooted in change management. Teachers and school leaders must be more than ‘deliverers’ of the ideas of others. Only professionals, trusted to develop practices in context, can form the bridge between policy and research on one hand, and sustainable, equitable outcomes on the other.