Is it the system that needs to change, or school leaders?

12 May 2019, 5:01

Katy Theobald went to the other side of the world to learn about innovative education systems. What she found was innovative schools…

Educators have been working hard in the past decade to meet the increasing expectations set for them by government. Whether it was the shift from levels to expected standards at key stage 2, the introduction of the EBacc or the regrading of GCSEs, the focus has been on ensuring students can meet new benchmarks.

But now education faces a challenge barely acknowledged by politicians. While most employers say they are satisfied with young applicants’ literacy and numeracy skills, they find that a broader set of capabilities is lacking: young people do not have the analytical skills or international cultural awareness needed for the world of work.

As the routine tasks that were often given to entry-level workers are swallowed up by automation, it’s increasingly important that young people are not just knowledgeable, but can deploy that knowledge critically and creatively.

Other countries are already responding to this challenge. Singapore, Australia and New Zealand have a set of 21st-century capabilities – broader educational outcomes to prioritise alongside academic knowledge and skills. I was awarded a Churchill fellowship to see how schools in these countries, serving lower income communities, were building capability development into their practice.

The differentiating feature wasn’t the system, it was the mindsets of the leaders

In the schools I visited educators took the introduction of capabilities as an opportunity to experiment with a broader range of pedagogical approaches. However, they felt their wider system context made this easier.

In contrast to England’s inspection regime, school reviews in the Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales focus on verifying the school’s self-evaluation. Reviews are not graded and the results are not published – they are provided to principals to guide their priorities for the next four to five years.

The leaders I interviewed also had a healthy view of Naplan – Australia’s national standardised testing programme. As Gail Doney, principal of Wallarano primary school in Victoria put it: “Accountability is really important. I love that because if kids aren’t learning you aren’t doing it properly. You’ve got to do something different.”

The New Zealand government, meanwhile, has removed reporting on national standards.

It would be easy to conclude from my research that it is the high stakes of the English accountability system, with the lack of any national framework articulating the broader capabilities that education should develop, which is preventing the innovation our system needs. To be honest, none of this helps.

However, the schools I visited were outliers. In a submission to the federal government, the Australian think tank the Mitchell Institute recently argued that in many schools Naplan was given “disproportionate emphasis” which resulted in “the tail wagging the dog . . . driving the priorities of teachers, school leaders and education departments”.

The differentiating feature wasn’t the system, it was the mindsets of the leaders who grabbed the opportunities available to them. They were always looking for gaps in the system that allowed them do the right thing for their students. As Karyn, a deputy head in New Zealand, put it: “There are all these ongoing myths. They’d say ‘you can’t do that’. I’d say OK, so show me where that’s written down, and it wouldn’t be”.

This mindset isn’t unique to the southern hemisphere. Sir Tim Brighouse talks about findings “gaps in the hedges” and building on the choices we have.

I went to the other side of the world to learn about innovative education systems. What I found was innovative schools. True system change doesn’t come from policies, it comes from the choices educators make every day. I still believe England needs systemic change to reduce the pressure on leaders and ensure every child is well-prepared for their future. However, innovation depends as much on the creative mindset of leaders as it does on policy. That’s a vital ingredient we’ve already got.

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  1. Tom Burkard

    In ‘Does Education Matter?’ Alison Wolf conducted a devastating analysis of the education policies pursued by the Confederation of British Industry, demonstrating that their views reflect those of the professional educators they employ and consult, and that they have little to do with what employers want. For instance, at a meeting to discuss NVQs, “The CBI representative argued passionately against any requirement for written tests, in case they discriminated against anyone with language and reading problems. This was a surreal experience because, all over the Western world, when employers complain about the standard of education, it is the world of spelling tests and mental arithmetic that is in their mind’s eye, and not that of discovery learning.’

    Likewise, we should be cautious when educators talk about ’21st century skills’–which are of more interest to the ed tech industry than any other business. Independent research has found very little evidence that ‘creativity’ can be taught–rather, it depends upon having extensive knowledge in the domains relevant to the task.