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Leadership, Redesigning Schools

Time to Head for the Bright Lights?

Whilst Dr Ben Laker is currently sunning himself in Hollywood, California before walking the red carpet and bright lights of the Oscars, his latest piece of work authored with Alex Hill, Liz Mellon and Jules Goddard has been published in Forbes and Dialogue Review.

Photo Credit: Dr Ben Laker (Hollywood)

In“Bright Lights Show the Way”, the authors argue that England’s approach to school improvement, focused on the closing of lower attaining schools, has led to little actual improvement.  Perversely, the “strategy seems to be increasing bad practice, rather than creating good” as the authors hint at the manipulation of a school’s intake and the off-rolling, seen in a minority of schools and academies.  It’s not simply been a waste of money; it has led to an over bloated accountability, monitoring and surveillance system.  Pupils, teachers and school leaders have suffered.  Consequently, recruitment and retention of school leaders and teachers is an increasing problem.  Rather than the path of “special measures”, take over and do to their suggestion is:

“Maybe, rather than trying to fix their Low Lights (their worst schools), they should encourage their Bright Lights (their best ones) to grow. The evidence shows that they already have the right leadership, culture and capability in place. Why not get them to do more?  Why not challenge their Bright Lights to teach in their most deprived areas, as well as their most affluent ones?”

The growth of the “Bright Lights” could be by increasing their published admission number with the intake growing the school stepwise over five or seven years.  Alternatively, it could be setting up other schools in geographically tight clusters to allow for collaborative working.  For those familiar with Chip & Dan Heath’s book, Switch; it’s the rational, Direct the Rider to Follow the Bright Spots, investigate what’s working and clone it approach that is being proposed.

The question is will it work?  In a series of excellent blogs on the impact of long term disadvantage, Education Datalab concluded:

“… the recommendations for additional funding made in the Northern Powerhouse Partnership report are justified – but that they are justified more on the basis of demographic differences rather than differences in school effectiveness.”

The series of blogs built a case for concluding that much of the difference in performance between schools in the North and the South of England can be explained by the different demographics.  All the media headlines and hype and ministerial promises of action lack an objective evidence base linked to school effectiveness.  This is largely because we have failed to contextualise the data; your intake matters much more than your effectiveness.  The North simply has far more white, long term (more than 90% of their time in school) disadvantaged pupils who are the major underperforming group across the country.  Though as one of the blogs points out, the North could learn a thing or two from colleagues in the South about boosting the attainment of disadvantaged pupils from a minority ethnic background.

Beyond the actual logistics of expanding and building new schools there is something in the English psyche that may need to be overcome.  We tend to prefer the idiosyncratic and when in a “neutral position” support the underdog.  The FA Cup “giant killers” and the Dunkirk spirit are deep rooted in our sense of Englishness.  Creating large organisations who seek to operate in a standardised way, even when it is very good, seems to go against our sense of fair play; it’s just not cricket.

Context is important and implementation critical; it’s the, everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere issue.  Even in geographically tight clusters schools could have dramatically different intakes.  On the Fylde Coast, the demographic in Lytham St. Anne’s and Blackpool are miles apart.  Whether ideas will transfer is a critical part of the debate; which ones will and which ones won’t must be discerned.  We will also need to determine what ideas are key to be transferred; the important and peripheral too often are confused in our education system.

Whilst we ponder these issues some pupils are in need of an improved education if the same economic disadvantage isn’t to befall their children.  School improvement is a part, an important part but still only a part, of creating a more equitable society that is at ease with itself.  Expect the debate about school improvement to rumble on.

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