Remembering John West-Burnham

It is a great sadness to report the recent death of my friend and collaborator Professor John West-Burnham. His contribution to nurturing a broader more humane vision of education and schools, and of the leadership needed to bring such change, about was immense and backed both by enormous scholarship and huge wisdom. It was a privilege to work with him on three books, including his last one.

John leaves behind an extraordinary legacy both of ideas, of writings and of personal impact on people who heard him speak. The outpouring of respect and affection on Twitter has been extra-ordinary and serves as testament to the regard in which he was rightly held by so many.

In discussion with his family and many professional friends, we will be planning ways to commemorate his life and to take forward his work. We hope to make more announcements about this in the near future.

Time to take a turn for the better


The evidence had been mounting for some time before lockdown. John West-Burnham and I summarised this in our recent book ‘Flipping Schools! – why it’s time to turn your school and community inside out’. The model of school improvement, linked to a so-called standards agenda, that has dominated educational leadership for the last 25 years or so, is reaching the end of its useful life. It has achieved  an important degree of success but also created many unresolved problems. It has left leaders and teachers working increasingly hard to secure very small amounts of progress. This is ineffective at so many levels.

One of the most important reasons why change is needed lies in the way much current school improvement thinking does not take sufficient account of the influence of genetic and personal factors and social and economic context on educational achievement. Schools alone are able to influence some 20-30% of the factors that affect educational achievement. There is only so much they can do alone and, through much hard work and effort from the profession, we are close to reaching that point.

The step-change now needed is to give greater recognition to the contribution of a school in building social capital, within and around itself. The experience of lockdown and re-opening has served to reinforce this message, challenging many current assumptions about schooling. Above all, it has re-affirmed the necessary relationship between schools and their communities.

Reflecting on research evidence as well as the practice of current school leaders, I see four building blocks for the changes now needed to take that forward. The new outward-facing school needs:
  • • An unrelenting focus on the quality of relationships, on becoming a model of community itself –  a place of trust, mutual respect, and belonging.
  • • A strong base of value and values, in which the curriculum is central but tailored to a much greater extent to each learner.
  • • A fresh understanding of the role of a school as a focal hub of support for learning and wellbeing more widely.
  • • A commitment to seeking anew the active and ongoing engagement of all stakeholders.

It is the interaction of these four elements that generates the social and cultural capital now vital to developing a much fairer education system. It is the opportunity offered through the pandemic to build back better along these principles that can provide the impetus to now make that happen. And while it will certainly need some top-down policy changes to support it, for example such as the issues advocated by Re-Thinking Assessment, that impetus can begin from the ground up.

Schools of Tomorrow is one of the organisations in the forefront of this effort. Just recently, in partnership with the Edge Foundation, they invited school leaders to an online event to look at learning from lockdown. Some 30+ school leaders reflected in groups on what changes they were making or wanted to make as a result of their experience of lockdown and reopening. On five priorities in particular, there was wide agreement.

  1. Place greater focus on students as individuals, including their mental health and well-being
Children do not learn academically if they are not cared for. In other words, their well-being is linked to achievement. They need to feel good about going to school. In the words of one headteacher “You have to build the relationships first. Nobody cares what you know until they know you care”.

Christi and David Bergin (2009) highlight the research evidence for the importance of school bonding, of having this sense of belonging at school and a network of relationships with teachers and peers. They also offer a series of pointers for teachers, who, they suggest, should look to:
  • Increase sensitivity and the number of warm, positive interaction with students.
  • Be well prepared for lessons and have high expectations of students.
  • Be responsive to students’ agendas by providing choice wherever possible.
  • Use induction rather than coercive discipline.
  • Help students be kind, helpful and accepting of one another.
  • Implement interventions for specific difficult relationships in order to repair them.

  1. Make learning more real
The Edge Foundation, drawing on a wide range of international research evidence, identify three principles for deeper learning to address what they believe are current systemic weaknesses in English education:
  • Making learning relevant to real life.
This involves breaking down subject boundaries and teaching through a real-world lens.
  • Developing transferable skills.
This means equipping all young people with the skills they need for further study, work and life.
  • Involving employers and the community.
This includes involving local employers and the community in developing the future plan for the school and in curriculum delivery.

Although the approach taken will vary according to the age and stage of the child, the goal at every stage is ‘a knowledge-engaged curriculum that matches and synchronises knowledge and skills development’.

  1. Develop better use of blended learning tailored more closely to individual needs
Some children and young people, and not always the ones most expected, have flourished in their learning with the greater independence provided during the first lockdown. Of course, others have not, because of motivation, circumstance or lack of access to technology. But lockdown reminded us that school is not the only place where learning can happen, that individuals have different needs, even if they are the same age. Personal relationships and interaction matter too. There is though scope to adjust the balance to secure a better and more flexible blending.

The issues around a more blended model of learning are only partly a matter of technology. It is fundamentally the recognition that learning happens both within and without school, and at the direction and instigation of both teacher and learner. We need a much more personalised approach to identifying the balance appropriate for each learner at each stage of their individual journey.

  1. Become more accessible and parent-friendly
Nearly every school leader identified a positively changed relationship with parents as a result of the first lockdown. The priority to address the engagement of families recognises this relationship is qualitatively different as a result of their role and influence in educating their children. It goes well beyond the simplistic notions of parental choice which have governed national policy for several decades.

It means:
  • Developing systematic and continuous engagement right from the very beginning.
  • Looking to include all families, not just the advantaged.
  • Recognising children’s learning extends beyond school.
  • Shifting our mindset from doing for and to, towards actively co-creating opportunities to engage with parents.

None of this is easy. Parents are also affected, indeed bombarded, by the deficit model of education and schools promoted by some policymakers and media. Many carry with them their own negative associations of school and of ‘authority’ more generally. But by building supportive and sympathetic relationships very carefully from the earliest moment of contact, based on mutual trust and respect, a clear shared focus on supporting children’s learning, recognising each other’s contribution, and by making changes in day-to-day practice to match, a new partnership can be built.

  1. Engage in deep listening with stakeholders
What is common to all these strands of activity is a recognition of the need to listen more deeply – to students, to parents, to staff, to communities – and through listening seek to build a shared understanding of the purpose of school, of what it is we all want for all young people.

Arriving at such shared values is not a once-off or finished job to be ticked off a list. To be alive, values must be continually re-visited, understood and interpreted. They have to form the subject of ongoing dialogue and reflection across the school and its communities to understand and interpret their meaning in the context of the moment. This involves extended conversations with each other about the world students will enter, thinking about what students will need to be successful in their future, and then how that might impact on what they do in school. These conversations must be open-minded, perhaps drawing on techniques like Open Space Technology, World Café or Future Search.

The overlap of these five themes with the four building blocks above is striking. Equally striking is the fact despite the gruelling pressures that response to Covid has placed on schools, their leaders and staff, many remain willing to push the boundaries. For example, eleven schools, both primary and secondary, working together as part of their membership of the Schools of Tomorrow Fellowship, have committed to a two-year research and development programme to apply some of these changes to their practice. This community of practice will meet monthly online, with support from change mentors, to research, implement and evaluate programmes of change for their context and priorities.

Covid has reminded us starkly that the future is uncertain but also highlighted the urgent need for a major reset of our society and economy. The burden of achieving that will fall most acutely on the young generation we educate today in our schools. We owe it to them to challenge our established assumptions and build back better. At its heart that involves turning our schools and communities inside out.

School and community - becoming together

This Christmas I was given a copy of Michelle Obama’s autobiography ‘Becoming’. I’m still only part way through, in fact I’ve just finished the first part, which is essentially about the influence of her family and childhood, school and college. But I’ve started to grow absorbed by the theme of becoming and the question of what it is that makes us who we are, including the contribution of schools to that.

This may be because I’m doing a lot of thinking at the moment for an upcoming book. At its heart lies a question. If, as we already know, most of the factors that influence educational success lie outside the direct control of a school, what is it that schools and school leaders can do better to help influence and shape those external factors more positively? That it seems increasingly clear to me lies at the heart of the next phase of school improvement.

Of course, many of those factors are not within the scope of a school’s influence either, and a school cannot and should not attempt to solve society’s deep economic and social problems. Nevertheless, it is also true that any school is one of the major influences on the social and economic prospects of its communities, both in terms of the school’s contribution to the development of each individual student but also as a tremendous physical, social and indeed economic resource. The improvement of a school and the improvement of its various communities thus seem inextricably intertwined.

Steve Munby often quotes a traditional Masai greeting ‘Kasserian Ingera’. It means ‘How goes it with our children?’. The word ‘our’ is powerful. It serves, on meeting anyone, even a stanger, as a forceful reminder of the role we both share as trustees and guardians of our collective futures. This greeting reflects the distinctive and deep-rooted African philosophy of Ubuntu, which is often summarised in translation as ‘I am because we are, and since we are therefore I am’. As Yusufu Turaki puts it: ‘People are not individuals, living in a state of independence, but part of a community, living in relationships and interdependence’.

So what consciously can school leaders do, at a time of financial constraint and harsh accountability, as well as a time of severe social fracture, to contribute to the wider renewal of their communities, in the expectation this will impact positively on the educational and life success of their students? I’m starting to wonder whether the first contribution schools can make may lie in their understanding of the relationship of individuality, independence and interdependence, and in being confident and comfortable with fostering all three. In this way schools model for their students, and the parents of their students, the nature of community, with all its rawness, untidiness, vitality and vibrancy, through exemplifying community in their daily lives.

There are some outstanding examples of how that can be done, perhaps especially in our primary schools. But as an education service we’ve never given it sufficient sustained focus. If we were to do that, who knows what schools, and their pupils, might become!

Yusufu Turaki, Foundations of African Traditional Religion and Worldview (Nairobi: WordAlive Publishers, 2006), p. 36.

The limits to school improvement

The evidence has been growing for some time that our present understanding of school improvement and the pre-eminence we give to certain forms of data to evaluate that may have reached the end of their useful life. And the root of the problem lies in our inadequate understanding of the nature of that data, whilst we try to make use of it for purposes for which it was never intended.

Stephen Gorard in 2009 highlighted serious doubts about school effectiveness. He highlights a number of methodological weakness in the use of statistics, especially the propagation of error at every stage and concludes, in the context of the use value-added scores.

It is not enough to do well. Others have to fail for any school to obtain a positive result. Or more accurately, it is not even necessary to do well at all; it is only necessary to do not as badly as others.

Although value-added in that form has now been replaced in government data, fundamental problems remain in our new focus on pupil progress. Becky Allen, in a 2018 blog, highlights the difficulty, perhaps even the impossibility of accurately measuring individual pupil progress, let alone school progress. She suggests:

When we use standardised tests to measure relative progress, we often look to see whether a student has moved up (good) or down (down) the bell curve. A student scored 114 at the end of the year (having begun scoring 109) On the face of it this looks like they’ve made good progress, and learnt more than similar students over the course of the year. However, 109 is a noisy measure of what they knew at the start of the year and 114 is a noisy measure of what they knew at the end of the year. Neither test is reliable enough to say if this individual pupil’s progress is actually better or worse than should be expected, given their starting point.

When we turn to look at national high-stakes testing and use it for school accountability, a further complication arises from the nature of the bell curve against which standards are calibrated. Tom Sherrington’s
blog highlights the extent which it has to be a zero sum game. It is by definition the case that a school can only succeed as long as someone else fails. Not everyone can be at the head of the bell curve.

Finally, the evidence has been clear for a while that in terms of factors that influence educational outcomes, schools only have about a 30% effect. The other 70% or so lies outside the school. (See for example Silins and Mulford, 2002, Moreno et al., 2007)

While it is of course entirely right that schools are as effective as they can possibly be in influencing the factors in their control, it is perhaps also time recognise the inbuilt limits of this. Perhaps then we might stop committing logical errors such as expecting everyone to be above average and start looking at how the school can extend its influence beyond the school gates for the next of school improvement.

Moreno, M., Mulford, B. and Hargreaves, A. (2007). Trusting Leadership: From Standards to Social Capital. Nottingham: NCSL

Silins, H. and Mulford, B. (2002). Leadership and School Results, in K. Leithwood and P. Hallinger (eds), Second International Handbook of Educational Leadership and Administration. Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Press

Living with uncertainty and the measurement trap

Perhaps it's because we're uncomfortable living with uncertainty that we've been lured into the measurement trap.

In any redefinition of school quality and purpose, the measurements around quality and purpose, as well as the forms of measurement used, need to be taken carefully so as to reflect that change. ‘Don’t value what you measure, measure what you value’ may be an old adage, but is one that is often neglected in the world of education today. Measurement is important, and data is really valuable, but the purpose needs to be clear. The role of data, properly understood, is not to provide definitive answers but to support the asking of powerful questions.

A measurement is an observation that quantitatively reduces uncertainty. Measurements cannot yield precise, certain results, though they can help to reduce uncertainty.

The object of measurement must be described clearly, in terms of what we are seeking to observe. Even if you cannot measure exactly what you want, you can learn about your area of interest with related data. A business may not be able to measure the exact benefit of a happy customer, for example, but it could get measures which give evidence of the value and magnitude of its work. It could also get measures of the cost of dissatisfied customers.

But with all measures, you must use judgement. The danger is that we often mistake the measure for the thing itself. Measures are a proxy, and we need to understand the limitations of the data we use.

We should not just pretend that the data we have tells us everything we need to know. We need to think and ask powerful questions. We need to understand. And we need to exercise our judgement.

Perhaps that is what we're really uncomfortable with.