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.