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On raising attainment and closing gaps

There is much talk across international education systems about the need to raise attainment and to close gaps, especially for those at risk because of deprivation factors. Everybody has an opinion on this. Some of this opinion is informed and some of it is not, based instead on personal views and political ideology. In Scotland we are seeing a pretty typical response to these two conundrums. I give you the National Improvement Framework, the NIF as it is now know as we rush headlong into using yet another acronym in education. The NIF is the First Minister's top down response to what she sees as the issue and her own take on the solution. This is a route followed by many other countries and systems around the world, including USA, Australia, England and Sweden. This route is high on accountability and testing, and low on research or evidence to show it actually works. In fact the evidence would seem to show that in the countries mentioned attainment has gone down and gaps have widened. Professor Stephen Ball was in Glasgow recently to warn his Scottish audience of the possible pitfalls in the direction of travel now being taken by Scotland. He particularly cautioned against approaches that had as their focus the outputs, in the shape of standardised testing, league tables and target setting. Instead he, like many other leading educational researchers and thinkers, was adamant we should be focused on the inputs into the system. So what are these inputs that we should focus on? 

I would like to suggest that there are four that we could focus on and which would lead to the improvements that we seek. Some of these are mentioned in the NIF, but we are already seeing signs that the focus at local authority and higher levels is going to be on accountability, testing and the improvement of data, the outputs of the system.

The four areas I think where we should really focus our attention have been recognised by researchers around the world as inputs that will really make a difference. The first is leadership. We need leaders who understand, and can lead,  learning in their establishments and across the system. We are not just talking here about those people who have leadership roles in their title, but everyone accepting their part in contributing to leadership in their own schools and beyond. Michael Fullan, Alma Harris, Clive Dimmock and our own Graham Donaldson, amongst many, have recognised the importance of leadership at all levels to schools and education systems. They all identify the need for high performing leaders to be thinkers, readers, engagers with research, collaborators, innovators and system leaders, and how we need to keep developing those leaders throughout their careers. Leadership at all levels is crucial to developing and improving our schools and therefore the outcomes for all learners.

John Hattie, Dylan Wiliam, Helen Timperley, Andy Hargreaves, as well as those already mentioned, are also agreed that, if we are serious about improving our schools and our education system, then it is crucial we focus on developing all the teachers within these. 'Not because we are not good enough, but because we can be even better.' As Wiliam says. Research after research shows that improving teacher understanding and practice produces the biggest effect sizes in terms of improving outcomes. We need to commit to providing high level career-long professional development opportunities for all our teachers, and we need them to recognise this as a disposition and and expectation from the teaching profession. No longer is it acceptable to work in isolation, or to not engage with professional development, this should be an expectation and teachers need to take charge of their own professional development. High quality professional development should be seen as something done by teachers, not done to them. It is no longer about going on courses and doing lots of 'things', but has to be seen as a continuous and ongoing process of development.

Sue Ellis and Edward Sosu, as well as others, have shown that the gap already exists for many young children in their language development before they even reach school at age five. This points to the third area we need to focus on, and that is early intervention. Research has shown, and we have known for a long time, that if we put interventions into families and learners before they even start their more formal education journey, then we can have positive impacts for individuals and for society as a whole. Not only can we improve outcomes for individuals and their families, it is more cost effective if we are putting those interventions in early, rather than when those individuals become adults. Without such interventions, we are constantly playing catch up for some learners as they move through the school system. I am afraid that early intervention strategies still have a lot of rhetoric around them, but when times are tight financially, they do seem an 'easy hit' for some. If we are serious about our desires for all our learners, I would suggest that cuts to early intervention programmes should not be an option.

The fourth area where I think we need to pay attention, is to the cultures that exist in our schools. In my last post, I spoke about the importance of culture and how this promotes a lot of the attitudes, attributes and tacit learning and understandings that our learners develop over time. We need to focus on developing cultures within our schools that support and foster a lifelong love of learning and personal development for all. In my view, we need to pay more attention to the cultures we are developing as they are crucial to everything else that happens within those schools. This should be the responsibility of all, but especially should be a key skill and focus for school principals and headteachers. I have seen the school culture being described as 'the hidden curruclum' in schools and we neglect it at our peril. They can be positive or toxic, and they make a massive difference to attainment and our ability to close gaps.

I believe that if we focused on these four inputs into our schools and our systems we would produce the improvements we seek. Evidence and research would seem to back this up, so I am still not quite sure why so many want to keep focusing on the outputs. By the time we have the outputs and data associated with these it's too late to make a difference for those learners. As Andy Hargreaves noted a few weeks ago, 'the data can't tell you what to do.' I would suggest that research and evidence about what works across different contexts, can point us all in the right direction.


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