What is it about the U.S., the U.K., and now Australia that causes relative falls in international student attainment and wellbeing? It seems that investment never seems to quite tally with outcomes.
The eventual external and universal fix following some harrowing report or other is to see the curriculum as a cure and introduce a new National Curriculum (whatever the government says education is from time to time). The other is to throw more money at the perceived problem (Australia ranked about 80th in spending as a proportion of GDP). The next stage is to add endless measures and targets to spot any hoped for improvement. Finally, when everything becomes ponderously slow yet again, teacher quality and school leadership will be blamed as the root cause.
The cycle is then repeated. In management terms, such approaches cause schools to become part of the government/state supply side rather than what is actually needed, developing the school/customer delivery and collaboration side. The linkage between government, school and home simply doesn’t work, as it should.
To sidestep this problem, schools are gradually being set free of stifling regulation, like charter schools in the U.S. and specialist academies, federations and ‘free schools’ in the U.K. The fact is that governments will always be behind the learning curve while our iPod kids exist in real time, worldwide. If there is school failure, it is inabilities of schools to teach the way students learn. It may even be that teaching is the wrong word to use in a world where technological change is so rapid.
Schools as systems
My good fortune to work with hundreds of schools and be an advocate of systems thinking has led to one inevitable conclusion. When a school is organised horizontally the ability to form critical learning relationships between students and teachers and parents is stifled to a damaging degree. Year and grade systems do not work, have never worked and cannot be made to work. They depend entirely on high student compliance. There is no problem with teachers or with leadership. It’s just that all are all doing the wrong job brilliantly in trying to make brittle school systems appear to work. Playing with curriculum and chucking money around simply tends to keep things the same.
Governments need to understand that horizontal systems fail in three critical areas. These are firstly, the practice of customer care and especially in building parent partnership/engagement in learning. Secondly, the inability to understand, identify and intervene in ingroup loyalty especially with student groups that have negative attitudes and low aspirations and lastly, the understanding of management and systems thinking needed to abandon our factory school mentality. Ironically, these are the three key areas that schools wrongly think they are good at! Even the U.K. inspectorate (Ofsted) thinks that year-based pastoral care in U.K. schools is a big positive and fails completely to understand that it actually and inadvertently undermines learning and teaching quality.
Research suggests early intervention and enrichment plus family involvement in learning are two of the keys to success. U.K. high schools suggest that the key players who influence learning (positive and negative combined) are family (40-45 per cent effective), peers (35-40 per cent), teachers (15> per sent) and the child’s form tutor (5> per cent). This should tell school leaders very precisely who they need to be working with to effect the best possible outcomes and, indeed, how to run a school as a learning system. To balance out such anomalies, schools need to work more closely with parents than they have ever done before and this cannot be achieved using year systems. Similarly, if the peer group is such a powerful influence, the way schools intervene to build new ingroup loyalty more open to learning, becomes critical. Teachers are underachieving while form/home tutors are almost completely undermined by a school’s operational practice.
Our schools must embrace and engage with families like never before at all stages of a child’s school life. Any national strategy should ensure that this is so. Limp claims to a puerile, superficial belief in ‘parent partnership’ are no longer acceptable. There has to be a tangible, working, learning relationship with families built into the way a school operates. In customer care terms, there has to be greater communication, trust, sharing of information and planning especially as parents are the holders of key information and power. We need a school to operate a system that can easily and naturally enhance and build this relationship but that is not what we have. It is a similar situation with peer groups that operate very differently from mixed age or vertical groups.
The good news is that these partnership solutions and strategies exist. There are three simple springboards that better support learning in schools. In the U.S. there is the hybrid ‘Rocket School’ movement (charter school). These schools (learning labs) for early grade students and set up in very deprived areas embrace the key strategies mentioned above. There is heavy parental and adult involvement that ensures positive ingroup learning relationships are established. The longer day has individual support time built-in providing the powerhouse for improvement while learning appears to be a planned adventure all of its own. Potential is developed and kids are not seen as social failures with personality disorders. There are similar models in the Netherlands and elsewhere. They were always there before it was decided that ‘dull’ was the new order in the West.
The second is Vertical Tutoring (VT) now being embraced by hundreds of secondary schools in the U.K. as a cultural philosophy that improves outcomes. This is a simple but powerful innovation whereby the personal tutor and all students become leaders and mentors. This is made possible by a small structural, cost free change that builds strong learning relationships between school, family and students (a myriad of instant and pro-learning ingroup teams). Parents are kept better informed and are involved at identified critical times as part of the planning process when strategies for improvement require a steer. Parents also get what they most want: someone (the vertical tutor) to talk to and liaise with who knows their child well and in a very complete way. The improved learning and ingroup support relationships transfer easily to the classroom improving teacher quality and risk-taking in lessons. Quality, built into the system, not added on! Everyone a learner, everyone a leader: all arising from 20 minutes a day in mixed age groups. However, the VT system has to be fully understood for its potential for improved learning to be realised.
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