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One national prescription is not the medicine to cure schools

By Peter Barnard - posted Monday, 12 March 2012

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.

Lastly, the vertically tutored school is spawning a renewed confidence in learning and teaching and a few large secondary schools are looking at Vertical Teaching. This is not just upper age groups combining courses but involves new approaches to learning across ages 11-16 in a planned combination of mixed age groups. The purpose is to increase positive outcomes and improve examination results. The results from these early pioneering schools are quite exciting and seem to abound with fresh possibilities about how we organise and engage with learning. 

So, what does a country need to do to become smart?

Education policy should: Promote the civic duty on parents to be responsible for the pre-school education of their children in the 3Rs and even behaviour. Intervention and accountability here is always good value and life long; require all schools and all parents to engage in an in-depth review of learning (academic tutorial or learning conversation) with the child present (45 minutes) at least once a year at a critical learning time. This brings together all home and school information and allows for any strategies for improvements to be set out and agreed (classic ingroup loyalty). There should still be subject evenings; Ensure that school management training programmes are brought up to date to recognise how learning organisations such as schools can be organised in more creative ways that enhance learning rather than make it difficult; Take advantage of the capable army of retired people and gap year students and many others who could be helping out in schools. The Big Society idea is sound and should be encouraged. Responsibility for learning outcomes cannot be shouldered by teachers alone; Ensure that all who work in schools regardless of their status or job should be tutors in the 20 minute a day tutor time slot. These critical relationships redefine care and provide stability and leadership in an otherwise toxic and fast moving world and; Encourage schools to be divergent and innovative and do the crazy, mind blowing things kids come up with (before we killed this off with ‘student voice’)

In the end, schools and teachers can either go down the road of endless regulation and stomach the blame for the poor outcomes of government prescription or be set free to build the partnerships that our parents and their children want but which are denied by year systems and old school rules. The first road is littered with the immense waste of failed initiatives. The second has no signposts. It has endless routes that require collaboration, creativity, ingenuity, innovation and a sense of fun. The latter is more likely to guarantee improved outcomes and a better, smarter society.

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About the Author

Peter is an ex school principal, consultant leader and widely recognised by schools as the national expert in school improvement in the UK. He has trained in China, UK, USA, and Germany.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Peter Barnard

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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