What makes a successful school?

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OECD found that the best-performing school systems tend to be those that are most equitable - they don’t segregate children academically or by virtue of where they live. The first question, therefore, is how equitable is the English education system and whether government policies will make it more or less equitable. OECD (1) warns that the free school/academy programme needs careful monitoring if it is not to impact negatively on disadvantaged children.

The second question is what makes an effective school. But before that there needs to be a consensus about how to measure effective schools. OECD (1) has warned that there is too much emphasis on raw examination results in English education and praised the contextual value added measure (CVA) as a step in the right direction. However, the Government has now abolished CVA and pushes a “no excuses” mantra which fails to take into account the context in which a school operates.

Professor Pamela Sammons, writing in late 2007, identified processes found in effective schools. These were effective leadership, effective teaching, focus on learning, a positive school culture, high and appropriate expectations for pupils and staff, emphasising responsibilities and rights, monitoring progress at all levels, developing staff skills and involving parents in productive and appropriate ways. More recent research from Harvard identified five factors: giving pointers to pupils more frequently, using assessment to plan instruction, meeting pupils in small tutor groups more often to discuss their progress, teaching for more days and longer hours than other New York schools, and having high expectations. The Harvard report, however, came with warnings: the researchers did not look at other possible factors, such as school leadership, and they focused only on a small number of charter schools.

The third question is what is effective teaching. Muijus and Reynolds (2) noted:

“In the absence of a substantial body of knowledge about effective practices from the research community, much use was made of definitions of what ‘effective teachers’ did as judged by Ofsted, the General Teaching Council and/or the Department for Children, Schools and Families, yet these judgements have not always been research based and may be open to political manipulation.”

Instead of focussing on a one-size-fits-all solution to raising standards (ie academy status) it would be better if there were a full, unbiased and rigorous assessment of the research into what makes a school effective and what comprises effective classroom practice. The Government says it wants its policies to be evidence-based. It should, therefore, look at all the evidence and not just that which supports its narrow, preconceived ideas.

(1) OECD Economic Survey UK 2011, not freely available on the internet but details of how to obtain a copy are here.

(2) p6, Muijs, D, and Reynolds, D, “Effective Teaching: Evidence and Practice”, 3rd Edition, 2011, London, Sage Publications