23 March 2015

‘What Works’ in Raising Educational Standards? Learning Lessons and Rising to the ‘Challenge’

What Works Scotland Co-Director Professor Chris Chapman reflects on lessons from London for the Scottish Attainment Challenge, a £100 million initiative designed to close the gap in attainment of children from more and less advantaged backgrounds. 

The Scottish Government has announced the “Scottish Attainment Challenge”, a £100 million initiative designed to close the gap in attainment of children from more and less advantaged backgrounds. 

Some of the ideas informing this development have been borrowed from various approaches developed south of the boarder, including London Challenge, a three-year intervention designed to transform educational attainment of young people across the capital city. However, London Challenge is not a simple solution to closing the attainment gap. Although we may be inspired to adopt some of its positive messages we must be selective about which elements help in our setting. A particular issue will be how to develop an approach that is potent in terms of impact but also compatible with our values.

 Three key questions might focus our minds: 

1. Are we dealing with transformational truths or impressive myths? 

London Challenge is not a case of uniform transformation; the City Challenge is even more variable. The realities of practice suggest a complex mix of successes, combined with missed opportunities and variable impact. Neither are “Challenge-style” approaches a myth. They are examples of context-specific intensive interventions that can legitimately claim some success but without a deep understanding of both the intervention and context may not readily transfer to our system. 

Image from http://www.lgfl.net/

2. What lessons can we learn from Challenge-style initiatives? 

There are some clear messages: 
  • focusing on low-attaining schools as the “keys to success”
  • concentrating on core subjects
  • using credible external advisors
  • investing resources directly into schools and classrooms
  • building capacity through professional learning and leadership development
  • promoting structured collaboration and networking
  • using contextualised improvement data, and 
  • developing an overarching strategy that links schools into public services and their communities. 
We need to reflect on these in developing a Scottish initiative. 

3. What might an Attainment Challenge in Scotland look like? 

The lessons suggest we should develop an approach that includes within-, between- and beyond-school elements.

  • Within schools, we need to focus on literacy and numeracy but resist the temptation to focus purely on primary schools. The core aim should be to improve teaching, learning and leadership at all levels. We should use a wide range of data to inform action and place collaborative enquiry-based professional learning at the heart of these efforts.
  • Between schools, we need to build “innovation hubs” that act as catalysts for system change. These hubs connect schools to each other and move the best evidence, expertise and practice around the system. Key agencies need to work in partnership with local authorities to broker and facilitate action across the hubs to position them as spaces for experimentation, innovation and evaluation of the initiative’s wider impact.
  • Beyond schools, we need to link them meaningfully into community planning partnerships and other agencies. We also need to draw down existing capital in communities, business and other organisations to improve access and raise young people’s aspirations and achievement so that they can reach their full potential. What Works Scotland has a key role to play in supporting these types of developments over the next three years and the early signs are encouraging and we are already seeing examples of promising activity some of our case study areas.       

Ultimately, the processes of implementation are as important as the content. Even the most robust and inspirational strategy is doomed to failure unless all parties can work together under a shared vision for the future. 

What Works Scotland is facilitating co-production and partnership working to develop a shared vision which will empower all our communities to flourish.

Image from http://theliberal.ie

This piece is based on an article published in the TESS on 6th March 2015.

Professor Chris Chapman is also Co-Director of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational change.

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