Rethinking school improvement

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Whether the school a child attends is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is only one of the many factors influencing his or her success. In the second of his new series for School Leadership Today, John West-Burnham asks why schools seeking to improve student outcomes rarely consider the rest.

School improvement has been the prevailing orthodoxy in school policy and leadership for a generation. There is no doubt that as the dominant mode of strategic thinking informing policy across school systems, the approach has achieved significant change and has been responsible for improvements in the performance and effectiveness of schools.

Parallel with this focus on improving the school as an institution has been recognition that perhaps just focusing on the school might not be enough. Jerrim demonstrates the very real impact of family and social advantage:

‘High achieving boys from the most advantaged family backgrounds in England are roughly two and a half years ahead of their counterparts in the least advantaged households by the age of 15.’

Schools have improved as schools – there are now more good schools than at any time in the past – but that assumes that successful schools are the most significant manifestation of a high performing education system. One of the key challenges facing education systems such as England and many parts of the USA is that while there is undisputed excellence, there is a lack of equity. In other words, while every child has the right to go to school, not every child goes to a good school.

As in many aspects of British society, there is a deep polarisation between those who succeed and those who do not and the primary causes are social and economic factors rather than schools themselves.

The central thesis of this discussion is that it is not enough to improve schools to secure equity – there has to be a commitment to improving all the variables that influence life chances, wellbeing and academic success.

What has been the impact so far?
If a narrow set of outcomes based on subject performance is identified as the driving imperative for school improvement, as it generally is, then there has been real progress – however incremental and slow it might have been across the system. If, however, a wider range of outcomes is identified, for example equity, wellbeing, enhanced life chances and the embodiment of social justice in the education system, then traditional school improvement strategies have had relatively limited impact.

In fairness, those strategies were always …

 

 

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