A Generic Model For School Improvement

Professor David Hopkins , one of the world’s leading education researchers, outlines the steps to a continuously self-improving school, based on student and staff learning

This approach – what we call an inside-out model of school improvement – eschews both top-down and ‘à la carte’ approaches, in favour of a whole-school improvement strategy designed to address the learning needs of all students in a particular school. 1

Consistency and high expectations are the lubricants for such integrated whole-school strategies. Some thought also needs to be given to how the school organises itself to become what is commonly being called ‘a professional learning community’.

This, as we have seen, involves teachers not just planning together, but also observing each other and gathering formative data on the impact of the various strategies on student learning. School improvement from the inside–out occurs where individual program elements combine to create a comprehensive strategy that is both systemic and purposeful.

The basic generic or default approach described here is amenable to adaptation to context, as well as laying the basis for differential approaches to school improvement.

The school improvement strategy described below was developed as part of the Improving the Quality of Education for All.2 The model not only focuses on improving student behaviour, learning and attainment, but also pays attention to teacher and school development.

Although the approach was originally developed some thirty years ago, it has been refined over time and adapted to changing circumstances, particularly in relation to Curiosity and Powerful Learning.3 The reason it has so much applicability to inside–out working, is that it is based on a belief that to advance achievement for all students it is necessary to address not only the learning of individual teachers, but also the organisational capacity of the school.

In other words, without an emphasis on capacity building, a school will be unable to sustain continuous improvement efforts that result in student attainment. As is seen in Figure 1, the approach has two major components—the ‘capacity building dimension’ and the ‘strategic dimension’.

The capacity building dimension relates to the conditions at both school and classroom levels. Through sustained work on the conditions for development the school enhances its capacity for managing change. The strategic dimension reflects the ability of the school to plan sensibly for improvement efforts.

Most schools are by now familiar with the need to establish a clear and practical focus for their improvement efforts. In this sense, the choice about priorities for development represents the school’s interpretation of the current reform agenda. The final element in the framework is school culture.

A key assumption is that school improvement strategies will lead to cultural change in schools through modifications to their internal conditions. It is this cultural change that supports innovations in teaching and learning processes, which leads to enhanced outcomes for students.

Figure 1 A strategic school improvement framework

It is in these ways that the most successful schools pursue their improvement efforts. While focusing on the learning needs of students in the context of systemic and environmental demands, they also recognise that school structures must reflect both these demands, as well as offering a suitable vehicle for the future development of the school.

In this sense the structure of the school provides the skeleton that supports cultural growth, rather than the framework that constrains it. This three-stage school improvement process has at its core an unrelenting focus on learning and attainment.

Given this central focus, the school improvement strategy encompasses classroom practice, particularly the expansion of teachers’ pedagogic repertoire, and the building of capacity at the school level especially the redesign of staff development. While this is not a ‘quick fix’ approach, many of the activities involved will bring short- as well as medium-term gains.

The three stages are: establishing the process; going whole-school; and sustaining momentum.

Stage One: Establishing the Process

This stage involves:

  • commitment to the school improvement approach
  • selection of a school improvement team
  • enquiring into the strengths and weaknesses of the school
  • designing the whole-school program
  • seeding the whole-school approach.

This flow of activity is illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2 Preparing for school improvement (Reproduced from Hopkins 2007, p. 127)

Stage Two: Going Whole-School

This cycle of activity usually lasts between two terms and up to a year. The activities in this phase are:

  • initial whole-school training day(s)
  • establishing the curriculum and teaching focus through Instructional Rounds
  • establishing learning teams
  • initial cycle of enquiry
  • sharing initial success and impact on student learning from the ‘curriculum tour’.

The flow of activity during this phase of the process is illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3 Going whole-school (Reproduced from Hopkins 2007, p. 128)

Stage Three: Sustaining Momentum

It is in this phase that the capacity for change at school and classroom level becomes more secure. Learning teams become an established way of working and there is an expansion of the range of teaching strategies used throughout the curriculum. This activity includes:

  • establishing further cycles of enquiry
  • building teacher learning into the process
  • sharpening the focus on student learning
  • finding ways of sharing success and building networks
  • reflecting on the culture of the school and department.

When these ways of working are embedded, then not only will student attainment have risen, but also the school will have established itself as an effective learning organisation.

Figure 4 illustrates the range of activities that contribute to a capacity for learning within a school and how a number of the elements of school improvement come together in practice. It begins from two assumptions. The first is that all students have a potential for learning that is not fully exploited. The second is that is that students’ learning capability refers to their ability to access that potential through increasing their range of learning skills (Hopkins 2007).

Figure 4 The logic of school improvement (Reproduced from Hopkins 2007, p. 160)


This potential is best realised and learning capability enhanced through the range of theories of action and teaching and learning models that teachers use with their students. The teaching and learning strategies are not ‘free floating’, but embedded in the schemes of work and curriculum content that teachers use to structure the learning in their lessons. These schemes of work also have the potential to be shared between schools and be available for wider dissemination.

Finally, this way of working assumes a whole-school dimension through the establishment of a staff development infrastructure, an emphasis on high expectations and the careful attention to the consistency of teaching and the discussion of pedagogy that pervades the cultures of these schools through the exercise of Instructional Leadership (Hopkins and Craig 2015/17 c). Although this is a generic framework it is necessary, but not sufficient because the framework needs adapting to the particular phase of the performance cycle that the school is in.

About The Author

Professor David Hopkins is currently Chair of Educational Leadership at the University of Bolton, as well as being Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Education, University College London and the University of Nottingham. Among a range of educational roles, he has been Chief Adviser to three Secretary of States on School Standards in the UK, Dean of Education at the University of Nottingham, a secondary school teacher, Outward Bound Instructor and consults internationally on school and system reform.

Now Read On:

High quality teachers, high quality learning – a framework for improvement

Theories of action – Teacher practice and student achievement

The “Powerful Learning” Framework


  1. This framework for school improvement provides the foundation for the improvement strategy based on inside–out working utilised in the Curiosity and Powerful Learning programme (Hopkins and Craig 2015/17 a & b).
  • Hopkins, D. (2002) Improving the Quality of Education for All (Second Edition). London: Fulton.
  • Hopkins, D. (2007) Every School a Great School. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press.
  • Hopkins, D. (2013) Exploding the myths of school reform. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press.
  • Hopkins, D. and Craig, W. (2015/17a) The System and Powerful Learning. Melbourne: McREL International [Kindle Edition 2017 available from Amazon].
  • Hopkins, D. and Craig, W. (2015/17b) Curiosity and Powerful Learning. Melbourne: McREL International [Kindle Edition 2017 available from Amazon].
  • Hopkins, D. and Craig, W. (2015/17c) Leadership for Powerful Learning. Melbourne: McREL International [Kindle Edition 2017 available from Amazon].