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School Improvement

Professor David Hopkins' series on school improvement

If you are a school leader and want to reflect on the direction that your school is taking in relation to school improvement, this series of articles by Professor David Hopkins could be beneficial. 


David Hopkins is professor emeritus at the Institute of Education, University of London. He has had a key role in advising Secretaries of State and brings his knowledge and research to this series of stimulating and thought-provoking articles. 


‘The changing landscape of school improvement’  is the first article in the series. Hopkins begins by reminding us that schools weren’t always thought to make that much difference to the life of students. It is only in more recent times that individual schools have been recognised as making a significant difference to pupil outcomes. Professor Hopkins now claims that we are in the ‘third age’ of school improvement in which the enhancement of the quality of teaching needs to be the central theme of any improvement strategy. 


Professor Hopkins refers to eight criteria that characterise effective schools:

Curriculum-focused school leadership

Supportive climate in the school

Emphasis on curriculum and teaching

Clear goals and high expectations for students

A system for monitoring performance and achievement

Ongoing staff development and support

Local authority and external support 


This list is not exhaustive and Professor Hopkins also identifies process factors as contributing. 


There are not only different national landscapes in relation to school improvement. Each school has its own position on the developmental continuum too. In ‘Differential strategies for school improvement’ David Hopkins acknowledges the differing needs of schools according to their stage of development and suggests that there are three different routes to improvement that schools might take:


Using tactics: a tactical response to improvement e.g. monitoring performance, targeting students, introducing extra classes, implementing codes of conduct


Applying strategies: this includes the tactical response but with more of a purpose and clear focus at the ‘learning’ level 


Developing capacities: this includes a clear strategy but with a more sophisticated approach to change, understanding when change is happening, the reasons why and with the view that school improvement is a way of life 


The stage of development of the school is crucial when considering how to improve it. Hopkins identifies six levels of performance in English secondary schools in his article ‘system leadership for system reform’. It is an interesting exercise to consider which level your school is on:

Leading schools – the highest-performing schools which also have the capacity to lead others

Succeeding, self-improving schools  schools that have consistently above-average levels of value added 

Succeeding schools with significant areas of underperformance they may be successful on published criteria but underperform 

Underperforming schools – the secondary schools in the lowest value-added quartile 

Low attaining schools – below the national floor target but with the capacity to improve 

Failing schools – those secondary schools well below the floor target and with little capacity to improve 


For each of these types of school a different approach is needed that is responsive to the school’s context and level of need.  

Change isn’t always easy and Professor Hopkins considers some of the impediments to it in ‘The elephant in the classroom’ . Lack of professional practice and its accompanying language can prevent the connection being made between teaching to learning. This he describes as the ‘instructional core’ and understanding what this consists of can help schools to find ways of intervening in classroom practice to improve the quality of student learning. 


Hopkins outlines a framework that includes the four elements of:

Teaching skills

Teaching relationships 

Teacher reflection 

Teaching model


Which all impact upon one another and combine together to ensure quality teaching takes place. Hopkins is keen to emphasise that the best teachers will have access to a range of teaching models to help them personalise learning. 


The changing culture of schools away from competition towards collaboration is the subject of the article ‘The challenge of system reform’. The article looks closely at the role of the school leader and presents a model of system leadership with a moral purpose at its core. This then translates into three domains of action:

Managing teaching and learning 

Developing people

Developing organisations

The outer core extends further with leaders supporting other schools and working as change agents such as a National Leader of Education. This view of the school leader as reaching out beyond his/ her own organisation is a particularly powerful and important one in the current context of school reorganisation. 


This series is a challenging read that can provide senior school leaders, particularly secondary school leaders, with ways of analysing their approach to school improvement. 


Related Articles


The changing landscape of school improvement (open access article)

Professor David Hopkins begins a new series for SLT by looking at the remarkable changes in our understanding of school improvement – from what it means and who does it to its effects on students’ learning.

The challenge of system reform

David Hopkins’ thought-provoking series for SLT continues with a look at the shift in Britain’s school system from competition to collaboration.

The elephant in the classroom

David Hopkins’ innovative series on school improvement continues with a look at one of education’s great unspokens: strategies for addressing the ‘instructional core'.

Differential strategies for school improvement

David Hopkins’ fascinating series on school improvement continues by focusing on the various strategies that best suit schools at different stages of development.

System leadership for system reform

Professor David Hopkins’ series on school improvement ends with a look at the way reform is intrinsically linked with leadership style.