Towards a more equitable education system
There is extensive research suggesting that when teachers are involved in decision making this is likely to promote a better climate for learning within a school. There is also evidence that schools where teachers collaborate in developing their practice are more able to improve student outcomes and reduce achievement gaps.
Research such as this was part of the justification for the introduction of academies. Freed from the restrictions imposed by local authorities, it was argued, such schools would become centres of innovation that would stimulate wider system change. Sadly, the evidence is that this has not been the outcome. Whilst academies have been given space to innovate, this has often focused on aspects of management and organisation, rather than on the development of new, more creative teaching practices. Indeed, too often, the pattern has been to impose standard ways of working on teachers, which, in turn, has limited their ability to respond to student diversity.
So, then, what needs to happen in order to create a more equitable education system? First of all, emphasis must be placed on the improvement of teaching and learning though powerful forms of school-based professional development. Put simply, we need to give teaching back to teachers.
There also has to be a fundamental rethink of national accountability arrangements, so that there is a focus on the encouragement of greater experimentation and a concern for a much broader range of outcomes. In other words, we must measure what we value, rather than, as at present, valuing what can more easily be measured.
In addition, incentives need to be provided that encourage greater collaboration within schools and between schools, in order that successful practices are made available to more students. This emphasis on collaboration then needs to move beyond the school gate, with schools drawing on the energy and resources that exist within families and local communities.
Given the dangers associated with school isolation, there also has to be some form of local coordination. In many areas of England no one organisation has the overall picture that would enable them to orchestrate more collaborative ways of working. With this in mind, local authorities should be involved in monitoring and challenging schools – including academies – whilst head teachers and their colleagues share responsibility for the overall leadership of improvement efforts. In this respect, it is encouraging to see the recent emergence in various parts of England of new forms of partnership arrangements.
Finally, all of this has significant implications for national policy makers. In order to make use of the potential of greater autonomy, whilst minimising the potential risks involved, they need to foster greater flexibility at the local level in order that practitioners have the space to analyse their particular circumstances and determine priorities accordingly. This means that policy makers must recognize that the details of policy implementation are not amenable to central regulation. Rather, these should be dealt with by those who are close to and, therefore, in a better position to understand local contexts.
Mel Ainscow CBE is Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Manchester