How can we improve our education system?

“Our problems are man-made; therefore, they can be solved by man”

J.F. Kennedy


 “Our problems cannot be solved on the same level of thinking that created them”

Albert Einstein


Education reform is more like fixing a compass than a clock.

‘The world’s best-performing school systems make great teaching their “north star”. They have strategic and systematic approaches to attract, train and retain the most talented teachers.’


Great education systems focus on improving teaching quality

with great leadership, training, curricula and assessment.

The Destination: Excellence and Equity

In climbing the twin peaks of quality and equality, education in England has a steep ascent ahead. In world-class education systems, 90% of school leavers achieve good qualifications; in England today, it is 60%. In an equitable education systems, there is little gap between the poorer and wealthier pupils; in England, it is 26%. Nearly 50 per cent of children claiming free school meals achieve no GCSE passes above a D grade (Cassen and Kingdon 2007). Around a fifth of pupils still leave school without basic levels of literacy, a tail of low achievement that is almost twice as large as our competitor countries. And even the gains we think we have made in the last decade may have been illusory.

Unpalatable Truth: Fool’s Gold Improvement


All that glistens is not gold

Professor Rob Coe is one of the world’s leading experts in educational evaluation, having set up the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University in 1987. Over almost three decades, this long-term perspective has revealed some unpalatable insights, as he unveiled in a lecture this week:


“Despite the apparently plausible and widespread belief to the contrary, the evidence that levels of attainment in schools in England have systematically improved over the last 30 years is unconvincing. Much of what is claimed as school improvement is illusory, and many of the most commonly advocated strategies for improvement are not robustly proven to work”.


Though GCSE results have skyrocketed, from 8% achieving A’s in 1987 to 22% by 2012, international and independent assessments tell a conflicting story, as Professor Coe shows:


“On one level, my analysis is quite bleak: standards have not risen; teaching has not improved; research that has tried to support improvement has generally not succeeded; even identifying which schools and teachers are good is more difficult than we thought. Improving school systems is clearly very hard. We have to work smarter, not just harder. We must look carefully at the strategies we have been using to improve, and replace them with some different ones”.

Nothing matters more to educational improvement than the quality of teaching. In McKinsey’s decade-long research in over 50 countries, they have never seen an education system achieve or sustain world-class status without top talent in its teaching profession (8). In the world’s best performing school systems, over 10 applicants apply for every teaching job. In England, it is just 2. It’s a stark disparity. Not only that, but 50% of teachers leave the profession within 5 years, and that turnover is higher in tougher schools in poorer communities. Weak recruitment and low retention drain teaching quality.


A new IPPR report argues that though teacher quality is the key, just recruiting better teachers won’t do it. In it, the research according to Dylan Wiliam shows that improving recruitment is ‘hard to implement, the effects are modest, and it takes too long. If the bar for entry into the profession were raised, it would take at least 30 years before the last of those who entered the profession before the bar was raised left teaching’. Instead, he says ‘increased teacher quality requires investing in the teachers already working in our schools. That investment in teachers needs to take a radically different form from the professional development that teachers have received over the last 30 years’. Wiliams, Coe and the IPPR all agree: we have to do things differently.


“Improving education is like stirring a big bowl of soup…”

As another education reformer put it, “Reform is like a big bowl of soup. The cook is stirring the soup, but if the spoon is too short, you only mix the surface. The spoon must be long enough to reach the meat and potatoes that lie at the bottom.” (McKinsey 2006 p99) The tongue-in-cheek metaphor is that the “meat and potatoes” are the non-negotiables of education reform.

The five non-negotiables that I think most affect teaching quality (defined here as effective instruction plus continuous improvement). As a teaching profession, we must avoid getting distracted from them and focus on them systematically. Taking each in turn, they are:

1. Leadership must be benchmarked for culture against the best schools’ ethos.

Key to driving up standards in the most disadvantaged schools has been a relentless focus on the quality of teaching and leadership’ says James Toop, CEO of Teaching Leaders. HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw agrees: ‘You can’t divorce teaching from the culture of the school and that is determined by leadership.’

All too often the toughest schools have the weakest leadership, as evidenced by the high staff turnover in these schools, and anecdotally the conversations I have with hundreds of teachers who teach in deprived communities: they often encounter seven habits of highly defective rather than effective SLT. As the IPPR report makes clear, poor kids often end up in worse schools than their wealthier peers.

Governing bodies need to be stronger in benchmarking the ethos, culture and leadership of their schools against the highest expectations and tenacious consistency of the best schools who succeed against the odds. If some schools manage it, all schools should be capable of it, and the successful London Challenge model showed the route to it: school-to-school, headteacher-led, data-driven collaboration.



2. Training must be evidence-based & evaluated for its effect on teaching & learning.

Professor Coe puts it more pithily than I have:the right kinds of CPD can produce big benefits for learners, but most of the CPD undertaken by teachers is not of this kind (Joyce and Showers, 2002; Yoon et al 2007; Wei et al, 2009; Cordingley and Bell, 2012). For a profession that is so dedicated to learning for others, teachers seem to take little care over their own learning”. David Weston and Doug Lemov, two of the most high profile educators in the UK and the US, agree with him that most CPD is ineffective: the research shows that just 1% of CPD is effectively improving classroom practice in England.

Professor Coe is clear:We need to do four things: be clear what kinds of learning we value to get teaching really focused on this learning; invest in effective professional development; evaluate, and measure properly, teaching quality using multiple sources of validated evidence to support diagnostic and constructive improvement; and whenever we make a change, evaluate its impact as robustly as we can. Education has existed in a pre-scientific world, where good measurement of anything important is rare and evaluation is done badly or not at all. It is time we established a more scientific approach”.

For me, what could transform both ITT and CPD is the principles from evidence-based research of decades of cognitive science, which I have not heard of being taught systematically in teacher training.



3. Behaviour systems must be enforced consistently & SLT held accountable. 

Nationally, over 69% of teachers surveyed felt there was a widespread problem of poor pupil behaviour in their schools, and 79% of teachers in schools in disadvantaged areas did. If behaviour is disruptive, teachers can’t teach, and pupils can’t learn. Inconsistency from SLT perpetuates misbehaviour. And teachers don’t think government measures to improve discipline are helping.

Tom Bennett is right to say that the right question is not ‘is behaviour getting worse?’ but ‘what needs to be done?’ And he does a good job here of distilling the 20 key actions SLT should be taking. What is required is a combination of whole-school consistency on strong discipline and national accountability for SLT, as I have argued in my blogpost on improving behaviour here. This will take a steep culture change in many schools.


 4. Assessment must be focused on supporting learning and flagging up intervention.

How do around 20% of school leavers leave school illiterate and innumerate? What kind of assessment system do we have that almost 50% of our poorest pupils leave school without a single grade above a D at GCSE? Our assessment straitjackets teaching and shackles learning.  Year on year, pupils’ lack of basic skills is not flagged up, and they continue to proceed through school without knowing the basics of times tables or reading, inhibiting their progress. If you can’t multiply or read, you can’t learn much else.

In Europe, kids who fall far behind, repeat the year. In England, they move on regardless. A middle way might be summer school intervention. Currently, the six-week summer holiday widens the gap in cultural literacy between wealthier and poorer pupils. Either the assessment system does not flag up systematically which kids require extra intervention, or it is not acted on. The pupil premium means there are now 3000 schools who get £100,000 to close the inequality gap. An effective way to spend this is on catch-up summer school, as corroborated by the recent IPPR report.

As national levels are removed and not replaced, schools have an opportunity to design assessment systems that actually help teachers improve learning. A mastery model of assessment, such as Maths mastery used by ARK academies or the Humanities mastery used by Pimlico Academy, would clearly flag up which children need catch-up support early enough to intervene. However, big questions remain over whether schools have the expertise, time and willpower to design their own assessment systems.



5. Subject curricula must be sequenced coherently.

Teaching quality cannot be separated from the curriculum. To my knowledge, very few subject curricula in England are designed using the insights from Michel Thomas, Siegfried Engelmann and E.D. Hirsch. As Engelmann says, ‘When the curriculum fails, the teaching will fail’. (1992 p7); ‘If the teaching is not effective, the most direct implication is that the curricular sequences are not well designed’ (1992 p179). The empirical success of careful sequences of content should make us rethink how we order what we teach in English, Maths, History, and other core subjects. Given the autonomy and freedom to innovate in the curriculum, schools now need to think hard about these decisions. One school governor emailed me after my blog on sequence in the curriculum last week and asked:

  • How should schools decide what content (i.e. period of history or English) should be allocated how much time?
  • How should a whole-school curriculum be designed?
  • How should cross-curricular learning be designed?
  • How should governors provide quality assurance and accountability over these decisions?

Just as qualifying as a driver does not make you a car mechanic, qualifying as a teacher does not make you a curriculum designer. These are tough questions, but they are the right questions. How schools resolve them over the coming decades will determine to a large extent whether our kids leave school smart or not.


The Journey: Culture and Habit Change

How do we in education improve on these five non-negotiable priorities to support teaching? Politicians are not going to do it for us; they lack the longevity of leadership – the average tenure of an education minister is about two years – and often lack understanding of the profession, rarely having been teachers themselves. Instead, the profession must take the lead. But changing ingrained habits in the system is not easy.


In ‘Switch’, Chip & Dan Heath suggest the analogy of an elephant-rider for changing when change is hard, which can apply to us as a teaching profession.


Direct the Rider

  • Follow the bright spots: some schools, like King Soloman Academy, are already innovating on the curriculum and assessment; some are taking the lead on initial teacher training in the system, like the 300 teaching schools.
  • Point to the destination: do we have a relentless focus yet on improving teaching through evaluated training, sequenced curricula, mastery assessment, consistent behaviour systems and strong leadership? Focus on the destination helps us pursue the right direction.
  • Script the critical moves: how do you change a school from ineffective to effective leadership, behaviour, training, curricula and assessment? The vital specifics are being shown by headteachers like Sally Coates and Rachel de Souza.


Motivate the Elephant

  • Shrink the change: Every teacher needs to focus on improving, not because they’re not good enough, but because everyone can do better; and they need to be working on something they choose that makes an impact on pupil learning, such as feedback or explanations; that’s it.
  • Grow your people: CPD must develop teachers’ abilities to lead and leaders ability to teach.


Shape the Path

  • Tweak the environment: perverse incentives require realignment, so that league tables don’t distort the curriculum, qualifications and assessment quite so much, and Ofsted aren’t prescribing one style of teaching quite so much.
  • Build habits: habitual observation, reflection and improvement must become the in-built mindset of 500,000 new and experienced teachers.

The Case for Optimism: Three Trends

I am optimistic that we can improve training, leadership, behaviour, curricula and assessment, for this reason: there are three long-term, historic and enduring trends I am seeing in education that are driving us upwards and in the right direction towards the unanimously desired end-point of world-class achievement. These are the professionalisation of teaching, the collaborative online dialogue, and the dawn of big data.

1. Professionalism

In the coming years, the teaching profession will become less beholden to the political pendulum. Moves are afoot for a Royal College of Teaching in England. Teach First, Teaching Leaders and Future Leaders are providing an example of how networked progression might be led by the profession. Organisations like the Teacher Development Trust already act as the independent voice of teachers. Teacher-led conferences like ResearchEd and teacher-led publications like How To Start on Teach First will proliferate. And by 2015, there will be around 500 teaching school alliances. Teachers and headteachers have the drive and willpower to lead the profession towards system improvement. Over the next decade, we need to map out a clear progression structure for our career progression, such as the one suggested by David Weston:


2. Dialogue

The extraordinary Cambrian explosion and flourishing of online educational dialogue on social media sites is a game-changer. Globally, there are now millions of teachers sharing ideas on sites like Twitter, with the numbers set to rise exponentially over the next decade. A huge number of teachers and headteachers will be drawn into the gravitational orbit of blogging online. As the online dialogue proliferates, it will change continuing professional development from being thought of as ad-hoc meetings to a genuinely continuous flow of ideas. Technology will make it increasingly easy to video lessons or explanations and share them freely online. Teachers who previously had access to observing practice only in their own schools during a busy school day will be able to observe online any time, anywhere and in schools across borders. Dialogue between the Department for Education and teachers, and between teachers and policymakers, is already now possible in a way unthinkable even five years ago. The potential for all this to improve teaching quality is quite extraordinary.


Explosive Evolution


3. Data

The new era will be characterised by the advent of big data. This has already helped school administrators immensely with computerised systems; now teachers stand to benefit from digital assessment with much greater visibility over which learners know what. Tracking and intervention online means that parents and pupils also have anytime, anywhere access to their progress and potentially that of their peers. As the deluge of data pours in, the challenge will be filtering all of this information. Dashboards such as Ofsted’s scorecards give visual insight into performance. This could improve governor’s benchmarking, teacher appraisal and parental choice amongst other areas. The caveat is the risk of misuse and demoralisation, but as Sam Freedman argues here, the benefits of big data outweigh the risks. Dashboards can help us harness the energy of the data deluge.


The revolution will be digitised

To my mind, we can get our bearings in this new landscape only if we correct the compass and make teacher quality our ‘guiding north’. Maps, videos and dashboards are three simple, practical and powerful tools to help us in our journey from a good to a great education system in England. Next week, I’m looking into how online blogging might help teachers take the lead in education.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to How can we improve our education system?

  1. Pingback: Why isn’t our education system working? | Pragmatic Education

  2. As always, a thoughtful well presented blog, grasping the nettle. A few observations:
    – I’m not convinced that the UK education system is as bad, overall, as the international comparative data suggests. Education systems are messy, in the sense that it is not always clear what data means, and not clear that it can ever be clear what it means (very many confounding factors). Although there must be a connection between a society’s education system and wider economic and civic outcomes, it isn’t particularly clear how this connection actually works. However, the UK is more prosperous and affluent now than it was 30-40 years ago, and we are still a major world economy and punch above our weight in the world. I would also venture that our education system is in a better state now than it was 30-40 years ago, too. I am not convinced that we should worry too much about what other countries are doing, but should focus on what we want to do. Education is more than the international comparative data. Change, though, is required.
    – There is much talk of applying scientific assessment of methodology, and generating evidence in a scientific manner. There is clearly much thought required here, as currently things are introduced that have no credible evidence associated with them. However, scientific assessment is especially difficult in such a messy environment as education (any area that involves large numbers of people is very difficult to analyse and predict – e.g. economics). We will need to be very smart about how we understand what evidence is, and very careful about the conclusions we draw.
    – Professionalism for teachers is very, very important. Teachers should be confident in, and comfortable with, their position. They should not live in fear (of SLT, children or Ofsted), but be in charge of the learning and teaching in their classrooms; able to analyse their strengths and weaknesses. They should be expected to evaluate, and capable of evaluating, new approaches and other initiatives and decide for themselves if the evidence is compelling. There must be room for diversity of approach. Professionalism amongst SLT is as equally important. Leadership is exceedingly important (in any enterprise, actually), and too many SLT are forgetting that their role is to support and empower their teachers and, through that, serve the students (not to serve themselves). Teachers can really stretch if they know they have support from the SLT.
    – Formative assessment is vastly more important than summative assessment (especially when there is no fear).
    – A pet hate….the use of the word ‘great’…..when used, it can usually be replaced with the word ‘effective’. ‘Great’ implies earth shatteringly outstanding; that’s not what we are looking for in education; we want highly effective teachers and SLT, as standard (that should be our expectation)….let’s reserve the word ‘great’ for something truly great.
    – Finally, beware of huge, overarching initiatives; dashboards, big data, Royal Colleges…they are only tools and, possibly, part of the solution (untried and untested at the moment). Let’s not replace one set of strait jackets with another set.

  3. Pingback: Frontline Friday 5th July 2013: Our favourite frontline blogs this week

  4. Pingback: How could schools use data? | Pragmatic Education

  5. Pingback: A summary of ideas on this blog | Pragmatic Education

  6. I am really hoping that not small, but big improvements can be made. This is a common problem, we think very small, but we have to demand much more from ourselves and that’s when things will get better. So far, education segment is a monetary battle field where everyone tries to get his portion of cash with covering it with a totally good goal. In any case, I hope everything is going to be alright after all as I still believe in fairness.
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  7. Pingback: A guide to this blog | Pragmatic Education

  8. Having read this I thought it was rather enlightening.
    I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this short article together.
    I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and leaving comments.
    But so what, it was still worthwhile!

  9. Pingback: What Sir Ken Got Wrong | Pragmatic Education | Magnitudes of dissonance

  10. Hey there! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I truly enjoy reading your posts.

    Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that
    deal with the same topics? Many thanks!

  11. Sebastiano says:

    Very good and professionally written article. Our educational system demands big changes, that’s true. I’ll try to outline that problem later on my essay writing blog.

  12. It was helpful good points for bringing change. It is really necessary to follow them for our generation better future. Thanks

  13. Pingback: Articles | Joe Kirby

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