Five approaches that will make our schools world class


The Whole Education Network champions and shares innovative practice in education. David Crossley considers five key approaches in areas including assessment, accountability and teacher creativity that will help our schools to become world class.

As we moved into the new millennium, we saw an increasing use of international comparative data and, as a result, school improvement shifted from being as good as the best in your own country to being world class.

The system in England is described as good and improving. Yes we can, should and must improve further – but the important question is how can our system best move forward? In terms of what we can learn and do, the lessons are all already out there. The key to improvement now is in sharing these effectively and applying them in practice.

McKinsey and Company in their 2010 report identify a four-stage performance spectrum – from poor to fair, from fair to good, from good to great, and from great to excellent. For a good and improving system like our own, they recommend we should turn our attention to the professionalisation of our educators.

In their words: “Whereas the success of previous improvement journey stages largely relied on central control over the system and its educators, the good to great journey marks the point at which the school system comes to largely rely upon the values and behaviours of its educators to propel continuing improvement.”

Professors Andrew Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley reflect on this in their book The Fourth Way (2009). They reflect on four decades of approaches to school improvement. They identify three enemies of progress:

  • The path of the autocrat (the inability of politicians and others to let go).

  • The path of the technocrat (that puts undue emphasis on data and often not the right data)

  • A concern that teachers and school leaders become locked into short-term responsiveness when under increasing pressure, at the cost of medium and longer term planning.

They add: “The journey from great to excellent systems focuses on creating an environment that will unleash the creativity and innovation of its educators.”

As we approach the Whole Education Annual Conference on November 21, and given the event's theme of "Becoming World Class – what we can learn, what we can do", here are five ways forward in five key areas that will help our schools to become among the best in the world.  

A manifesto for change – 5 ways forward 

1, Making the most of the teachers we have and unleashing their creativity

McKinsey’s first 2007 report (How The World’s Best Performing School Systems Come Out On Top) basically said that if you attract the best teachers into teaching all will be well. They cite countries like Finland where teaching was described as a highly attractive profession to join.

The trouble with this is that it is a slow burn solution. A better answer may be to explore how we can make the most of the teachers we already have. This requires a move from the “teacher as technician” model, in which their role is to deliver prescribed approaches to learning and lesson-planning.

Interestingly, there is quite a wide national and international consensus about this. The focus on teachers was a key aim of the coalition government’s 2010 White Paper, The Importance of Teaching, which promised a shift from top-down, centrally funded school improvement initiatives to “teachers placed firmly at the heart of school improvement by focusing on school-led school improvement replacing top-down initiatives”.

Professor David Hargreaves has written extensively on what is needed to make a self-improving system successful and the potential of joint practice development – both key elements of the Whole Education Network.

As it is argued in a new essay for the Institute for Public Policy Research, “schools of the future will need both teachers and researchers, and people who combine both roles, and systems need to be constantly testing new techniques to continuously invent best practices, with the system (or networks like Whole Education) acting as a forum for sharing and scaling these best practices”.

In England, the creation of Teaching School Alliances is a radical system-wide change with great potential if we seize the initiative and fill the void.

2, Offer a curriculum that really meets the needs of 21st century learners

Some schools have chosen to be bold and are proving you can be innovative and forward-looking and still be designated as outstanding by Ofsted. Internationally, schools like High Tech High in San Diego (which will be presenting at the annual conference) show what can be achieved and offer lessons for us all to apply. The New York iZone and other similar initiatives show that you can be bold when faced with adversity.

Schools in both the primary and secondary sectors are focusing on a school-wide approaches to curriculum innovation already, and are finding that a focus on improving breadth helps students achieve more in the conventional judgements too. It is not “either/or”.

Of course, academies are told that they have the right to do what they think best, but in fact all schools have more choices than they often think or feel. Some though are understandably fearful in a context of accountability pressures, floor targets and changes in examinations requirements. Indeed, part of the purpose of the Whole Education Network is to help us be bold and to give us the confidence to take the risk out of innovation.

We are stronger together than we are alone. We are also helped by what the world’s leading systems are doing now and by the direction of travel they are taking as they plan for the future too.

3. Developing an approach to assessment that meets future needs

We are one of the only countries to carry out a major examination at age 16. It is becoming obvious that we need to ask why. Wouldn’t it be better to shift our focus for both academic and vocational qualifications to the real leaving age of 18, when the outcomes are more important in determining what students go on to do?

Moreover, isn’t there a case for a more balanced approach to assessment in general? What exactly are we assessing in a three-hour handwritten terminal examination, and are these the things we really value? If we do not trust coursework, then why not include something really radical – teacher assessment.

Teachers see students’ work every day and can formally assess a far wider range of skills than is currently asked of them. When combined with an examination element, would we not get a better and more balanced assessment, and a more professional profession too?

We live in a digital age: high levels of competence in oracy, presentation, problem-solving, creativity, interpersonal engagement and teamwork are now expectations rather than desirables. Surely it is time to move forward from just assessing what students can write by hand in an examination hall.

4. Develop a smarter approach to accountability

The rigour and prescription of the accountability regime has led to few having the confidence to exploit the freedoms they have in terms of curriculum. The current Ofsted model is a good fit for a top-down system, with pre-defined curriculum standards.

It is an effective way of ensuring compliance with government policy too, but this sort of approach is neither fit for current purpose, nor the best way to create a world class system. Public accountability is clearly important, but does an essentially old fashioned quality control model offer the best way and the best value for money?

As we seek to move our system from good to great, there may be a better and different role for school inspectors in helping the profession to be better informed. Finland, one of the world’s most successful systems, doesn’t even have a word for accountability; its focus is on something they describe as professional responsibility (see Finnish Lessons by Dr Pasi Sahlberg) and forms of what they call smart accountability.

5. Making the most of the choices we have

Demonstrating what works, being bold, and showing that radical approaches do not just develop wider skills but also deliver in conventional ways too, is surely the best way forward.

In England, we have one almost unique advantage – the bulk of the resource is in our hands in our schools. This gives schools choices and options, but only if they choose to use them. This isn’t really about new money. Rather, it is about abandoning things and redeploying the resources we already have.

As Dr John Dunford, the Whole Education chairman and former general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, often remarks – this is the time for us to stop looking up and to start looking out.

Whole Education offers schools a call to action, a safe space in which to experiment, and a range of contact with others who are on the same journey, maybe even trying the same things. There is a world of lessons out there for us to draw on as we seek to do the very best for all the young people in our care. 

  • David Crossley is executive director of the Whole Education Network and a former school leader. He led the national RATL (Raising Achievement Transforming Learning) programme which developed an innovative approach to raising achievement involving more than 700 schools between 2004 and 2008. His new book, Sustainable School Transformation: There is another way, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2013.

Further information
Whole Education is a non-profit organisation committed to ensuring that all young people have access to a broad, rounded education. It works with, supports and enables collaboration between schools that are experimenting with effective and engaging curricula.
The Whole Education Annual Conference
The Whole Education Annual Conference, entitled Becoming World Class – what we can learn, what we can do, takes place in London on Wednesday, November 21. Speakers include Professor Mick Waters, Maggie Farrar, former schools minister Lord Knight and general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Brian Lightman. The event will also hear from Whole Education's “Pathfinder Schools”, each of which is doing ground-breaking work to provide their young people with a rounded education. There is also a pre-conference seminar and dinner on November 20. For details or to book, email or visit

CAPTION: Debate: Delegates at a Whole Education event in London (Photo: Matt Clayton, PHF).



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