Whatever happened to within school variation?

Written by: Gerald Haigh | Published:
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Ten years ago, within school variation was described as one of the greatest challenges facing our education system. So what happened? Gerald Haigh looks back

For a time, when I taught in a big Midlands comprehensive, I took part in a car share with two colleagues who lived near me. Three irreverent young teachers together made for a good commute, especially on the homeward leg.

We were always armed for the trip with great stories, because we never met during the school day. We worked in different departments, you see, and had we not travelled together I doubt whether we would have even met except at the staff Christmas Party.

That kind of separation is endemic in big schools; indeed I have always believed that a secondary school is not so much a single community as a loosely held-together federation of subject departments.

Each department, though clearly sharing the overall mission, has its own leadership team and is in serious – sometimes acrimonious – competition with the others for timetable space, staffing, and, crucially, a share of central funding. Subject teachers often have relatively little contact beyond their departmental leaders and colleagues, and some are notorious for having their own makeshift staffrooms.

One consequence of this structural decentralisation is that it can be difficult for school leaders to have an overall view either of the curriculum or of the approach to teaching and learning.

Expectations, marking and homework policies may clash, and it can be difficult to align subject curricula in order to achieve a multi-disciplinary view of a given topic.

Inevitably, and unsurprisingly, subject departments may achieve different levels of exam success.

With hindsight, I am now astonished by the extent to which this was accepted, or put down to rather vaguely articulated external reasons to do with the comparative difficulty of subjects, staff illness, or the unfortunate distribution of able students. While unsuccessful teachers and heads of department might well be criticised, I was never aware of any serious attempt at intervention or remedial CPD.

Then, in 1995, Professor David Reynolds, then of the University of Exeter, pointed out what had been staring us in the face, which was that differences in performance within schools were greater than any differences between schools and it was this phenomenon that needed to be tackled if standards were to rise nationally.

Then, in 2002, PISA results showed that this “within school variation” (WSV) was greater in the UK than elsewhere. Further work on the numbers by the UK Department for Education revealed that this was a trend that increased as children progressed up the school, until, by key stage 4, WSV was 14 times more significant than variation between schools.

Something, clearly, had to be done, The then National College for School Leadership (NCSL) and Teacher Development Agency published reports, and set up a 20-school pilot intended to explore ways of dealing with what the NCSL called, in 2006, “the greatest challenge of our time” (NCSL’s 2007 report Schools Learning From Their Best is well worth studying).

So what happened? Now, it seems we are not even talking about WSV. And what became of the 20-school pilot? That last point is easily answered. Quite simply, the funding disappeared.

Interviewed in a national newspaper in October 2011, Richard Fitzgerald, then deputy head of All Saints School in Dagenham, one of the pilot schools, deplored the government’s lack of vision: “They are missing out on a very useful and proven method of school improvement ... there isn’t impetus behind this project any more. It has effectively been written off and cut dead.”

How can this be? The loss of funding is clearly a blow, but then I wonder, if WSV really is such a huge issue, why are school leaders and teachers themselves not prioritising it? After all, there is a realistic expectation that if WSV can be significantly reduced across all schools, children will have a better deal, and teacher performance – and job satisfaction – will improve.

This has never been a pipedream. NCSL published strategies to tackle WSV, the schools involved in the doomed pilot were trying them out, and it is certain that pockets of good practice are there to be found and shared. All that is lacking is the will, at every level, to prioritise WSV reduction and take it to national scale.

It is suggested to me that the surge of attention to WSV is now overtaken by new and more immediate challenges. Often mentioned, for example is the all-consuming, “irresistible force meets immovable object” problem of Assessment Without Levels – and I won’t even mention the omnishambles around GCSE and A level changes.

That is not all, though. Tackling WSV, although it is best done “bottom up” rather than by senior leadership team diktat, will always involve open comparisons between the performance of teachers, a process which, in recent times, partly thanks to Ofsted, has become more difficult to sell to the profession.

Think about all that and you come to the pretty depressing conclusion that a promising area for the real improvement of teaching and learning – described only a decade ago as “the greatest challenge of our time” – has been shoved aside by the need to deal with issues around assessment, testing and examinations and inspection.

It is a sad tale – a parable for our times.

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1

Further information

Schools Learning From Their Best, NCSL, 2007: http://core.ac.uk/download/files/161/4156941.pdf


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