Mel Ainscow says Schools Challenge Cymru is showing promising signs for Welsh education
These are exciting times for the Welsh education system. Following on from Robert Hill’s Review which provided a roadmap for the future, the Government has published ‘Qualified for Life’, its plan of action for the next five years. Commencing work in September 2014, the Schools Challenge Cymru programme is central to its strategy for moving things forward.
The programme is focused on 40 secondary schools that are seen as the ‘Pathways to Success’. Chosen because they serve communities where there are high levels of economic disadvantage, these schools have been invited to innovate in order to find ways of working that can achieve rapid progress. The lessons from their work are intended to stimulate wider reforms across the Welsh education system.
The Pathways to Success Schools are each supported by a member of the team of twelve expert Advisers. Appointed because of their proven track records as school leaders, they have been given considerable autonomy to work alongside school staff in embedding proven improvement strategies effectively and experimenting with new, more effective ways of improving outcomes for pupils, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. At the same time they know that they are accountable to the Minister for bringing about rapid progress.
Drawing on international research findings, Schools Challenge Cymru is focused on three sets of factors that, together, can move schools forward. These are: within-school, between-school and beyond school factors.
The task of the Schools Challenge Cymru Advisers is to ‘get behind’ those within the schools, supporting them in analysing their contexts in order to identify and address barriers to pupil learning. In so doing, the aim is to make better use of the energy, expertise and creativity that exists within these school communities.
Much of this is focused on strengthening classroom and leadership practices within the schools. These efforts incorporate all the elements that research suggests create powerful forms of professional development. Specifically, they are located mainly in classrooms, with teachers learning from one another, building on the expertise available within the school.
Using such approaches on a regular basis requires an enormous commitment of human resources. On the other hand, it seems to be already paying off, both in terms of improvements in the quality of teaching and in the strengthening of staff collaboration. Teachers involved talk enthusiastically about what it means to them, noting its importance in enabling them to ‘learn from each other’ and the value of occasionally having ‘another pair of eyes’ in their classrooms.
Schools working together.
Moving beyond what happens within individual schools, there is strong research evidence suggesting that collaboration between differently performing schools can reduce polarisation within education systems, to the particular benefit of learners who are performing relatively poorly. It does this by both transferring existing knowledge and, more importantly, generating context specific new knowledge.
Building on this evidence, each of the Pathways to Success schools is encouraged to build up partnerships with other schools in ways that adds additional expertise into their improvement efforts. An important priority in this respect is the strengthening of joint strategies with local primary schools. In addition, many of the schools have established a partnership with another secondary school, usually from a different local authority. In this way, expertise that was previously trapped in particular contexts is being made more widely available.
Beyond the school gate.
International research also indicates that closing the gap in outcomes between those from more and less advantaged backgrounds will only take place when what happens to children outside as well as inside the school changes. There is encouraging evidence from a range of contexts, including here in Wales, of what can happen when the work of schools is aligned in a coherent strategy with the efforts of other stakeholders – families, employers, community groups, local and national organisations, universities and public services. This does not necessarily mean schools doing more, but it does imply partnerships beyond the school, where partners multiply the impacts of each other’s efforts.
In this way, through what is called the ‘Pupil Offer’, Pathways to Success schools are focusing on the raising of their pupils’ expectations, aspirations and ambitions to succeed in future learning, the workplace and later in life.
Looking to the future
It is still early days, of course, but the enthusiasm shown by many colleagues in the Pathways to Success schools is very encouraging. In particular, we are seeing how teachers, especially those in senior positions, are showing an enthusiasm to work together in moving their schools forward. It is also good to see the way the schools are seeking to connect their efforts with those of other partners. All of this is showing that the Welsh education system has further untapped potential to improve itself.