Category Archives: education reform


Transformation from area of underperformance and failing schools to one with  some of the best urban schools in the world

But Ofsted concerned about outcomes for 19 year olds


Tower Hamlets, which was praised by Ofsted for its achievements in its Annual Report , is described as having some of the best urban schools in the world,  by  a new report that charts the local authority’s transformation.

In 1997 Tower Hamlets schools were rated as the worst in the country.

But  a  new report  ‘Transforming Education for All: the Tower Hamlets Story’, by three educational academics, Prof David Woods, Prof Chris Husbands and Dr Chris Brown, looks at  how education in this deprived  borough has been transformed over the last few years.

The report notes that in 1998 only 26 per cent of students achieved five or more high-grade GCSEs – well below the national average of 43 per cent.

In 2012, this was up to 61.8 per cent of students achieving five GCSE grades A* to C including English and maths, above the national average of 59.4 per cent.

The authors said in a statement: “The Tower Hamlets story demonstrates that deprivation is not destiny and is an inspiring example to other schools, local authorities and the education system as a whole of what can be achieved.”

Mayor Lutfur Rahman welcomed the report, saying the transformation of the borough’s schools was “a wonderful success story”.

He said: “This success has been hard won. It is the result of tremendous work by students, parents, head teachers, school staff, council officers and politicians over the past 15 years.”

Mr Rahman added: “All those who have been involved in education in Tower Hamlets since 1998 should feel enormous pride in an achievement that is being held up as a shining example to communities around the world.”

Di Warne, head of secondary learning and achievement there, said the key to success was working in partnership with other schools and high expectations and support from local politicians.

“One of the biggest things has been our focus on monitoring and tracking the progress of young people and we do that really rigorously,” she said.

“I suppose what I would say to them [regions that are struggling] is to raise your aspirations and make your aspirations for your young people really clear and that poverty is no barrier to success and I think that is what London has proved more than anything.”

However, before we get too carried away, Ofsted in its annual report found that   sound GCSE attainment in some boroughs, including Tower Hamlets, is not being converted to good outcomes at age 19.

The academics developed seven explanatory themes that they believe have driven the change and improvement witnessed within the Borough. These are:

• Ambitious leadership at all levels

• Very effective school improvement

• High quality teaching and learning

• High levels of funding

• External integrated services

• Community development and partnerships

• A resilient approach to external government policies and pressure

They also  identify six major factors which explain the Tower Hamlets experience:

• Shared values and beliefs with robust and resilient purpose and professional will. ‘Yes we can…’

• Highly effective and ambitious leadership at all levels – Local Authority and school leadership.

• Schools rising to the standards challenge – improved teaching and learning, enhanced Continuing Professional Development, rigorous pupil tracking and assessment, a relentless focus on school improvement.

• Partnership working – inward and outward facing, external and integrated services, shared responsibility and accountability.

• Community development – building collaborative capacity and community cohesion.

• A professional learning community – building momentum and engagement through and across school communities, high levels of knowledge, trust and professional relationships.

Three respected educational academics, Prof David Woods, Prof Chris Husbands and Dr Chris Brown, have analysed how this turnaround was achieved in a report published on 11 December, called Transforming Education for All: the Tower Hamlets Story (PDF, 2mb).


Stagnating but some encouragement in science

But many worry about the Pisa league tables while admiring the data generated


Governments around the world waited – some eagerly, but most rather anxiously – for the latest results of the PISA survey, on 3rd December.

PISA represents an ambitious and expensive, large-scale attempt to measure and compare literacy in reading, mathematics and science in a large number of countries. The first PISA survey was launched in 2000, and it has since been followed up with surveys in 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012.

Many concerns have been raised concerning the comparability of educational test results from different countries in general and in particular with the difficulties in producing items that are culturally and linguistically neutral.

According to the latest PISA report, (3 December) England’s performance in mathematics, science and reading has remained stable since PISA 2006. In each survey, pupils in England have performed similarly to the OECD average in mathematics and reading and significantly better than the OECD average in science. This is in contrast to a number of other countries which have seen gains and losses. For example, Singapore, Macao-China, Estonia, Poland, the Republic of Ireland and Romania have shown significant improvements in mathematics, science and reading since 2009, whereas Finland, New  Zealand, Iceland, the Slovak Republic and Sweden have shown significant declines in all three  subjects during the same period. However, average scores give only part of the picture. In all three subjects, England has a relatively large difference in the performance of lowest and highest achievers; this is greater than the OECD average.

Pisa reports generate a wealth of data which is undeniably useful and important. Although most of the publicity surrounding Pisa results focuses on the league tables that seeks to rate countries education systems, based on the tests covering literacy numeracy and science. Those who fare badly in the tables suffer what’s termed ‘ Pisa shock’ . Roughly half of the governments affected  change their policies  in response to the PISA results. In short, its very influential.

Andreas Schleicher, of the OECD, claims that world economy will not pay you for what you know, but rather for what you do with that knowledge and how you apply it. And that is what is behind data and the whole Pisa testing regime.  But  some  academics  challenge the methodology used by the OECD , claiming that the league tables are too crude to be of much use, though most  concede that much of the data generated in this process  can be very  useful.

Professor Stephen Heppell, in this country, has been a long term critic of its methodology. Prais (2003), Goldstein (2004), Brown (2007), and Hopmann, Brinek & Retzl (2007) have also raised very specific concerns over the methodology.  Svend Kreiner and Hugh Morrison have raised concerns too. Kreiners view is that PISA officials claim either that they know about the problems, that the problems have been solved or that their analyses show that the rankings provided by PISA are robust to the model  errors.  But he counters ‘The truths of such claims are not supported by evidence in the technical reports and our results suggest that the ranking is far from robust. If they want to restore the credibility of their results, it is PISA’s obligation to produce the evidence supporting their claims.’ Morrison says ‘the OECD’s claims in  respect of its PISA project have scant validity given the central dependence of these claims on  the clear separability of ability from the items designed to measure that ability.’

PISA’s comparison of countries relies on plausible student scores derived from the so called Rasch model. In short, pupils are not given identical questions but this is ironed out by the model which seeks to remove  ‘contextual’ features. This begs the question whether or not this   scaling model is reliable and consistent. In layman’s terms is PISA comparing like with like?  However Some significant doubts have been raised, in this  sensitive area, with the Rasch model criticised, or at least the way the OECD uses the Rasch model.

We already know that the ranking system can be misleading, as more and more countries join the rating system and some high performers dip in, and out. Some countries don’t take part at all. Also, statistically insignificant differences between countries performances  have often been exaggerated in order to generate a headline .Even Schleicher has urged politicians to be cautious in using the evidence to justify policies (they tend to cherry pick and miss important nuances in order to get their basic message  across – ie we are failing by international standards)

John Jerrim of the IOE ,who has himself raised concerns over PISA,  says that criticisms that imply its useless as a benchmark  are  a  ‘gross exaggeration’.  While conceding  that a  number of valid points have been raised, and point to various ways in which PISA may be improved (the need for PISA to become a panel dataset – following children throughout school – raised by Harvey Goldstein is a particularly important point, according to Jerrim).  And he accepts that no data or test is perfect, particularly when it is tackling a notoriously difficult task such as cross-country comparisons, and that includes PISA. But he says ‘to suggest it cannot tell us anything important or useful is very far wide of the mark. For instance, if one were to believe that PISA did not tell us anything about children’s academic ability, then it should not correlate very highly with our own national test measures. But this is not the case.’

Cambridge University statistics professor David Spiegelhalter investigated Pisa  for the BBC recently.He talked   to leading academics in the world of education including Svend Kreiner in Copenhagen, Harvey Goldstein at Bristol  Oxford’s Jenny Ozga and Professor Alan Smithers of  Buckingham University  . His conclusion? The  League tables are essentially misleading and unreliable  although the data produced by the PISA  exercise is useful.

Professor Alan Smithers, looking at the maths questions says  all the  questions  have a picture or graph attached to them  but  don’t  really cover mathematical understanding in any depth . And he made the important point   that the OECD cannot possibly  know,  for sure, that if pupils do well in a certain test then   that is due to their  schools system. It could  in fact be due in Japans ,Singapores and South Koreas cases, for example , to  the extra tuition pupils receive  outside the school  classroom. Pisa doesnt control for this private tuition.

The NFER plays down the rankings. It doesn’t like to report on rank because it  says it has  some issues with the data .

Indeed, even Andreas Schleicher believes that both the 2000 and 20003 results should not be used for comparison purposes,  because of data shortcomings although this hasn’t stopped our media and politicians from doing so.

England’s latest Pisa results show we have stagnated.. The education secretary  was quick to argue  that the results are a “judgment on the past not the present” because the 15-year-olds who sat the most recent tests had been educated for nine years of their schooling under a Labour government and only two years under the coalition. He seemed to be backed in this by Schleicher  who says that we will have to wait until 2015 results to take a view on the effects of the reforms.

Meanwhile, Sir John Rowling, of the Performance in Excellence (PiXL) Club, says PISA tests are so politically important that pupils should specifically prepare for them. He argues that if we regard the PISA rating as serious, then we should take the tests  seriously, and prepare pupils properly for them .The PiXL club is a group of some 800 schools dedicated to boosting pupils’ exam performance at A-level and GCSE. Sir John suggests that England may be losing out because other countries take the tests much more seriously and do more to ensure that pupils perform well. The former headteacher says one solution would be at least to familiarise pupils with the style of the tests.

He told BBC News that because the tests are taken by a minority of pupils they are not taken seriously and “nobody bothers”.

“It all seems so far away it doesn’t seem to matter – but when politicians get hold of the results it matters a great deal.” But then there is a counter argument that preparing for PISA  tests surely rather defeats their object .And encourages teaching to the (PISA) test. Indeed, Sam Freedman, who championed PISA as an adviser to Gove, thinks that any country specifically preparing their children for tests, should be banned from participating in PISA.   But, then again, if you think that PISA tests are assessing things that are worthwhile assessing and it has such political consequences, it makes sense to prepare your pupils for it.

But there is no hiding official’s disappointment in the latest results.   And Professor Alison Wolf  said “We did badly last time and statistically we have done no better this time. She continued “It is not just about better teachers, it is also about the home environment.“If you are growing up in Seoul or Shanghai, you go home from school to a family that cares desperately about education, no matter what its social standing is. British parents are simply not as aware of how important education is.”

Labour hailed a strong performance in 2000 as a triumphant vindication of its education policies, including the multi-billion pound literacy and numeracy strategies.(which ended in 2010). But this perceived success was  short lived, despite impressive levels of investment.

Britain’s position has worsened.  This governments reforms have, in this first phase, concentrated on structural reforms which, by themselves, were never going to improve Pisa ratings ,even over the longer term. Reforms to the curriculum, assessment and raising the quality of teaching (through, for example better selection, training and CPD) when combined with structural reforms, could have an impact. But it will take several more years for us to see the effects.

We probably can’t very accurately (the language and cultural issues alone raises big challenges),rank students across countries, as if all have sat identical  questions at the same time, in an identical context. Because they haven’t. And the Rasch model is not unchallenged

And its odd that the media simply ignore the alternative TIMMS study, and its results, which seek to measure ‘factual’ knowledge among students in different systems. Both the UK and the US  consistently   do better in TIMMS  than PISA. (the US stagnated in PISA too)

There are no grounds for complacency on our PISA performance. Stagnation is not good and raises many questions on the policy front. But there are no reasons to panic either Its worth noting that  that some of those  whom we have most admired in the past including Finland ,  are actually in long term  decline, according to Pisa. We might be in a better place come 2015 but there are a number of countries new to Pisa  that are improving rapidly ,who could overtake us.


Interventions from early childhood onwards can improve character according to new research

Character skills rival IQ


We rely an awful lot on achievement tests in our schools. They are used to sift and sort people, to evaluate schools, and to assess the performance of entire nations (PISA etc). But new research from the States finds that school achievement test scores predict only a small fraction of the variance in later-life success.

For example, adolescent achievement test scores only explain about 15% of the variance in later-life earnings.  So its unlikely that measurement error accounts for most of the remaining variance. Something very fundamental is missing.

A new paper ‘Fostering and Measuring Skills-Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition,’  from the National Bureau of Economic Research’posits that achievement tests do not adequately capture character skills such as conscientiousness perseverance, sociability, and curiosity  despite the fact that character skills are clearly valued in the job market and elsewhere.

Employers, while looking for technical and practical skills, value general communication skills, social skills- evidenced ,for example, in  customer handing,-and teamwork skills. But they often complain that evidence of these skills is  in short supply, in school leavers .Indeed, until recently, these skills and support for them in schools, have largely been ignored.

However, economists and psychologists have constructed credible measures of these skills and provide evidence that they are stable across situations and predict meaningful life outcomes.

What is meant specifically by the term character skills? In this study researchers use the term character skills to describe the personal attributes not thought to be measured by IQ tests or achievement tests. These attributes go by many names in the literature, including soft skills, personality traits, non-cognitive skills, non-cognitive abilities, character, and socio-emotional skills.

Psychologists primarily measure character skills by using self-reported surveys or observer reports. They have arrived at a relatively well-accepted taxonomy of character skills called the Big Five, with the acronym OCEAN, which stands for: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

The proposition here is that ‘Skills are not set in stone at birth. They can be improved. Cognitive and character skills change with age and with instruction. Interventions to improve skills are effective to different degrees for different skills at different ages. Importantly, character skills are more malleable at later ages.’  So, the clear message is, on the development of character skills- interventions really can and do help . Character skills also predict later-life outcomes with the same, or greater, strength as measures of cognition.

This paper reviews the recent evidence on the predictive power of cognition and character and, crucially the best available evidence on how to foster them. A growing body of empirical research shows that character skills rival IQ in predicting educational attainment, labour market success, health, and criminality.

The paper says ‘Character is a skill not a trait. It can be enhanced, and there are proven and effective ways to do so. Character is shaped by families and social environments. At any age, character skills are stable across different tasks, but performance on any task depends on multiple skills as well as the effort expended on it. Effort, in turn, depends on the incentives offered to perform the task. Since all measures of character and cognition are measures of performance on some task, it is necessary to standardize for incentives, effort, and other skills in measuring any particular character or cognitive skill. Despite these difficulties, reliable measures of character have been developed, although there is always room for improvement.’

‘Though stable at any age, skills are not set in stone over the life cycle. Both cognitive and character skills can change. Parents, schools, and social environments shape them, although there are important genetic in influences. Skill development is a dynamic process. The early years are important in laying the foundation for successful investment in the later years.’

While there is hard evidence on the importance of the early years in shaping all skills, some character skills are more malleable than cognitive skills at later ages.

‘Fostering and Measuring Skills-Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition-   from the National Bureau of Economic Research’  James J. Heckman, Tim Kautz Working Paper 19656 Cambridge Massachusetts

November 2013



Surprise findings, maybe


We all learn throughout our lives. But learning as part of the formal educational enterprise—takes place mainly in school classrooms, as a result of the daily, minute-to-minute interactions that take place between teachers and students and the subjects they study.

This is stating the blindingly obvious, perhaps. But surely too little attention is paid to what actually happens in the classroom and the quality of teaching. We are a lot more concerned, for instance, about what doctors do in their surgeries and medical research than we are about what teachers do in the classroom or to the research that tells what best practice in the classroom is. Yes, what doctors get up to is a matter of life and death but what happens in the classroom can determine whether a child makes a success of their lives or fails to meet their potential with all the personal  and social consequences that this entails.

It seems logical that if we are going to improve the outcomes of the educational enterprise—that is, improve learning— we have to intervene directly in daily classroom instruction. And we also have to   find out how best  to  up- scale  and share what works  if we are at all serious about improving the educational outcomes of all students, especially students now stuck in chronically low performing schools.

Professor Dylan Wiliam of the Institute of Education has found, perhaps counter-intuitively, in his research, that it  isn’t knowledge of the subject, nor for that matter the quality of initial teacher training, that really makes a good teacher. Instead it is professional development throughout a teachers career, particularly the early years, the first five to ten, that is most important and has the most significant effect on outcomes.

There is also other research that suggests that teachers only improve in the first two to three years after ITT, then their performance plateaus.

So, Teacher quality is the most important determinant of how much pupils learn in school and the effect is much greater than is commonly supposed.

Professor Wiliam has found that pupils taught by the best teachers learn four times as much as those taught by the worst.  Recent Research too by Professor Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol seems to confirm the effects of bad teaching on academic achievement. He found that children taught by the worst teachers get at least a grade lower pass mark at GCSE than those taught by the best. In addition, Peter Tymms, professor of education at Durham University, led a study, published in the journal Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability that found that  having  a bad teacher in the first year at primary school can blight a child’s entire education. The research discovered that the effect of having an exceptionally poor – or an unusually good – teacher in the reception year was still detectable six years later. The findings suggest that many pupils are being betrayed by schools that, in an effort to rise up national league tables, concentrate their best teachers on pupils about to take their Sats tests at the age of 11.

Professor Wiliam’s research found that Subject Knowledge actually accounts for just 15% of the difference in teacher quality

Where teachers receive their initial teacher training, Professor Wiliam has found, is almost irrelevant. Instead, the most important variable is teaching skill and what matters most, in this respect, is that teachers acquire a commitment to sound professional development throughout their careers.

What is clear is that the quality of good and bad teaching has a very significant effect on outcomes and the life opportunities of our children and deserves much more attention. Structural reforms, alone, were never going to deliver improvements across the system. It is clear that our politicians realise this but structural reforms amount to the low hanging fruit of education reform. The biggest challenge remains improving what happens in the classroom which is infinitely more complex and not very susceptible to the   centrally driven prescriptions of politicians.




Thurrock Council needs a clearer vision and schools need to work better together to drive improvements


Robert Hill and Christine Gilbert were commissioned by Thurrock Council to find out how the school system, which was perceived to be under performing, could be improved and performance accelerated.

So what did they find?

First there is no overarching educational vision and strategy in Thurrock that is owned by all. Second, there is a lack of trust between head teachers and the local authority, so the relationship between the Council and heads does not provide the strong platform that is essential for working together to improve schools. Third, there are tensions between some head teachers which affect how schools work with and trust each other. The report says ‘ there is already considerable evidence that suggests that outcomes improve fastest and children and  young people benefit most, when schools work together to lead improvement  and where they share concern  and responsibility for all children and young people in their area , not just their own school’. Fourth, they found that although there have been considerable improvements there are ‘weaknesses to be tackled in the school improvement system. In short ’Their system is not rooted in school leading schools’.   They need to develop networks of support rather than parachuting in expertise and resources’. Fifth, it must recruit high quality teaching staff, so better branding and marketing is needed. Finally they need to lift their aspirations   across the community and among teachers so that they can achieve more and make more of their opportunities. The report makes six recommendations including the need to redefine the role of the local authority and the need to build a compelling case for change across the community and  to  develop a powerful vision for education.

Thurrock Education Commission Report –September 2013- Robert Hill and Christine Gilbert



Adapting  to the new environment

Both threats and opportunities are opening up


Local authorities have had to adapt and evolve their roles in a diversified mixed economy of schools. Most secondary schools are now academies accountable direct to the Secretary of State through their Funding Agreements. The idea of free schools and academies is that they are ‘free’ from local authority bureaucracy. (although there is a myth still around  that Local authorities actually  ran schools).

But they still have the following core roles in respect of education:

Ensuring sufficient supply of school places (something of a challenge in the current environment)

Tackling underperformance in schools

Supporting vulnerable children (SEN etc)

They are carrying out these tasks within a self-improving school system. This places a real responsibility on schools to help themselves and to drive improvement (bottom up as opposed to top down) and to enter into partnerships and collaborative ventures with other schools. There is now a recognition that most of the expertise needed to improve schools lies within schools. So, the leaders of successful schools can create and transfer successful practice into less successful schools. The proposition is that you can raise standards and reduce inequities by strong schools helping partners who are struggling. Local authorities can still, of course, play a role as a facilitator or enabler here. But so too can other players. Agents can, in effect, help foment effective collaboration. Robert Hill and Christine Gilbert recently reported on the challenges faced by Thurrock education authority which is seeking to quicken the pace of improvements in its schools. In their report they best summed up the collaborative approach and prevailing orthodoxy  on how to improve a school system. They wrote ‘there is already considerable evidence that suggests that outcomes improve fastest and children and  young people benefit most, when schools work together to lead improvement  and where they share concern  and responsibility for all children and young people in their area , not just their own school’.    This is what Professor Andy Hargreaves means by ‘collective autonomy’ as opposed to  individual autonomy (which leads to an atomised system) 

School partnerships  can come in the form of  teaching school alliances, Federations, Transition groups and subject networks, both formal and informal, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. The potential for sharing information, innovation and informed practice throughout the system is significant.

A big challenge for local authorities is to match supply with demand for school places. As we have seen from the crisis in Primary places some are struggling to cope. But the task is not an easy one.  Many more schools are now free to set their own admissions numbers and authorities have to cope with the dual challenges of how to create new school places when demand rises within an autonomous school system   and how to cope with the consequences of over-supply. One factor that makes this a particular challenge is that many academies do not wish to expand in size to meet demand. Do not assume that a successful school, in demand, wants to expand, even if it can.

It is sometimes forgotten, in the midst  of these structural changes to the school landscape, that local authorities continue to hold democratic accountability for securing good outcomes for all children and young people in their area.  They have a statutory duty too  in exercising their education and training functions  to do so with a view to promote high standards and to promote the fulfilment of learning potential. So the challenge, in a somewhat fragmented system, is to ensure that every school has access to school to school support and access to informed external support. Secondary schools can, by and large, access support for school improvement, whether from an external source or from the local authority itself, but there are concerns that Primary schools find this more difficult.   Teaching School Alliances could provide the potential route for schools to source support from other schools in their local areas. Some local authorities appear to  be using these alliances to regain some of  the strategic role and influence  they once had.

One overriding concern that many local authorities have is that in future they may not have the capacity to support and challenge maintained schools given the reduction in local authorities’ school improvement teams and the   consequent haemorrhaging of expertise.

Then there is the issue of accountability and a third tier. Schools can support each other but who is there to act as an independent, third party or broker to challenge them? And is there sufficient shared intelligence in the current system to spot early on declining performance in a school before it impacts on its results and it enters a downward spiral. Those schools that are not part of a chain could be most vulnerable, and most schools are not, of course, part of a chain. What is also quite interesting and little known in this respect is that since January 2013, a total of 25 academy chains have agreed to pause and restrict their growth and further expansion. The government wants chains to concentrate on their quality rather than quantity as there is a perception that some chains have expanded too quickly. But a big question is, given the importance attached to chains within the new system in driving improvements and in providing   accountability-what overall effect will this slowdown have?

Certainly local authorities have challenges on their hands but some are more fleet of foot than others and are becoming brokers to ensure school to school partnerships develop and have access to a range of support. They are also providing traded services to schools and refining these traded services to meet demand, as well as providing advice on quality assurance.  Jonathan Carr-West chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit  recently told Christopher Woolfrey of the Key  that “ councils have had to be more entrepreneurial :to sell services to schools rather than offer them automatically and to make sure these services represent good value. Now its much more of a client provider relationship”. As Woolfrey points out, local authorities are reshaping their relationships with schools and given the nature of their historical relationship and the information and data they have on these schools they potentially enjoy a market advantage over private operators. Whether they exploit this fully is another matter.




Michael Gove and David Laws are responding to the concerns over a perceived lack of accountability within the school system- If they are still talking to each other, that is!There have been on-going debates about the need for a third tier. Although chains of schools can offer some accountability, most schools are not part of a chain ,or partnership arrangement. A consensus has developed that central government alone cannot provide effective democratic accountability for the education system. Effective school systems that provide autonomy to schools ,need a robust accountability framework if they are to improve  student outcomes.

Ministers have been working, for nine months apparently, on a joint coalition proposal to improve the monitoring of and intervention in failing institutions. Rumour has it that  it will neither return control to local authorities nor leave it in the department; it is due to be in place by the end of 2014. There should be an announcement on this shortly



There are quite a few educators who believe that competition in education and between schools works against the grain and damages the interests of children. You  end up with a fragmented ,atomised  system   as schools compete for the best pupils  and staff in a dysfunctional,  polarised system. It is much better, indeed ,essential to foment collaboration and partnerships between schools.  Indeed for a self-improving school system this is a pre-requisite. Another view is that competition is a fact of life. It  drives creativity and innovation and performance  it releases energy ,it encourages efficiency, and it helps raise standards. But there is another view too. That you need both collaboration and competition in the system. A good leadership team knows when to collaborate and when to compete.

There is little doubt that collaboration between schools both formal and informal, makes an awful lot of sense. The London Challenge is now seen as an exemplar of collaboration at its best.  Overall London schools collective  performance has increased dramatically over the last few years.  It can certainly help with teachers professional development.   Better CPD helps improve the quality of teaching and  student outcomes. No one school has access to  all the resources and skills it needs to drive improvements. If you collaborate with others you can not only access new skills and leadership  but you can open your  school to new ideas and approaches to  better meet the challenges you face.

There are many types of   Federations in operation (six types at the last count)  although the typical Federation involves   just two schools. But there is some evidence  that suggests that certain types of   Federation  helps  both CPD and to improve student performance . ‘ Professors Daniel Muijs  and Mel Ainscow are among those who have done some useful work in this area. I was struck by a quote used by Professor Muijs  in a recent presentation which suggests that competition and collaboration are not mutually exclusive     (dont even  collaborative ventures and partnerships  compete with each other for skills  and resources, ?) Here is the quote:

“Competition and Collaboration are not contraries. They are complementary. In every aspect of life we do both .Schools are highly co-operative endeavours in which scholars vigorously compete. The Olympic Games combine immense co-operation in structure and rules with intense competition in events. Only in a harmonious oscillating dance of both competition and co-operation    can the extremes of control and chaos be avoided and peaceful permanent order be found” (Dee Hock 1999)



CfBT Education Trust has recently published a series of reviews of best practice for school improvement

Its a significant contribution to school improvement research

These latest  Reviews, from CFBT Education Trust,  cover topics such as assessment for learning, inclusion of SEN students, effective teaching, school self-evaluation and successful school leadership.

Working with partners including the Oxford University Department of Education, the Centre for Equity in Education at the University of Manchester, the University of Glasgow, the University of Nottingham and the Hong Kong Institute of Education, CfBT Education Trust commissioned a series of reviews of international literature.

The idea that schools can impact positively on student outcomes is a crucial driver in the rise of interest in school improvement research and practice. These reviews highlight international examples of best practice in order to effect change and identify how effective school improvement manifests itself. They form useful tools for schools and school leaders, but also act as lessons for policy makers in terms of what works around the world. Evidence led policy and practice is now high on the political agenda.


Assessment for learning

Assessment for learning – where the first priority is to promote learning – is a key means of initiating improvement. The features, strategies and principles underpinning assessment for learning form the basis of this review.

Assessment that is for learning, as opposed to merely of learning, looks forward as well as back. Teachers who assess in this way are concerned not just to confirm and verify what their students have learnt, but also to help their students and themselves understand what the next steps in learning should be and how they might be attempted. This kind of assessment has a ‘formative’ purpose: it helps to shape what lies ahead rather than simply to gauge and record past achievements.

The main strategies considered important for Assessment for Learning (AfL) – sharing learning goals, formative feedback, peer and self-assessment, and the formative use of summative tests – have been found to be overwhelmingly positive in terms of their potential to promote improvements in teachers’ classroom practice.

This review proposes that in order to encourage AfL, subject departments:

have an atmosphere in which teachers are expected to watch others in action – to actively support peer observation

recognise and value current skills and help teachers to identify their current formative practice.

have meetings where teachers discuss learning

give teachers time to plan well by encouraging them to mark less, but mark better.


From exclusion to inclusion

With a specific focus on children with special educational needs (SEN), this review addresses the forms of classroom practice that can help all children to participate. The review particularly focuses on elements of inclusive education and the implications for schools and school leaders.

This paper reviews the international literature on the development of effective ways of including children and young people with special educational needs in schools. It addresses three overall questions:

What forms of classroom practice can help all children to participate and learn?

How can such practices be developed?

What does this mean for school organisation and leadership?

The analysis of the literature suggests six key ideas:

Schools need to understand clearly what is meant by inclusive education.

Inclusive classroom practices involve overcoming barriers to student participation and learning.

Engaging with various kinds of evidence can encourage teachers to develop more inclusive practices.

Additional support for individual students should be carefully planned; those involved require appropriate training.

Inclusive schools can take many forms, but they all have an organisational culture that views student diversity positively.

Leaders have a central role in working with their colleagues to foster an inclusive culture within their schools.

The literature suggests that supporting students with special educational needs, and other groups of vulnerable learners, depends less on the introduction of particular techniques or organisational arrangements, and much more on processes of social learning within particular contexts. The use of evidence as a means of stimulating experimentation and collaboration within a school is a central strategy.


Effective teaching

Teachers are one of the key elements in any school and effective teaching is one of the key propellers for school improvement. This review is concerned with how to define a teacher’s effectiveness and what makes an effective teacher. It draws out implications for policymakers in education and for improving classroom practice. Teacher effectiveness is generally referred to in terms of a focus on student outcomes and the teacher behaviours and classroom processes that promote better student outcomes.

This review, based upon research evidence, suggests that effective teachers:

are clear about instructional goals

are knowledgeable about curriculum content and the strategies for teaching it

communicate to their students what is expected of them, and why

make expert use of existing instructional materials in order to devote more time to practices that enrich and clarify the content

are knowledgeable about their students, adapting instruction to their needs and anticipating misconceptions in their existing knowledge

teach students meta-cognitive strategies and give them opportunities to master them

address higher- as well as lower-level cognitive objectives

monitor students’ understanding by offering regular appropriate feedback

integrate their instruction with that in other subject areas

accept responsibility for student outcomes.

The review shows that in order to achieve good teaching, good subject knowledge is a prerequisite. Also, the skilful use of well-chosen questions to engage and challenge learners, and to consolidate understanding, is an important feature, as is the effective use of assessment for learning.


School self-evaluation for school improvement

School self-evaluation can be a fundamental force in achieving school improvement and this review establishes what the key debates are in relation to school self-evaluation, what principles and processes are associated with it, and what the implications are for school self-evaluation as a means of leading school improvement. The review also incorporates a framework for conducting self-evaluation and case study examples from systems and schools that have previously undergone the process.

School self-evaluation is a process by which members of staff in a school reflect on their practice and identify areas for action to stimulate improvement in the areas of pupil and professional learning. The process can be located on a number of continua that define the exact nature of the process and reflect the context in which it is occurring. These dimensions include: summative-formative; internally-externally driven; and whether self-evaluation is conducted as a top-down or bottom-up process. Furthermore, schools should reflect on their context and the appropriate position and blend elements to optimise the impact of school self-evaluation on pupil and professional learning.

In terms of school improvement, teachers and school leaders are the key change agents for improvement and self-evaluation is a necessary but insufficient ingredient to stimulate school improvement. Five phases are outlined for school improvement activity:

Phase 1 – specific intervention and the highlighting of the importance of culture in any change process

Phase 2 – focus on teacher action research and school self-review

Phase 3 – building on the emerging school effectiveness knowledge base

Phase 4 – scaling up reforms

Phase 5 – systemic reform.

School self-evaluation should be conducted within a coherent framework and underpinned by a set of structures that support systematic processes to collect a range of data from diverse sources and inform action to improve pupil and professional learning.

The evidence within this review suggests that if individual contexts can create supportive environments, school self-evaluation has an important role to play in supporting pupil and professional learning.


Successful leadership

School leaders are under considerable pressure to demonstrate the contribution of their work to school improvement, which has resulted in the creation of a wide range of literature which addresses leadership in the context of school improvement. This review pays particular attention to issues including transformational leadership, instructional/pedagogical leadership and distributed leadership.

The evidence examined by this review indicates that effective school leadership is important but, in isolation, is not a sufficient condition for successful schools.

The review draws particular attention to two concepts of leadership: instructional/pedagogical and transformational. While there is evidence that instructional/pedagogical leadership has been shown to be important for promoting better academic outcomes for students, it is concluded that the two forms of leadership are not mutually exclusive. A combination of strategies can be most beneficial in ensuring school success and most leadership effects operate indirectly to promote student outcomes by supporting and enhancing conditions for teaching and learning through direct impacts on teachers and their work.

School leaders, particularly principals, have a key role to play in setting direction and creating a positive school culture including the proactive school mindset, and supporting and enhancing staff motivation and commitment needed to foster improvement and promote success for schools in challenging circumstances.

Hyperlinks to the reports: 

Effective teaching:
Successful leadership:
Assessment for learning:
From exclusion to inclusion:
School self-evaluation:



New approach to Personalised Learning

End of Drill and Kill approach


As well as being the distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut, Joseph Renzulli is Director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. His research has focused, in particular, on strength-based assessment, the identification and development of creativity and giftedness in young people, and models for personalised learning. A focus of his work, crucially, has been on applying the pedagogy of gifted education to the improvement of learning for all students. His most recent work is a computer-based assessment of student strengths and a teacher-planning tool integrated with an Internet based search engine that matches highly challenging enrichment activities and resources to individual student profiles and teacher selected curricular topics. Personalised learning means different things to different people and in the UK sadly it  seems to have slipped off the agenda and has now  morphed in to how you  can use ICT to support student learning. (give students an i-pad and that’s them sorted)

The story begins a few decades ago with Joe Renzulli, PhD., and Sally Ries, PhD., education researchers who pioneered influential new models to describe student learning. Their research centred on how personalisation and differentiation—constructed around a student’s interests, learning styles, and expression styles—inspire learning. The Renzulli Learning System is the culmination of these years of research, and if you are a fan of student-centred, personalised, project-centred and uplifting pedagogy, read on to see how we use the Renzulli model to make learning truly personal.

A student’s first experience with Renzulli Learning is with the Renzulli Profiler, a detailed online questionnaire that allows the Renzulli software to generate a personal profile of each student’s top interests, learning styles, and expression styles, making it easier for teachers to get to know their students and effectively differentiate instruction. Once a profile is generated, students and teachers may use it to guide their exploration of the 40,000 online educational resources in the Renzulli database. Students can engage in self-directed learning by exploring safe, fully-vetted resources that have been specifically matched to their individual profiles, and teachers can browse the database of resources to find activities that align to specific objectives, skills, or state and Common Core Standards.

Within Renzulli Learning, teachers can give assignments that help students to:

To support Common Core and state standards success Renzulli Learning can be used to have students:

Analyze informational texts, argue and defend a point of view

Research and draw information from multiple sources

Use mathematics to describe and solve real-world problems

Demonstrate deeper learning through projects and tasks

The resources in the Renzulli Learning System place a strong emphasis on the problem-solving, creativity, and critical thinking skills that are often neglected in a “drill-and-kill” environment. This helps ensure that learners are equipped for university (College) and career ready while developing the thinking and reasoning skills that prepare them for state and Common Core assessments.

Renzulli believes that an engaged student is more likely to invest in learning and that building a curriculum around student strengths empowers teachers to make a difference in the lives of their students. The Renzulli Learning System aims to allow students to apply, deepen, and extend their learning so that, in the words of Joe Renzulli, there is “no child left bored.”

My guess is that at some stage soon  in the UK we shall  revisit  personalised learning   and seek to redefine the concept  and accept that its not just our most disadvantaged pupils that have special education  needs, in our one size fits all system of learning .


Joseph S. Renzulli is Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut, where he also serves as director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented


Renzulli, J.S. (1978). What Makes Giftedness? Reexamining a Definition. Phi Delta Kappan, 60(3), 180-184, 261.

Renzulli, J.S. (1994). Schools for talent development: A practical plan for total school improvement. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Renzulli, J.S., & Reis, S.M. (1985). The schoolwide enrichment model: A comprehensive plan for educational excellence. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press