Enabling Self-Improving School Systems: How bold are we prepared to be?

June 26, 2018Maggie Farrar

[Editor’s Note: Many education innovations find success at limited scale, but encounter barriers to expanding their impact. In this post, Maggie Farrrar, an associate at Education Development Trust, explores the kind of enabling environment that is needed to take innovative education approaches to scale.]


By Maggie Farrar

A recent blog post written by my colleague Kieran Cooke at Education Development Trust (EDT) explored the power and potential of school-based system leadership in Kenya, where high-performing head teachers support those in more challenging contexts. These “bright spots” provide benefits to the whole system, acting as powerful change agents to support their peers and drive rapid and sustainable improvement beyond their own schools. However, scaling up this innovative and evidence-based model of school improvement and embedding it within an education system requires shifts at a system level to create the necessary enabling environment. Otherwise, the potential of school-based system leadership will be limited in its ability to drive sustainable improvement across the system.

The characteristics required to enable a self-improving education system

Based on our experiences, we have observed that the following characteristics are required to enable a self-improving system driven by a model of school-based system leadership:

  • Alignment: There should be collective agreement to work on two or three strategic priorities focused on improving teaching quality, and no more. Then, school-based system leaders who have a track record of improvement in these priority areas should be developed to maximize their impact.
  • Connectedness: All schools should be connected in learning and improvement partnerships, led by school-based system leaders making sense of the agreed priorities at a local level. Schools where effective practice exists are connected and through the work of system leaders have a multiplier effect on the wider system.
  • Devolution: Decision-making and the discussion about what needs to improve (and how) should be devolved to groups of schools working together. This is informed by reliable data so that school leaders can have shared conversations about where the areas of strength and weakness are in each other’s schools as evidenced by the data. These conversations can highlight the variability in outcomes between schools and are a catalyst for the sharing of effective practice. This devolved approach leads to highly contextualized solutions owned by the schools and drawn from local successes.
  • Data-driven: All parts of the system should be comfortable both generating and using data. Large data sets are deemed to be no more, and no less important than the ‘small data’ insights, clues, and intelligence that schools generate for themselves.
  • Accountability: In addition to top-down accountability, the system should have strong bottom-up accountability, particularly where school leaders and teachers have the opportunity to engage with senior stakeholders to provide feedback on both the design of policy and its implementation. There should be systems in place to strengthen lateral accountability where school leaders and teachers work together to hold each other to account for the progress of students across a local area. This enables school leaders and teachers to work in mutually supportive partnerships holding each other to account for improvement.

The diagram below proposes structurally how a system might best achieve these characteristics:

Enabling this self-improving school system requires shifts at all levels of the system

Even as the responsibility for improvement shifts to the enabling middle tier, the top tier still has a legitimate and important role. Its focus moves to supporting the capacity building of system leaders, ensuring there are effective systems for brokering support and providing “external” challenge. It’s important the top tier oversees the monitoring of progress, ensuring no school is isolated, and gathers impact evidence of what’s working (and what’s not) in this new emergent system.

Where this type of vertical accountability is developed alongside the introduction of more lateral types of accountability, where schools take responsibility for improving each other, deep and sustainable improvement can take place. A recent UNESCO GEMR blog that looked at approaches to accountability in Rwanda explored the Rwandan concept of Imihigo, translated as a pledge, vow or promise that professionals make to achieve certain outcomes. This sense of a professional “promise” to improve my own school but also other schools in my area is one of the core principles underpinning the concept and practice of school-based system leadership. When done well, this builds lateral accountability for improvement across schools; it also works in tandem with central approaches to monitoring, evaluation and inspection.

This requires a shift in mindset amongst policymakers. It requires a willingness to see teachers and school leaders as capable of leading their own improvement and building their own solutions to issues at a local level. It requires a belief that leaders learn best from other leaders, and teachers from other teachers. It also requires leaders and teachers to believe in their own professional judgement and expertise and to be open to both giving and asking for support from their peers.

The toughest decision system leaders have to make is regarding pace — asking themselves how quickly do we shift and what are the risks? Shift too quickly and schools can feel abandoned. Move too slowly and they feel frustrated.

Education systems around the world now stand poised to make this shift

School-based system leadership is emerging and ready to grow. EDT has piloted the model in low-cost schools in Nairobi and Mumbai. These proof of concept pilots have demonstrated the relevance and impact of school-based system leadership models in those settings. EDT is also supporting the building of school-based system leadership in Brunei as part of a literacy and numeracy transformation programme and in Wales where these system leaders will support the Government’s ambitious reform agenda. Although these contexts differ, the implementation challenges are similar. The question all these systems are working on is how a maturing and improving system adapts at the national and regional levels in order to support school-based system leadership and develop it as an emergent and new “middle tier” in the drive to build sustainable and self-improving systems.

School-based system leadership cannot thrive in a system where the prevailing culture is one of top-down accountability and compliance. It cannot be “tagged onto” a system as an additional “intervention.” It requires a fundamental restructuring and rethinking of our model of school improvement and the values and principles that underpin it. These system shifts can be challenging and encounter opposition; therefore, they require the leadership of policymakers who are willing to be bold and prepared to take risks.

Photo © Education Development Trust

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