Saturday, 13 July 2013

Why structures and standards are inextricable

Earlier this week I was on a conference panel. The question was "Do academies improve teaching and learning?" It wasn't a great discussion - there were too many panellists and not enough time - but speakers from both the panel and the floor kept coming back to "standards not structures".

This must be one of the most commonly espoused views in education at the moment and usually goes along the following lines:

"What matters is great teachers and leaders, with moral purpose, who are committed to improving the life chances of young people. Governments always fiddle around with structures because they can but it never makes more than a marginal difference. The quality of teaching and leading is key."

For me this is the equivalent of saying:

"What makes a good cricket team is excellent players and a great captain all of whom are committed to the team's cause. The only thing that matters is how good the players are and how well they're trained."

On one level this is obviously true. Banally so. But it's also incomplete. Do teams of great cricketers just emerge by chance or are there different ways of structuring a country's youth teams and domestic leagues that give a greater chance of having a good team? It seems obvious that the latter is true. Indeed one reason for the renaissance in English cricket over the past ten years was the introduction of central contracts for players in 2002. Prior to that the English Cricket Board had to negotiate with county sides to give their players time with the national side, not only for playing, but also training and analysis. A structural change led, over time, to a better side.

The same is true in any sector. Would you ever find a businessman arguing that the structure of their organisation had no impact on its performance?

And it's no different in education. Obviously the immediate driver of a school's performance will be the quality and motivation of staff (and, relatedly, the young people in it). But the idea that the wider structural system in which these staff work is irrelevant seems myopic to say the least.

My answer to the conference question was that academies can lead to improved teaching and learning because they offer scale. There are many excellent schools in England - some academy, some maintained, some foundation, faith or grammar. What the academy model has driven is much faster formal federation between some of these excellent schools and other less successful schools.

Outstanding schools that convert to academy status are strongly encouraged to bring other schools into their chain. Around 150 have now done so. Most of the so-called "forced" academies are now being partnered with local outstanding schools. The academies policy isn't the only way this could have been achieved but it is the easiest legal mechanism in place at the moment. As a result of these structural changes many schools are coming into the orbit of sustained excellent practise for the first time. (Of course there have always been less formal collaborations between schools but they have usually relied on personal relationships rather than governance and accountability).

To take just one example: Sir David Carter was head of John Cabot Academy in Bristol for some time. He and his team made it into a great school. Because of the academy programme Cabot has grown into a chain of eleven academies, with Sir David as executive head, and the other schools have seen significant boosts in performance since joining the network. Those improvements have, of course, been driven by excellent teachers and leaders but they wouldn't have been in a position to do so without the initial structural reform.

Of course there are reasonable questions as to whether the academies policy gets structural reform right. Is the regulation of chains strong enough? Is the complete elimination of the local authority link the right thing to do? Should academies have control over their own admissions policy? But these are all structural questions. Their centrally to the debate only proves the point.

As Tony Blair put it in his memoirs:

"We had come to power in 1997 saying it was 'standards not structures' that mattered. We said this in respect of education, but it applied equally to health and other parts of the system of public services. In other words we were saying: forget about complex, institutional structural reforms; what counts is what works, and by that we meant outputs. This was fine as a piece of rhetoric; and positively beneficial as a piece of politics. Unfortunately, as I began to realise when experience started to shape our thinking, it was bunkum as a piece of policy. The whole point is that structures beget standards. How a service is configured affects outcomes."

I wonder if "structures not standards" is still a popular piece of rhetoric in the education debate simply because most English schools have so much autonomy - be they academy or maintained - already. It's easy to say structures don't matter if you're broadly happy with their existing configuration. I wonder if my fellow conference attendees would have thought structures didn't matter if their budgets were still controlled by local authorities as they were before 1988? I expect not.


  1. I agree with your point Sam, but question why most politicians and employers are more obsessed with exam standards and tinkering with the curriculum (particularly the bits that they feel are 'politically' significant). Blair, Blunkett, Clarke, Adonis and to some extent Gove were/are of a different mould, but the latter has recently fallen into this trap. Free schools are of course arguably the opposite of structure ...

  2. Interesting post.

    The trouble about arguing for "raising standards" is (a) it is a platitude that everyone agrees with, and (b) it is an outcome which does not answer the question *how* you improve standards. It is like saying that the best way to improve your running technique is to win your races.

    Structures matter because they ensure that you have the right balance of incentives, accountability, responsibility and autonomy. What Gove has been doing with academies is good, in my view, but it is not enough.

    Quality of personnel is important too. But the fact is that there have never been enough people of sufficient caliber to deliver a universal education system (given our current model of teaching-as-personal-craft) and there never will be.

    There is a third element, I think, that everyone is missing, that lies between structures and personnel - and that is pedagogy: the shared systematic, evidence-based understanding of which techniques work and which don't, and the tools of the trade that are required to implement good practice, even with staff who are just ordinary mortals.

    The uncomfortable fact is that we do not have a good understanding of what, systematically speaking, works in the classroom. And in this respect, teachers routinely talk complete rubbish: they say that "assessment distracts from teaching", when it is quite obviously an essential part of teaching; they say that "teachers can be facilitators" when it is obvious that teacher criticism and role modelling are essential for student development; they say "what matters is not the teaching but the learning", when learning (e.g. to take drugs or to beat people up) is often extremely harmful and when the teacher has no means of influencing the learning of their students in any way at all, other than by teaching; they say that knowledge distracts from creativity when it is quite obviously a fundamental prerequisite of creativity. It is no wonder that teachers are so stressed: most of them clearly haven't got a clue what they are doing.

    Teaching is generally regarded as a personal craft which is all about inspiration, not technique. The only thing that teachers think they can do is to inspire the children and then hope that they will get on and teach themselves. If the children do not learn, this is taken to be a failure on the part of the teacher to inspire, which is a sort of personality defect. No wonder they are stressed.

    Good pedagogy requires adaptive sequencing of activities, tracking the cognitive development of every child individually, and maintaining an iterative conversation through appropriate criticism. To do it properly with large numbers of children, you would have to be superhuman.

    But the problem is entirely tractable if you put technology into the equation. The computer is not only well fitted to instruction (because it is an essentially interactive medium) but also it is very well fitted to handle the complex administrative tasks that are essential to the role of the classroom teacher.

    Unfortunately, the profession's lack of understanding of what constitutes good pedagogy, and governments' tendency to look to teachers to lead innovation, has meant that there has been no progress in this at all. We have a completely banal theory of education technology, based on spurious theories of "21st century skills" and "independent learners".

    Gove is trying to raise the bar by changing the curriculum and the exams. But if the teachers neither understand nor have the tools required to jump the higher bar, all that will achieve is more bitterness and failure.

    It is time for Gove to start taking education technology seriously as a means of giving teachers the means to achieve the higher standards that he aspires to. Saying "it is all down to the quality of the teacher" is a cop-out.

    My article on the inadequacies of our craft-base model of teaching is at Thanks. Crispin.

  3. I'd expect the 'answer' is a nuanced fusion of standards and structures. Like knowledge and skills, you simply cannot separate one from the other.

    Whilst it is common sense that systems are important and impact upon standards, but governments need to be in the business of focusing upon priorities. They must identify what factors most impact upon outcomes. The over-spending to drive the academy system and the Free School wave appears negligent at a time of great austerity and face of the vast bulk of evidence that improving teacher quality isn't primarily determined by systems means that they should be less focused upon school system change like the above.

    I am uneasy that the thrust of your argument for a governmental focus on school structures is rather thin on evidence. Dylan Wiliam presents a robust argument here about the endless policy drives on school structures without the impact we would desire: John Hattie, armed with his armoury of research, says virtually the same thing:

    I agree with Crispin that systematically enhancing teacher quality should be the focus for the Coalition. I'm highly sceptical that Performance Related Pay is an answer. Again, the evidence for it is thin at best. Gove encouraging evidence based practice and a Royal College of Teachers is a shift in the right direction, but I don't think it goes far enough to drive the sustained transformation of teacher improvement required. Of course, specific chains of schools may better systematise standards of teacher quality than others, but I see no evidence of scaling up of such an improvement.

    Perhaps the linking of outstanding schools with failing schools will ultimately prove to have impact. My instinct is that it will prove to have some positive impact, but I will take care to avoid my gut feeling and go with the evidence. Organisations like the 'Teacher Development Trust' could be a touchstone for improving and systematising quality teacher CPD. The government could do with establishing a 'system' of better connecting schools in this way. Currently, there is no effective systematising of teacher quality and improved pedagogy. This should be the priority for our government.

  4. Hi Sam

    I'm certainly one who would say structures have a marginal impact relative to standards, pedagogy, teaching etc.. but that is because my experience is that the specific structural changes that are implemented do not have enough impact on standards relative to the time and energy that goes into them. They may just be the wrong structures. I think that Academy chain success stories need to be handled with extreme caution.. it's far far too early to pop the champagne, not least because the successes are often defined in terms of a narrow set of performance indicators that, in themselves, don't truly represent transformation of the educational experience of students or even their skills,knowledge and aptitudes. Academy chains thrive in aggressive and narrow 5A*-C threshold/ lesson snapshot culture that is crippling many schools.

    Given the number of academies there are, I don't think it is meaningful to lump them together as a school-type. All the schools bar one (13 out of 14) in Chelmsford are Academies. None is better or worse for having converted; it's just that we now operate differently and have more collective decision-making power. Our classrooms are pretty much unaffected. Hooray for John Cabot but that example doesn't really work for me. If LAs had been given some additional powers to tackle Heads and to direct activities in schools, similar changes could have been achieved. Meanwhile, we've all expended a lot of energy at a very low impact to input ratio.

    Now, different structures might have more chance of making the impact we need: structures around teacher recruitment and training; structures that build CPD into every teacher's week; structures that support and school leaders to be more effective - not just hold them to account for failing; structures that lead to schools and teachers being known properly, not just dropped in on every three years for a bit of shallow scrutiny; structures of assessment and teacher evaluation that give value to more than just a few narrowly defined measurement points. There are definitely structural changes we need; just not the ones we've been presented with so far.

    I suspect that, twenty years from now, the move to academise the system and to introduce free schools will never be shown to have had a significant impact on increasing standards. Why? Because these structural changes don't have sufficient impact on classroom practice - even if every school joins a chain with a powerful Exec Head.

    Tom (Sherrington)

  5. Thanks Alex and Tom for taking the time to post v. thoughtful comments. A couple of points in reply:

    1. My argument was about the importance of structures rather than academies. I think the academies policy will have positive effects but then I'm rather biased. Even if it doesn't it doesn't negate the importance of structures - rather it just shows this structural reform wasn't designed correctly. Other structural reforms like Local Management of Schools in 1988 have clearly had a positive effect. I've never met a head who wants to go back to LA controlled budgets. (Tom I think you're wrong about John Cabot - first it crosses several LAs - secondly LAs are not designed to support the type of sustained intensive pedagogical support that an academy chain can do).

    2. I agree with both of you that structures which focus on pedagogy and professional development are important too. And this is why Teaching School Alliances were developed. It's too early to say if these will do the job. I'm very impressed with some; others seem to be doing very little. I would also point to the development of non-Government networks like Challenge Partners (and Heads' Roundtable for that matter) as structures which will support pedagogical development. If we were still in a world of national strategies and APP I don't think these networks would have developed.

    3. Tom - do you really think that if every school was part of a chain with a good exec head it wouldn't make any difference? Given all we know about the importance of leadership to classroom practise that seems implausible.

  6. Sam,

    For my part, the point I was trying to make was the opposite to what you are arguing in your point 2. You say that good administrative structures can promote good pedagogy. But only if - collectively at least - we have a good understanding what good pedgagogy looks like.

    What I am saying is that this is not the case. We have a model in which teaching is seen as a personal craft, not a systematic "design science". Nor do we have the sort of systematic business processes that
    * administrative systems are good at promoting;
    * are in some senses a prerequisite if administrative systems are going to work at all.

    The reason, I suggest, for this state of affairs is that, in the absense of capable education technology (which has the capacity, so far unexploited, to encapsulate good pedagogical practices in the same way that business software encapsulates the various business processes followed by an enterprise, while at the same time providing transparency within the organisation of key data), effective administration is difficult if not impossible.

    This, for example, was written by Kim Taylor, Director of the Nuffied Resources for Learning programme, in 1970:

    "A nurse is instructed by a sister who is told what to do by a doctor who is regularly guided by a consultant. There is no similar interlocking hierarchy of experience and skills in a school. The degree to which a headmaster or head of department can actually control the performance of a new teacher is small indeed. Good or bad, each teacher copes as best he can. It is hard to think of any other trade in which such isolation persists".

    Not only does the lack of any "interlocking hierarchy of experience" mean that effective administration is extremely difficult - it also means that good practice is very hard to replicate and even identify. We live in an era which in intellectual and pedagogical terms is equivalent to the era of the alchemist and the leech doctor - all sorts of unproven and often absurd theories about what constitutes good teaching is are promoted, often attracting considerable popularity amongst teachers, and nobody seems to notice that none of this is backed by any substantive evidence base. Chris Wormald, the PUS at the DfE for example, told the House of Commons Select Committee for Education on 23 January:

    "The evidence base in education—not just in the department but more generally across the UK—is not as good as it should be. It is not as good as the evidence that is available to my colleagues in the Department for Health, for example".

    Given the lack of any good evidence base or cumulative experience, the lack of any decent education technology to enable good administrative processes, and the dominance of an ideology of teaching which sees it as a personal craft, senior administrators are in a poor position to have any significant influence on practice and are just as susceptible to being misled by quack theories as any NQT

    Which is not to say that good management has no effect at all - just that in schools it is generally operating with both hands tied behind its back.


  7. Your whole article is just bunkum, standards, structure, morale code, the fact is standards have deteriorated over the last 100-200 years and NOTHING, any of the "structures", policies, etc. have introduced has reverted this trend but in fact has led to its cementing of this trend.
    In KPI analysis we would say the trend is down but not just marginally nor significantly but has crashed out the bottom; based on those KPI nobody is running education for the last 2 centuries, education is out of control.
    Education would not be worse of if nobody run it at all but is likely to pick up itself and regenerate itself by the very people who matter in this equation the most: Children and young adults who want to find out and learn.

  8. One thing that I think is important to note is that excellent people trump structures every time. A really great headteacher can make a silk purse out of any sow's ear of a structure, but a mediocre headteacher with the best structure in the world isn't going to be a success. And tied in with this, a lot of the best leaders have their own very unique way of working, so the structure that works best for them may well not be easily transferrable to someone else. Trying to impose a single model of school support is not going to get you the best outcomes, and trying to shoe-horn every school into it is going to be a distraction and wasted effort in a lot of cases.

    That's one of the problems with the current academy model. At the very time when 'failing' schools should be putting their heart and soul into improving teaching, learning and curriculum provision, they are being distracted by the bureaucracy of academisation. This takes a monumental amount of leadership time and energy, and is so tangential to what the school needs. There are plenty of models of hard and soft federation that allow excellent leadership to be shared across schools without going through the draining and unnecessary process of becoming an academy.

    The concept of a sponsoring school is all fine and funky – there are loads of examples of schools where sharing that excellent leadership has allowed two or more schools to benefit from it, has turned around schools that were failing, and has as often as not benefited the sponsoring school as well in some way. But there is NOTHING in that that requires academy status as set out by Gove. It's entirely incidental, and typical of US politics in particular – by conflating two entirely unrelated concepts, Gove has managed to push through a political agenda that has no educational merit whatsoever.