‘England has weak support systems for schools’

Schools improve best in an “open and positive” climate.

England’s school leaders face a tougher time raising standards and helping the most disadvantaged because this country has “very weak system supports”, a leading international expert has told an audience at the Institute of Education (IOE), London.

Ben Levin, Professor in Education Leadership and Policy, at the University of Toronto, gave a lecture at the IOE to mark the 15th anniversary of the London Centre for Leadership in Learning (LCLL).

“The challenge in England is that because schools are so autonomous (and often competitive), the system characteristics necessary for improvement, and present in all high performing school systems, are largely absent,” he explains.  “For example – it is more difficult to shift good teachers or leaders to the places they are most needed, there are not good systems for sharing positive new developments or practices across schools.” It is hard to provide the right balance of programmes and services to serve all students in an area.

“Many schools in England are small and lack the capacity to manage themselves well – there are few places for those schools to turn to get the help they need, and only rather blunt levers to use when a school is having difficulties.”

In the LCLL Annual Lecture, titled ‘Building a great school (and a great school system)’ he outlined some of the key elements required for high quality, high equity schooling. “Much is known about what is required to have schools in which more students experience more success, and with less inequity among students.  Yet often this knowledge is not applied in practice in schools or across whole school systems,” he said.

His research shows that the system-wide conditions that need to be in place for schools’ efforts to succeed include an open yet positive public climate about education, good support for ongoing learning by all those working in schools, and strong processes to support the effective use of evidence.

For individual schools, the task for leaders is to focus on strong connections between staff and pupils; how the school organises and supports good teaching and learning practice; and how the school relates to the broader community, Professor Levin said.

“A main challenge for school leaders is how to balance the many competing demands on their time and attention so that they do indeed focus on the things that really matter for good student outcomes.  A main challenge facing England, along with many other countries, is to build a school system that both supports and requires high quality and high equity in every school.”

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