The main presentation was by Professor David Hopkins, former UK government adviser on school improvement.
David Hopkins was clear: “I’ve never been to a very strong school which does not have a powerful narrative which encapsulates that school’s traditions, purposes and aims.” School leadership, he suggested, is as close to ‘the silver bullet’ as we can get.
The world’s requirements in terms of young people’s skill sets has changed dramatically. Contemporary society requires analytical, problem-solving and interactive skills. It was not clear that schools had readjusted to that.
The reform of school systems, however, was not simple. To increase the micro-management, to intensify the top-down reforms, has limited effect.
It is when reform becomes staff-led, on a school-byschool basis, that change becomes sustained. Topdown change can start reform. It cannot sustain it.
He reviewed the international findings on successful strategies for school improvement. It always requires a constant emphasis on motivating staff and directing resources to priority areas.
In schools where significant improvement had occurred there are clearly observable, recurring patterns. The process starts with a top-down leadership focus on a limited number of factors, for example, attendance, behaviour, teaching styles. The next step is the development of a broad vision and values which might centre around principles such as inclusivity or distributed management. There follows a period of developing creativity in which new ideas, relationships and methods are nurtured and developed. Leadership then naturally devolves and everyone in the organisation could, and most would, take on leadership roles. The process then becomes external as the leaders of change become part of change processes in other schools and institutions.
One of David Hopkins’s central tenets is “successful schools are constantly looking for ways to improve further.” That is not to imply that schools are poor or are performing badly but that change in context, personnel and in pedagogic processes are all constant, so, therefore, there must be improvement, in every school.
“You only need top-down strategies where the system is broken,” Hopkins stated. Otherwise, the improvement strategies can start further up the chain with the inside-out strategies. He then suggested that, in Scotland, such an inside-out approach was applicable in some 90 per cent of schools.
David Hopkins acknowledged, however, that teachers operate confidently where they are technically competent. Most resistance to change is because we are seeking to take colleagues too quickly beyond their perception of their own competence. Teachers require to be taken gently on that journey to wider areas of competence, confidence and commitment. He strongly suggested that working in teams of three, triads, was the best practice in developing professional skills and competence and that peer observation rather than performance management was the key to developing higher order teaching skills.
The challenge for school leaders is to build leadership based on reciprocity. That requires an honest self-analysis and self-evaluation. Its implementation then requires a step-by-step progression to create schools in which the development of curiosity is intimately linked with school improvement.
“When teacher directed instruction is infused by a spirit of inquiry the level of student engagement and achievement increases. This is the foundation stone of high quality teaching and the development of curiosity. A greater emphasis on inquiry leads to improved achievement and curiosity is enhanced,” said Hopkins.
These were challenging thoughts to Scottish schools from an educationalist whose commitment to moral purpose in education ought to place him well within a tradition which Scottish teachers recognise and with which they identify. Let’s see if they are taken up.
Alex Wood, a retired headteacher, is an Associate at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration and a freelance writer