Friday, 16 February 2018

Discussing School Performance

Why do schools fail?

Schools are complex organisations with their own unique cultures and values.  Although they are all concerned with learning and teaching, and preparing students for their next stage in life, their environments and approaches to learning, and how it is organized and managed, often differ.  The school diversity in itself does not necessarily lead to poor outcomes and every school must be assessed on its own merit.  However, the scrutiny of failing schools suggests that, for whatever reasons, they often have some characteristics in common: unstable leadership, ineffective staff performance management, low expectations of students, high teacher turnover and difficulties with recruiting high caliber staff. 

According to the latest official figures, four out of 10 primary schools failed to reach the government 2017 target and one in eight (12%) of secondary schools in England failed to meet a new set of national standards based on 2017 GCSE results.  Among those 365 underperforming secondary schools, six were rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, the school watchdog.  These statistics demonstrate that schools fail thousands of young people in the system that is defined by the students’ end-of-year test results.

High level of school diversity and variety of operational approaches mean that there are no easy, one-size-fits-all solutions for instant improvement.  Additionally, research indicates that schools are so preoccupied with accountability measures and end results that often processes leading to achieving these outcomes are lost along the way.  This can have a negative impact on final achievement because not enough resources are allocated to developing learning cultures and consistent approaches to learning, ultimately leading to improved end outcomes.

At the centre of school inspections, are school improvement and monitoring of quality standards.  Ofsted, responsible for inspecting all maintained schools and some other educational institutions, states that its “goal is to achieve excellence in education and skills for learners of all ages”.  Despite this noble aim, independent research indicates that there is little evidence that the current system of inspections leads to school improvement.  On the contrary, Frank Coffield, UCL, Institute of Education, asserts that alongside some benefits of the national monitoring of the quality of education, there are also some undesirable consequences, which reinforce failure, especially with reference to schools with challenging intakes.  The evidence from an empirical study by the Education Policy Institute suggests that the “most deprived schools are systematically more likely to be down-graded than the least disadvantaged”.   Coffield concludes that: “The very schools that need most help are further harmed by inaccurate and biased Ofsted reports that make recruitment and retention even more difficult.”

Recently, Bill Gates expressed his disappointment.  He feels that despite the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation huge investments in public education, “by and large, schools are still falling short on the key metrics of quality education”.

The search for quick common fixes for all failing schools is problematic because their circumstances and cultures are unique.   Unlike successful schools, poor performance schools often lack clear vision, robust strategic planning and rigorous self-evaluation.  Ineffective assessment systems and poor understanding of how assessment and constructive feedback can be used to advance learning can lead to underachievement.  High focus on end outcomes and accountability measures, and poor engagement with processes and strategies leading to achieving these end results, can contribute to underperformance. 

Discussing failing schools raises some uncomfortable questions relating to how we identify a school’s underperformance and what is done about it before generations of students fail to receive proper education or qualifications.  If the current system of school evaluations is flowed and fails to identify poor performance for early intervention, then its fitness for purpose should be examined.   Perhaps a system of truly independent school evaluations with a formative focus combined with validated self-reviews informed by 'pupils'  voice', would support school improvement in a better way and reduce student failure.  Greater engagement with reflective practice, where critical self-assessment is part of day-to-day monitoring and informs future development, can only contribute to school improvement and reduce failure.


Department for Education (DfE) data; 2017 key stage 2 tests and GCSE examination results.
Stein, L et al. (2013). Education Disrupted: Strategies for Saving Our Schools. R&L Education.

Goodman, J. (2011).  The Spirit versus the Letter. King’s College London.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Artificial Intelligence: educating for the future

Another academic year has just begun.  It does not look much different from the one before – indeed, it is not much different from when I started my education some 50+ years ago.  And it has not fundamentally changed from the compulsory education introduced in the 19th century.  Till today, children are grouped in classes according to age and receive whole-class instruction from a teacher in charge of a class or a subject.   Although the slates and quill pens have been replaced with updated writing equipment and curriculum has been modernised, the way children are organised and taught have not changed essentially since the beginning of formal education, despite huge technological advancements.

The same does not apply to the world of work.  The way people work today does not resemble the working environment or conditions from the 19th century.  So how effectively do schools prepare young people for the next stage in their lives?

For many reasons, schools are extremely slow in adapting to new technologies.  The technology already exists – with virtual learning environments and on-line learning tools – to provide personalized-style education to match pupils’ skills, individual academic maturity and ability to ensure the best progress for each child.  This type of learning is not only motivational but it also develops self-regulation needed for achieving greater learning independence in the future.   However, this type of learning is not being successfully applied to benefit all pupils’ education fully.  Despite the overwhelming research evidence (Black et al., 2003; Fullan, 2003; Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). of the benefits of personalized learning to pupils’ achievement and motivation, educators and policy makers have failed to reach a common understanding of what it actually entails and how to embedded it effectively into today’s schooling.  Although attempts at providing personalized learning can be noted in some schools, in the main, learning and achievement are focused on individuals as part of a class/group, rather than on individualized learning pre se.  This is why little has changed over the years with respect to how schools organise learning.

The limited use of modern technology to provide solutions beyond the interaction with some of the curriculum content is hampering young peoples’ individual progress and fails to prepare them adequately for the demands of the modern world.  Some of the attitudes among the educators need to change imminently.  Only recently, looking at an old, decrepit stand-alone keyboard in a south London nursery, where my grand-daughter’s precious early education was just about to be entrusted, I enquired about the use of technology.   I was simply told that it was the settings’ philosophy not to use any IT because children had enough access to computers at home… 

Beyond the use of tablets, interactive boards and other mobile devices, the technology is moving towards the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in educational settings.  Since the access to the internet and personal computing failed to change fundamentally the organisation of education and the way pupils are essentially taught, the application of AI should change profoundly the way young people will learn in the not-to-distant future.  It will undoubtedly enable pupils to engage with AI-based tuition for a truly personalized learning matched to their individual learning curve. 

“Collaboration with human-computer could help students to learn using new approaches we can’t yet imagine”, explains Professor Emma Brunskill from Stanford University.

Erik Choi, Principal Researcher at Brainly asserts, “Each student can gain access to information that will help them along their unique path of their learning curve.  In the future, that means that a student won’t have to learn the same exact thing at the same exact pace as 30 of their classmates”.

With the popularity of e-readers, the look of some of the school libraries has changed.  However, the use of AI technology should truly revolutionise children’s learning and the way schools are structured within the next 15 years.  It will provide opportunities for each child to learn in a personalized way and to make progress at own pace like no implementation of any assessment policy has been ever able to accomplish.

Traditional schooling is about to change dramatically with the arrival of AI tutors.   This signals the biggest transformation in the way children will be taught and will learn since formal schooling was first introduced some three centuries ago.  The use of teaching robots will enable personalized learning on a large scale, thus ending the traditional teacher-led whole-class instruction, which has been the feature of traditional education for centuries.   These changes will have an impact on the way learning is monitored and assessed, and how and when pupils gain their qualifications.

Tractica, a market intelligence firm, says that “The rapid emergence and adoption of AI techniques are a wakeup call.  AI will transform the technology landscape and touch almost every industry over the next 10 years”.   There are reasons to be excited about the introduction of AI tutors to facilitate and monitor individual education.     

In considering learning for the 21st century, I have already written about the necessity for the mastery of learning independence to effective preparation for multiple career changes.  The application of AI techniques in education will have an enormous impact on the development of learning independence through the use of effective personalized learning strategies uniquely matched to every learner.    This will revolutionise education as we know it.   And about time!


Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B. and Wiliam, D. (2003) Assessment for
learning: Putting it into practice. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  New York, NY, Harper Perennial

Fullan, M. (2003). The Moral Imperative of School Leadership. London: SAGE.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Improvement through Self-evaluation

The pivotal role of intrinsic motivation to self-improvement and advancement is well document in cognitive psychology and learning theories. According to Ryan and Deci (2000), this type of motivation is defined as:

the doing of activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun and challenge entailed rather than because of external products, pressures, or rewards.

By contrast, the concept of extrinsic motivation refers to activities, which are performed in order to “attain some separable outcome” (Ryan and Deci, 2000), for example, a certificate or another form of external validation. Research suggests that intrinsic type of motivation is most effective to achieving improved outcomes or personal growth. Therefore creating environments and situations which favour the development of intrinsic motivation are a challenge for us all. With reference to teaching and learning situations, this type of motivation can be achieved when tasks are well matched to the learners’ skills.

Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow theory (1991) and Dweck’s research (2012) focused on ability versus effort, defined in the terms of beliefs as mindsets (fixed and growth), also indicate the crucial role of intrinsic motivation in achieving improved outcomes and personal growth.

School inspections based mainly on external accountability measures depend heavily on extrinsic motivation to bring improvement. In these types of evaluations, the guidance for development is usually communicated through externally articulated recommendations for improvement. It is questionable to what extent these types of evaluations actually benefit organisational improvement. MacBeath et al. (2000) assert that exclusively external systems of school inspections, for example in England and The Netherlands, are mainly driven by control and the need for accountability even if they have an improvement perspective.

In contrast, robust and contextualized self-evaluation arrangements can visibly benefit organisational development by providing the right level of motivation to achieve higher outcomes (intrinsic motivation). Organisational development, where improvement is mainly driven through self-assessment, can be very effective with regard to growth. When fully embedded into an institutional context, the process of self-evaluation becomes almost self-managing in productively meeting institutional objectives and success performance indicators.

Indeed, some of the most successful educational systems in terms of outcomes for young people, for example Finland or Singapore, where school audits are focused only on financial control, are not subjected to external evaluations of their performance.

In England, the most successful schools consistently self-evaluate their own performance against their own challenging and evolving performance indicators. To add greater rigour and challenge to their arrangements, some institutions validate their self-evaluation processes through peer-reviews. These encourage the right level of professional dialogue leading to further improvement.

At this level, success does not happen by chance. At the heart of improving education for all children, is school improvement. The outcomes for all children matter, regardless of their postcode or birth. If school improvement can be achieved through a more effective system of performance evaluation, I think it is worth a try. Perhaps the next stage is to examine the effectiveness of the current inspection framework: to what extent does it directly benefit school improvement in terms of pupils’ outcomes?

On the impact of the inspection regime on school improvement, former Chief Inspector, David Bell, said, “I have always been cautious in saying that inspections cause improvement because, frankly, we do not”.

A Government Select Committee Report in 2010 concluded that “true self-evaluation is at the heart of what a good school does” and that:

Self-evaluation – as an iterative, reflexive and continuous process, embedded in the culture of a school – is a highly effective means for a school to consolidate success and secure improvement across the full range of its activities.

Research literature indicates that external evaluations are most effective when they are focused on improvement and collaboration. Arguably, new inspection arrangements conducted within the spirit of a peer-review process focused on schools’ self-evaluation, is perhaps what is needed to improve education for all. This type of peer-review would focus to a greater degree on the school’s own objectives rather than on the standard pre-determined criteria. Although self-evaluation can play a part in some inspection systems, it is not always a requirement. I feel, that putting self-evaluation at the centre of the inspection process and shifting the focus from external accountability to internal accountability measures against the school’s own objectives, would lead to greater school improvement for all.

Evidence-based data suggest that intrinsic motivation is most conducive to achieving greater learning gains. By analogy, if the same theory is applied to institutional development, for example school improvement, the importance of contextualized self-evaluation and its value in the school evaluation system is perhaps worthy of a longer discussion.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY, Harper Perennial.
Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset: How you can fulfill your potential. UK, Robinson.
MacBeath, J. et al (2000). Self-evaluation in European Schools. London, Routledge.
Ryan R.M., Deci E.L. (200). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: classic definitions and new directions. Contemp. Educ. Psychol. 25, 54 – 6710.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Building Resilience Early for Later Success: preventing potential mental health issues and poor achievement

As an experienced educationalist, I am a great believer in developing learners through encouraging their effort and providing constructive guidance on future learning. This approach not only helps to develop the right attitudes to learning, leading to improved outcomes, but, with focus on actions, it takes the ‘person’ out of the frame and allows the learners, whatever their abilities, to direct their attention to working on tasks in hand.

All teachers would have encountered learners, including those considered as highly able, who can be reluctant to try for fear of failing. Carol Dweck’s extensive research into the psychology of learning confirms that learners’ attitudes, and especially their willingness to put the effort in, not abilities, are crucial to successful learning and making progress. So how can we ensure that our pupils develop these right attitudes needed for future success?

All young children are keen to explore, discover and learn. During their early development, they make rapid progress and soak up new knowledge like ever expandable sponges. As Dweck says, “You never see an unmotivated baby”. However, as children grow older, they develop different attitudes to learning (“mindsets”), which can have an enormous impact on their future achievement. As adults, we influence children’s thinking and shape their mindsets through our own sets of beliefs and values. In societies that place value on ability over effort, children who feel that they are clever, but are faced with obstacles, can become reluctant learners in order to avoid looking stupid. Such mindsets (“fixed mindsets”), according to research, are formed by adults who tend to focus their praise on the person (“What a clever girl!”), rather than the actions, and this has a negative impact on the child’s future success, especially when that child is faced with some difficulties. Moreover, when these children cannot get by on wits alone, they can develop various avoidance mechanisms and behavioural issues that can lead to more serious mental health problems in the longer term. It is this inability to compete on equal terms with others, who they perceive as no more able than them, and the fear of visible failure that can lead to isolation, depression and poor self-worth.

The demands of the global economy, parental expectations of high achievement to secure first class qualifications for better job prospects, increasing higher education costs and other accountability measures based on sometimes flawed assessment systems all contribute to greater pressures by young people for improving their outcomes. It is therefore crucial for education and health care professionals to take note of evidence-based strategies in order to help young people develop effective self-regulation skills to enable them to cope with temporary failures and to equip them with strategies in overcoming setbacks. Teaching young people the value of effort through praising their actions and trying hard, and preparing them for bugs through challenging tasks, where they have the opportunity to progress at their own level with appropriate level of guidance to experience success, are some of the strategies that can be used to build resilience. The aim of these strategies is to enable these young people to bounce back from difficulties through their own efforts. Since prevention is always preferable to cure, early focus on developing the right mindsets to learning and cultivating the strength of mind through encouraging and praising effort can avert the development of mental health problems by school pupils, and help them to build resilience.

However, building resilience through developing the right attitudes to learning requires consistency of approach by all professionals and greater understanding of developing self-regulation strategies in young children. It is counter-productive and utterly frustrating when I repeatedly hear early years education and health care professionals/therapists lavish their praise on my young grand-daughter in the form of “clever girl”. Developing the growth mindset by instilling the value of effort to future success, through praising effort, not the person, is important to building resilience and determination early, and preventing emotional or behavioural problems later on. Ego-enhancing strategies, however, can result in creating a fixed mindset, where an individual’s full potential can be compromised, and where the lack of adequate effort and running away from challenges can lead to failures and wasted talents.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Assessing Pupils’ Progress: primary curriculum, exams and assessment

Following the publication of the Key Stage 2 assessments (SATs ) results, the report in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) on 14th December calls for reforms to the system, claiming that the tests have “affected pupils’ wellbeing”.

In the drive to improve pupils’ readiness for secondary education, this year pupils sat new and more rigorous tests. According to the provisional figures released by the Department of Education, only about half of pupils in Year 6 have met the new expected standard. The results show that 53% of pupils achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics. While it is difficult to make direct comparisons with the previous year, when the expected standard (NC level 4) was attained by 80% of pupils, this year’s results look certainly different.

Since the abolition of NC levels, schools have been encouraged to develop their own assessment systems to monitor the progress of their own school populations. Life beyond levels became quite a challenge for most schools, and the teaching profession, who were searching for new off-the-shelf solutions to replace the familiar concept of levels. This thinking showed a certain lack of understanding of the needs of different school populations and gave little consideration to the opportunities of developing specific attainment targets, no longer stipulated by the government, in order to assess different curriculum areas by content and time. The development of new assessment systems requires in-depth understanding of assessment principles and clear awareness of what makes a ‘good’ assessment. Although assessment is central to any learning situation and is a driver for the school curriculum, it can be often misunderstood by the teaching profession who, for about 25 years, has been fed a diet of abstract levels. These were used routinely to determine attainment, or indeed progress, by attaching a number to the level of knowledge.

School leaders and school associations are highly critical of the new reforms and, as reported by the TES after the publications of the results, describe the recent changes as “diabolical” and “unacceptable”. Their main concerns are that:
• the reforms are unhelpful to children with special educational needs;
• the tests are stressful and affect pupils’ well-being;
• the school curriculum is affected because of focus on assessment and non-exam subjects are side-lined;
• high stakes accountability has a negative impact on teachers and how they teach.

Whilst any new reforms need some time to be effectively implemented, I am particularly concerned with the apparent focus on teaching-to-the-test, where other areas of the curriculum are reportedly side-lined, and the notion that the accountability for high stake testing can reduce teaching to the demands of a tick list, as concluded by one deputy headteacher: “The ticklist I’ve got to go through to give my school’s data (…) is massively influencing the way I teach. And I will teach to that ticklist”.

For fear of accountability and inability to let go, children can be deprived of the love of learning and opportunities to develop their wide interests and talents, and ultimately achieve better results at the end. We need to focus on LEARNING, not accountability and teaching-to-the test, to improve progress and achieve better outcomes for all children. To view SATs as the raison d’etre of primary school education, is to limit that education to the narrow syllabus required by the final test. The evidence shows that pupils’ results improve when they are fully involved in their learning, including participation in a wider curriculum and extra-curricular activities.

In order to fully engage pupils in their learning for improved results, schools need to develop effective formative assessment strategies aimed at developing pupils as autonomous learners. This includes pupils with special educational needs, in particular, as they need quite specific feedback on next steps in learning to help them with progress and to develop their learning independence. Currently, the use of assessment for learning (AfL) techniques to move learning forward is highly ineffective. The thinking behind AfL is poorly understood, resulting in weak implementation, which is often condensed to routine strategies or ‘toolkits’. This may be as a result of an earlier AfL government initiative, which presented the strategy as a mini summative assessment system, known as APP (assessing pupils’ progress); this had little in common with the essence of AfL. In fact, such interpretation of AfL is at odds with its spirit: an assessment system aimed at assessing learning during production, similar to coaching, and moving pupils’ learning onto the next level through effective guidance on their next steps in learning or matching learning objectives to pupils’ abilities. As a fluid process, it requires adjustments to teaching in order to match pupils’ level of understanding and, when used effectively, can result in big learning gains. Effective use of assessment for learning strategies allows for personalised learning to take place, where each individual pupil can make progress at his or her level. Therefore relentless focus on teaching-to-the-test, rather than on developing pupils as effective learners who are motivated to achieve, can have a negative impact on their high stake exam outcomes, and on later success.

Undoubtedly, schools need to be accountable for the quality of the education they provide. However, narrowing the primary school curriculum to the core subjects, as tested by the SATs, is not a way to go. Preparation for the next stage in education includes all round pupil development, which has a positive impact on examination results. To succeed in life and in education, pupils must be exposed to a rich educational experience and a broad curriculum. They must be equipped with skills for life-long learning in the ever changing environment of technological advancement and they must be given a chance to develop their talents and learning to the full. It’s the only chance they have.