3. Change is possible - but we must be clearer about what we ask schools to develop

  • The best systems and schools have a clear idea of the achievement – academic and personal – they should foster in students. This forms a guardrail that keeps them on track
  • In the UK, some schools and systems do this, but establishing a broader definition of achievement at the centre would combat confusion
  • Clear goals will emphasise culture and ethos in schools – a piece of the jigsaw governments still need to address
  • The primary goal of school accountability systems should be coming to a more deeply-based view on whether a school is achieving the prescribed goal

The best systems and schools have a clear idea of the achievement – academic and personal – they should foster in students. This forms a guardrail that keeps them on track

In addressing what can be done to shift our system to raising attainment and ambition for all children, we sought to learn from the best schools in the UK and successful examples around the world. In particular, we were looking for an explanation as to why decades of change had left us with a system which tolerated low attainment in a significant minority, while other systems had surpassed the UK – often spending less.

The most telling difference between successful and less successful schools and systems lay in how they articulate what their schools should achieve, and in the willingness of the system to align three key enablers to this – parental and community engagement, decentralisation of responsibility for delivery of the outcomes and an ethos and culture of stretch in everything a school does, including the curriculum. 

This avoids each change to the system being its own stand-alone debate, and the creation of confusion in the system sown by inappropriate incentives. In effect, it forms a guardrail around the system that ensures all actions are aligned to supporting every child’s development towards a clearly articulated set of goals.

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Being clear on outcomes establishes a common purpose for educators.

In the UK by contrast, we have often set out aspirational goals, whether about the percentage of children who go to university or the number of a certain type of school we want to encourage, but we have rarely been clear about how the system will deliver them. These goals have also changed too regularly – there has rarely been true consensus about what we are asking of schools, which is a recipe for confusion. 

In addition, delivery has been judged by an institutional measure – exam results – that is often not well linked to the goals set out at the political level. This means that our system lacks the effective and clear guardrails of the best systems, which makes transformational change of the sort currently being sought by the government in England difficult to achieve.

School systems in Singapore, Finland and leading areas of the US follow this approach – and so can the UK. In Finland, the goals of education are explicitly linked to competitiveness, research and innovation. [1] Singapore operates with an explicit statement of the ‘desired outcomes of education’ ( Exhibit 14 ).

Exhibit 14 Singapore: building a world class education

First formulated in 1997, the desired outcomes of education (DOE) are attributes that educators aspire for every Singaporean to have by the completion of their formal education. These outcomes establish a common purpose for educators, drive policies and programmes, and allow the government to determine how well the education system is doing: 

“The person who is schooled in the Singapore education system embodies the desired outcomes of education. He has a good sense of self-awareness, a sound moral compass, and the necessary skills and knowledge to take on challenges of the future. He is responsible to his family, community and nation. He appreciates the beauty of the world around him, possesses a healthy mind and body, and has a zest for life. In sum, he is: 

  • A confident person who has a strong sense of right and wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgment, thinks independently and critically, and communicates effectively 
  • A self-directed learner who takes responsibility for his own learning, who questions, reflects and perseveres in the pursuit of learning 
  • An active contributor who is able to work effectively in teams, exercises initiative, takes calculated risks, is innovative and strives for excellence 
  • A concerned citizen who is rooted to Singapore, has a strong civic consciousness, is informed, and takes an active role in bettering the lives of others around him.” 

The DOE are translated into a set of developmental outcomes for each key stage of the school and education system, spelling out what the education service aspires to develop in students through primary, secondary, and post-secondary education. In recent years the balance of teaching has shifted to reduce the amount of subject matter taught and to increase the learning of life-long skills, the building of character and competencies such as critical thinking and creativity. 

Singapore repeatedly emerges as one of the top-performing school systems in comparative studies such as PISA and PIRLS. In all, 99% of young people complete secondary education and 93% progress to post-secondary education. [2] Attrition rates in the schools have been reduced – from about 5% in 1997 to about 1% today – through programmes and pathways to help at-risk students.

In the US, KIPP schools – which have been successful in raising attainment in disadvantaged areas, such as post-Katrina New Orleans – follow a similar approach. All of these focus on defining a holistic vision of the young person they are trying to develop, encompassing knowledge, attitudes and behaviours – not just exam passes. Only initiatives and behaviours that help achieve the shared outcome are taken forward.

Exhibit 15 pulls these strands together in diagrammatic form, illustrating their interconnected nature. For more than 35 years we have tinkered with individual elements in isolation – a repair to a pillar here, adjustment to the roof angle there. The time has come to think about the structure as a whole, based on an explicit understanding of what we are asking schools to deliver.

Exhibit 15 Framework for raising achievement across whole education system

Exhibit 15
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The lack of a comprehensive statement of the achievement we are looking for schools to deliver is a key failing.

Exhibit 16 Business views on education reforms in England since 2010 

“The government believes that we need to reform our school system to tackle educational inequality, which has widened in recent years, and to give greater powers to parents and pupils to choose a good school. We want to ensure high standards of discipline in the classroom, robust standards and the highest quality teaching. We also believe that the state should help parents, community groups and others come together to improve the education system by starting new schools.” – coalition agreement, 2010 

Business wholeheartedly supports this statement. The direction of government reform – decentralising powers to schools, high standards and better teaching – is right. Our major concern is that without a system guardrail in place that sets out the overall outcome we are looking for young people to achieve and aligns school accountability to it, the vast array of worthy initiatives that are underway to improve our schools will get bogged down, while important parts of achieving a high performing system – like wider rigour beyond the curriculum – are lost. 

Unless the accountability system is changed to measure delivery against the overall goal, for instance, schools will still be incentivised to prioritise those things that help them achieve against an exam-based measure, even where that leads to a focus on averages rather than overall achievement. Likewise, we share the government’s concern to improve the quality of teaching and educational performance between seven and 11, but specifying the academic curriculum in great detail without reference to wider development risks killing off the very creativity in schools that the decentralisation programme is meant to harness. 

This requirement for a system guardrail, aimed at the overall outcome of the system in both non-academic and academic terms, is the rigour-plus approach that this report advocates. Annex A sets out a review of the position in the devolved nations.

In the UK, some schools and systems do this, but establishing a broader definition of achievement at the centre would combat confusion

With the exception of Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland – which sets out key goals but does not yet align the school system effectively to deliver them – such clear outcome statements are rare in our system, and nowhere in the UK do they really drive the terms under which schools are assessed.

In England, the government has defined its approach as being based on curriculum rigour. And it is clear from looking at high performing systems globally and the best schools here that this is a vital part of any successful definition of achievement – but it is not enough on its own. Exam and curriculum rigour must be part of a wider system that also addresses social and behavioural aspects of education. In Singapore, as Exhibit 14 shows, the definition of achievement goes far beyond exam scores.

This lack of a comprehensive statement of the achievement we are looking for schools to deliver is a key failing. In business, demand signals are relatively easy to pick up – customers either buy your products, or they don’t. Leading private schools can read their market in the same way. State schools have a more difficult job to do as demand signals are less clear, especially in areas of high disadvantage. We have found that the best schools in such areas are typically led by headteachers who define the outcome they need to hit for themselves, in the face of the complex and inconsistent demands the system places on them.

One such school leader told us they had taken a conscious decision with one group of young people to focus on five key subjects and some life skills, knowing that the accountability system would score them down for it, as it expected eight qualifications from all students at that time. The school felt its approach would have better long-term outcomes for the pupils involved. Even this head – willing to swim against the tide – admitted to second thoughts when he saw the league tables.

Our system should reward schools making brave decisions which focus on boosting long-term outcomes for pupils, not punish them. Doing this requires a single statement of vision that schools can use to justify the decisions they make in a truly devolved system.

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If the education revolution of the 20th century was that basic education became available for most people in democracies – the education revolution of the 21st century should be that good education will become available for an increasing proportion of children Professor Niall Ferguson, Harvard University

Clear goals will emphasise culture and ethos in schools – a piece of the jigsaw governments still need to address

The agenda of localising decision-making and increasing rigour that the secretary of state for education has set out for England offers the potential to deliver change that accords with the best of what the CBI has observed globally. But this change is currently partial; it must extend to all aspects of how schools in England are run – not just curriculum and exams – to be truly successful.

For real transformation in our education system to be possible a national consensus needs to be reached on a clear and stable statement on what schools should deliver. This is needed at the centre so that an important guardrail is in place for all schools. It should be able to survive changes of government and provide the test against which policy changes and school actions are judged. It should also help shine the light on whether the system is truly addressing the needs of all students, rather than just the few required to meet a government target.

From discussion with companies across the UK, businesses believe the school system should:

  • Focus on raising the ambition and attainment for every child as far as their abilities permit
  • Start from the principle of ensuring everyone leaves school with the basics of literacy and numeracy required for success in every walk of life…
  • …embed wider core subjects (like the sciences and computer science) and guide young people effectively on their choice of enabling subjects…
  • …expect schools to create the ethos and culture that build the social skills also essential to progress in life and work, and allow them time to focus on this
  • Have a school accountability and assessment framework that supports these goals rather than defining them.
  • Development of a clear, widely-owned and stable statement of the outcome that all schools are asked to deliver. This should go beyond the merely academic, into the behaviours and attitudes schools should foster in everything they do. It should be the basis on which we judge all new policy ideas, schools, and the structures we set up to monitor them
  • Once developed, Ofsted (and equivalent bodies in devolved nations) should be asked to steward the delivery of these outcomes, judging primary and secondary schools on their performance. This implies resourcing these bodies to develop an approach based on a wider range of measures and assessments than are currently in use, and to support inspectors to use them. The outcome of this will be better and more relevant narrative reports that cover both academic and behavioural development, and the use of these for assessment of schools rather than exam result league tables.

Exhibit 17 sets out these goals, emphasising the role of the school in fostering all three. It suggests governments are right to focus on boosting the core, but that the other two elements of a compelling individual are less well developed in policy across the UK at present.

Exhibit 17 Elements of a successful outcome for schools

Exhibit 17

In the view of businesses, this kind of outcome can be delivered through development and measurement of school achievement across the three areas. First, every young person must master a range of core subjects to an adequate level – including critically maths, English, the sciences and – increasingly – effective use and understanding of computer science. These are core because only when young people have reached a sufficient standard in them can they make substantive progress in their studies and wider life. They furnish the essential scaffolding for gaining other knowledge and skills, whether in the classroom or a workplace.

Secondly, there are what we term the ‘enabling subjects’ – those that expand and enhance the core subjects – including humanities, languages, arts, technical and practically-based subjects. The range of these and the extent of specialisation in their study will vary according to interest and design, particularly from the secondary phase of schooling onwards. These are the subjects that equip a young person to move on – either to university, or to an apprenticeship or vocational qualification. Every student will do a different mix of these, but all routes should be rigorous and stretching.

Finally – and far too neglected in the current debate – there is a set of behaviours and attitudes, a kind of social literacy that we must foster. An exclusive focus on subjects for study would fail to equip young people with these, though rigour in the curriculum does help. These personal behaviours and attributes – sometimes termed character – play a critical role in determining personal effectiveness in their future lives, and should be part of our vision. Businesses we consulted have set out their view on what the key ones are ( Exhibit 19 ). Developing a pattern of behaviour, thinking and feeling based on sound principles, integrity and resilience involves broadening our traditional expectations, using curricular and non-curricular activities to help bring out those qualities in young people.

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Exhibit 18 Examples of core and enabling subjects across education phases

Core subjects Enabling subjects
English and functional literacy, Maths and functional numeracy, Sciences, Computer science Humanities, Languages, Art, Design & Techonology, Economics, Employer-led apprenticeships, BTECs/GNVQs

None of this can happen without the right context at school and in the lead-up to formal schooling. A supportive culture, pastoral care and the right ethos are all needed to make the difference. Greater use of role modelling, exposure of young people to teachers and others from a wide variety of backgrounds, use of new techniques and tools, and stronger linkages between school, home and other non-school environments all have a part to play, alongside a culture and ethos of expectation and rigour. In the past, the CBI has tended to discuss many of these areas in terms of ‘employability skills’. This terminology was misleading, giving the impression that they could be taught separately in the curriculum. That is not the case – the curriculum is the space in which we deliver core knowledge and enabling subjects. Behaviours can only be developed over time, through the entire path of a young person’s life and their progress through the school system. Everything that happens in a school should embed the key behaviours and attitudes.

An essential feature of this approach is that a long tail of pupils failing to achieve the desired outcomes can no longer be accepted. Different and innovative methods will be needed, but the aim must be to enable all of our young citizens to reach the desired standards.

The primary goal of school accountability systems should be coming to a more deeply-based view on whether a school is achieving the prescribed goal

For reform to be a coherent whole, all the incentives acting on schools need to be addressed. This includes the essential role of the accountability system, and the many conflicting expectations placed on schools. Judging real outcomes for every child and the steps schools are taking to deliver them is complex and not easily reducible to a league table or test, but this is the key point – a renewed system should be able to judge performance against the goals based on more complex metrics. For instance, a primary school should be judged on a basket of measures, not just testing scores at age 11. This basket would include the judgement of the inspector on overall culture and ethos, teaching and governance, but it would also include a group of data points, including testing but also outcomes data. These should be the building blocks of a balanced scorecard for schools and they should form the backbone of Ofsted narrative reports.

The implication of this is that the role of Ofsted (or its equivalent in the devolved nations) as producer of narrative reports should be greater, and that of league tables and simple exam-based metrics lessened. Reports from Ofsted should be the basis of effective challenge to heads and governing bodies on low performance, which should not be tolerated. We agree with Sir Michael Wilshaw in this regard, that satisfactory is no longer sustainable given the challenges we face in the 21st century. It will be necessary to support Ofsted and sister bodies to build capacity – particularly on inspector skills – to deliver this.

Exhibit 19 Characteristics, values and habits that last a lifetime

The system should encourage young people to be This means helping to instil the following attributes Pupils will, for example:
Determined Grit, resilience, tenacity Finish tasks started and understand the value of work, learn to take positives from failure experience, work independently and be solutions focused
Self-control Pay attention and resist distractions, remember to follow directions, get to work right away rather than procrastinating, remain calm even when criticised, allow others to speak without interuption
Curiosity Be eager to explore new things, ask and answer questions to deepen understanding
Optimistic Enthusiasm and zest Actively participate, show enthusiasm, invigorate others
Gratitude Recognise and show appreciation for others, recognise and show appreciation for their own opportunities
Confidence and ambition Be willing to try new experiences and meet new people, pursue dreams and goals
Creativity Identify and develop new ideas
Emotionally intelligent Humility Find solutions during conflicts with others
Respect and good manners Demonstrate respect for feelings of others, know when and how to include others, be polite to adults and peers
Sensitivity to global concerns Be aware of pressing global issues and contribute to leading society internationally

Recommendations:

  • Development of a clear, widely-owned and stable statement of the outcome that all schools are asked to deliver. This should go beyond the merely academic, into the behaviours and attitudes schools should foster in everything they do. It should be the basis on which we judge all new policy ideas, schools, and the structures we set up to monitor them
  • Once developed, Ofsted (and equivalent bodies in devolved nations) should be asked to steward the delivery of these outcomes, judging primary and secondary schools on their performance. This implies resourcing these bodies to develop an approach based on a wider range of measures and assessments than are currently in use, and to support inspectors to use them. The outcome of this will be better and more relevant narrative reports that cover both academic and behavioural development, and the use of these for assessment of schools rather than exam result league tables.
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What we want is to see the child pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child. George Bernard Shaw


References

[1] Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture website: http://www.minedu.fi/OPM/?lang=en

[2] Building a national education system for the 21st century: the Singapore experience, a paper by the Singapore Ministry of Education for Building blocks for education: whole system reform, Toronto, September 2010

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