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Stakes could not be higher in facing future challenges
29/09/2008 :: Northern Ireland :: The Irish News
Local considerations need to be set alongside global practices when devising education policies, writes Dr Tom Hesketh, director of the Regional Training Unit.
These are interesting and challenging times in education not just locally but internationally. As our policy makers and educationalists debate how best to resolve the intractable issues surrounding academic selection it is important that they take note of the common challenges confronting numerous schooling systems and the emerging consensus on how these challenges can be overcome.
Three particular trends are exercising the minds of policy makers and educationalists worldwide.
Firstly, the plateauing of school improvement efforts namely, the tendency for literacy and numeracy levels (standards generally) to reach a point beyond which no amount of additional resources will realise significant returns.
Secondly, the persistence of a wide gap between the highest-performing pupils and schools, and the lowest-performing, with the consequential negative impact on the life opportunities of countless young folk.
Thirdly, the persistence within schooling systems of educational determinism, whereby there remains a high correlation between socio-economic deprivation - defined for example by the free school meals indicator - and low educational attainment with the consequential negative impact on communities and the wider society.
Amid the gloom there is though room for optimism. Two recent reports from the McKinsey Organisation and the OECD, underpinned by a rich body of evidence including, in the case of the latter, perspectives and practices from Northern Ireland, provide policy makers with agendas for action.
The first key finding is that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers - in short, good teachers are the number one factor for excellence in student achievement.
This was the key finding of the McKinsey report based on an intensive study of 25 of the world's school systems, including 10 of the top performers.
As the report explains: "We examined what these high-performing school systems have in common and what tools they use to improve student outcomes and three things matter most: getting the right people to become teachers, developing them into effective instructors, and ensuring that the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child."
After effective teaching comes high-quality leadership. This was the key finding of a new OECD publication: Improving School Leadership- Policy and Practice.
Drawing also on comparative analysis and case studies, including practices in Ireland, north and south, the OECD report highlights school leadership as a key factor in improving school outcomes by "influencing the motivations and capacities of teachers, as well as the school climate and environment".
The report emphasises that "effective school leadership is essential to improve the efficiency and equity of schooling" and goes on to specify four ways in which governments can ensure high quality school leadership:
- (re)define school leadership responsibilities, focusing on roles that can improve school results
- distribute school leadership, by engaging and recognising broader participation in leadership teams
- develop skills for effective school leadership over different stages of practice
- make school leadership an attractive profession by ensuring appropriate wages and career prospects.
In Northern Ireland the education department has set as its objective that every school will be a good school.
Amid ongoing debates about structures and academic selection it is crucial that the key insights on teacher excellence and leadership effectiveness to be found in the OECD and McKinsey reports find their practical translation in terms of policy and practice.
The stakes could not be higher. As the recent investment conference made clear the capacity to compete successfully in the global knowledge economy demands a population with high level, high value skills.
The realisation of this objective, not just locally but for most schooling systems, depends on significant improvements in the quality of schooling outcomes and a more equitable distribution in learning opportunities.
The key question is whether the current system of academic selection at age 11 provides an appropriate context for the realisation of quality instruction for every pupil every time or undermines our schooling system's capacity to deliver on this essential objective.
It is time surely to focus on what is important to the educational, economic and societal wellbeing of our population.
Improving School Leadership Volume 1: Policy and Practice by Beatriz Pont, Deborah Nusche and Hunter Moorman OECD (2008) McKinsey and Company (Barber, M and Mourshed, M) (2007) How the World's Best- Performing School Systems Come out on Top.
- Dr Tom Hesketh is head of the Regional Training Unit, which provides leadership, coordination and direction in the planning and delivery of professional development and training for the education community in Northern Ireland.