The panacea of school improvement and raising attainment:- Looking for Solutions AND Finding Answers

Here in Scotland the search goes on.  Everyone is looking for the panacea which will transform school’s fortunes and outputs, change their attainment levels and ensure better outcomes and attainment for our children.

Across the world, hundred, if not thousands, of research papers, books, articles and advice pieces have been written about how to achieve the same goal.  However, how many have gone full circle taken theory into impact?  How often does the next “bright idea” or “potential solution” come around?  These may well be well formed and with great moral purpose, alas how many have the desired, long term, sustained impact on improvement?  Here is often where the gap lies most gaping: – Theory into practice.  Does a single golden ticket even exist?  If it does, is it a simple panacea or a multi-faceted beast reflective of the complexity education itself?

The matter has been high on the policy agenda in recent years and months.  As no solution is instantly found another approach is adopted: – CfE with its reduction in assessment and more focus on sound learning across the broad base of Scottish education; the millions of pounds worth Attainment Challenge with a tight focus on Literacy, Numeracy, Health and Wellbeing; and now discussions around potentially changing the whole governance structure of schools to a model potentially akin to English academies.

The attainment challenge itself was an interesting gamble. Not least because it avoided the national agency for improvement and also because it went to schools direct, avoiding local authorities per se.

However, is this broad enough?  And will this approach likely lead to improved standards in education and the well documented Government aim of reducing the poverty gap?

One irony is that Scottish education’s Inspection framework contains seventeen quality indicators.  None of these are explicitly the three strands of the Scottish Attainment Challenge.  If , what the Scottish Government has called the three “foundations for learning” (Attainment Scotland Fund, Education Scotland website), are literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing then they the Scottish attainment challenge must have something radically different to offer.  For strategies, policies and “improvements” in these areas have been requested,  refreshed, revised, relaunched, re-visioned,  re-evaluated and revamped for many years before (literacy and numeracy perhaps more so than the more recent thrust of activity around Health and Wellbeing).  What is different about this new thrust, this new funding and this new approach via the attainment challenge?

The reality is, these three areas will need to be core components and indeed core outcomes in this recent push, however there will need to be a wider range of areas to be address than just three if we are to reduce the poverty gap.  Education is more complex than that.  And so it should be.  For, if there was a panacea then it would have been taken a long time ago.  Simply returning to how we teach and assess literacy, numeracy and health & wellbeing will not in itself reduce the poverty gap.  What is more, the testing of students will not in itself see an increase in attainment.  “You cannot fatten a pig by weighing it” a former inspectorate colleague once frequently said.  Furthermore still, it is not as if the pig has not been weighted before.  A plethora of testing (standardised and also within the more fluid CfE framework) has taken place across schools and authorities.  What will be different about this particular testing via the National Improvement Framework, that will ensure reduce inequalities in the system.


Any improvements in any education occur due to a variety of interlinked and composite factors.  The Scottish education system equally is complex in its makeup. Multiple organisations have their roles and inputs to this within Scotland.  Learning and Teaching Scotland and their Inspectorate colleagues, merged into Education Scotland; The General Teaching Council for Scotland; Scottish College for Educational Leadership Initial Teacher Training Institutions; local authorities and their differing strengths and demands; not least the vibrant diversity of individual schools themselves.

Within this arena lies an array of different frameworks from ‘Teaching Scotland’s Future’ and GTCS Professional Standards, to ‘How Good Is Our School and Inspection Frameworks’ to the ‘raising attainment’ and ‘closing the gap’ programmes from Scottish Attainment Challenge to Scottish Government / ADES advice that are the focus of this article.  Out with the system itself, studies from a plethora of education researchers, from Tim Brighouse to John Hattie, also add insights, approaches and advice.

However, if we were to take the cycle recommended by HMIe on EducationScotland’s recent How Good Is Our School’s revision then what would we see?  What lessons could we learn from “Looking Inwards –  Looking Outwards –  Looking Forwards” if we use this approach to simply look at the Raising Attainment element of Scottish educational policy.

Looking Inwards

Looking inwards we can see that this is nothing new.  Raising Attainment strategies have been written before, indeed written in the very near past.  Indeed the uncoordinated writing of the separate  ADES and Scottish Government Raising Attainment papers (but later to become a joint paper)perhaps highlighted part of the problem of coordination.  Nevertheless, a paper was written.

And that was it.  What was done with it?  How was the broad areas of Culture, Ethos and Vision; Effective Enabled Learners; Professional Practitioners; Excellent Learning and Teaching; Successful Learners; Parents, carers and the wider community ever progressed; how was good practice shared and how was the policy tracked?  Was progress with this paper ever reported on or was anyone given a lead role to progress the areas across the country?  Or was this just another document thrown into the mix among many more before and after it?

Did “Raising Attainment, Improving Life-chances: Attributes of Success” really improve Life Chances and demonstrate the Attributes of Success that are found in successful policies?  Was any evaluation of its recommendations and the effectiveness of those ever carried out?  Were roles and responsibilities in the three strands of classroom teacher; school community level and local authority level ever consulted upon, made clear, agreed upon and acted upon?

These questions might seem critical but they are not meant to be.   They are a stop point, a thinking point before we embark on further documents and policy papers without first seeing practice emerge that is promotion improvement.  Policies, and the process of forming them, must do this and not simply procrastinate, pontificate and prevaricate.

Looking Outwards

The second phase of Education Scotland’s cycle for school improvement encourages educators to look outwards. This comes at an interesting time when John Hattie’s publications recommend practitioners avoid the “politics of distraction” focussing all their efforts instead on improving Learning and Teaching and consider what progress will look like in the short, medium and long term for students and cohorts of students.[1]

His paper notes that there are multiple “distractions” in education improvement.  Appeasing the parents   is one of the distractors (although one might assert that parents need to be seen less as just another stakeholder at best, the enemy at worst- they are essential co creators alongside pupils and the local community in establishing education provision which is world class through the lenses of each town and city across Scotland- it takes a village to educate a child according to the African proverb.  One might assert it takes a connected city to educate a global citizen in this 21st century context).  Parents’ calls to reduce class sizes and give more choice in schools is ascribed a distractor by Hattie.  Amongst his statistical evidence summations is PISA data which shows China, Japan and Korea all attaining higher levels of attainment data despite their significantly larger average class sizes than comparators.  The second “distractor” of “fixing the infrastructure” notes the pursuit of more effective curricula, more rigorous standards, more frequent testing and the physical buildings in which schooling taking place as having limited impact on outcomes.   His third “distractor” of “fix the students” and the desire to have better, harder working, more prepared students is an interesting one given anyone who feels this needs fixed perhaps requires reminded of their role to help shape, enthuse and model the traits herein mentioned.  The fourth “distractor” of fixing the schools with more money and more autonomy is also minimised as a potential for necessarily improving education.  Again, it is shown from OECD comparisons that spending in itself does not equate to better performance.  Better trained teachers who were paid for performance and embraced technology is shown to be a fifth “distractor” whereby simply “fixing” the teachers” will not result in better student performance.

His follow up paper, “The Politics of Collaborative Expertise” [2], gives some indication of how we might consider raising attainment.  It shifts the narrative from fixing the teacher per se to sharing of collaborative expertise amongst educators.  Building on the theme of progress it asks educators to define what progress will look like over a period of time.  Hattie than considers how teachers build the assessment tools to support them and their students.   One interesting note is the plea for more tools to measure learning and not just achievement outcomes.  After all, if we return to his initial point, it is learning itself that will improve learners and education.   Hattie argues teachers need to have expertise in diagnostic, interventions and evaluation.  They need to know the impact.  And everyone needs to have a responsibility for that impact happening.   The last part of his follow up paper is perhaps the most difficult.  For, scaling up success if an often used phrase in education management.  However, often the circumstances of success are so bespoke that they are hard to replicate.  Furthermore, this author believes they are very much so predicated by the teacher facilitating the learning.  Hattie’s last point goes some way to noting this and going on to discuss the autonomous being of those who are achieving success. How often do we analyse those achieving progress with students and those who are not and then look at how any equilibrium might be restored (by raising the floor and not lowering or hindering the roof’s growth one might add!).

If there is one thing the Scottish Attainment Challenge has done, it has encourages schools across the country to share and to share what they feel is making good progress for students.  This is to be commended.

And so, where else might we look if we wish to continue to outwards, beyond Scotland at how we best simultaneously improve schools and close the poverty gap.  Well a starting point for this might centre on New York given it is here that the First Minister travelled to the United States on a four day visit in June 2015 to “learn lessons from New York education system that could help raise attainment in Scotland.”  On her visit she saw the work of Daniel Hale Williams school alongside the broader work of New York City to improve the education and life chances of young people across the Big Apple.


New York Schools have been working through an improvement model with Student Achievement at the centre (of course achievement internationally translates to attainment in our parlance).  Some of the surrounding influencers on this include a Supportive Environment, Rigorous Instruction and Collaborative Teachers.  Thereafter this is followed by the influencers of Effective School Leadership and Strong Family and Community Ties.  Surrounding this whole framework is the circle of Trust.  This last bit would appear too many Scottish educators as a missing element right now as policy leaders swing to another new approach and structure which screams out lack of trust and faith in educators to produce better quality young people by being left to teach and being given the tools to do it.


If we look deeper into the New York model it offers a multi-faceted approach which supports student achievement and might offer the key to closing poverty gaps.  What is different from Scotland’s model- well it is broader and shows a realisation of the importance of many strands weaving together for common good.

If we look at Closing the Gap models shared by Scottish Government it has many of the components but also some key elements missing.


(Source: Scottish Government & Education Scotland Website)

Compared to NYC we can see some clear areas for consideration:- parent and community ties might be seen via parent zone however this appears as one way traffic in terms of a communication medium, it is not collaborative in the true sense of the word.  For the third sector there are platitudes of exploring  effective links and sharing ideas. Where is the action- the third sector have a key role in instigating action in communities and affecting change.  Compared to the NYC model, Scotland offers nothing concrete in its framework on guidance councillors; there is nothing on academic summer programmes for students (this needs reactivated via re investment in community education and youth work) and there is nothing on longer school day.  All of these features in the NY model giving them a chance of success.

Looking Forwards

As we can see, Raising Attainment is nothing new- in Scotland or beyond.  However, what is new in the Scottish push is the dual focus on raising attainment and closing the poverty gap.  An initial survey of work carried out in Scotland shows that previous policies were never taken to conclusion and evaluated on impact.  Indeed CfE itself is now proving hard to evaluate as there were no definitive aims and KPIs attached to it.  Furthermore, there is nothing new in the approaches being floated just now around attainment challenges which offer anything new on the matter of reducing the poverty gap.  Indeed, far from widening the reach (to encompass factors which might impact on poverty reduction)to help close the gap, the most recent iteration of Raising Attainment in Scotland, through the school’s programme seems to more reductionist that previous iterations.

Surely Scottish education deserves more than that.  Surely the complex range of multi-talented students going through a complex, multi-faceted system deserved multiple approaches taken to help them as they enter a multi fasted world where simply solutions do not exist  and to believe so is telling them a great lie.

Our country demands more and our young people deserve more.  Let’s start learning the lessons from Denmark on assessment, New York on wide ranging approaches to increase achievement and reduce poverty and most importantly… let’s start sharing the lessons from across Scotland at how best to improve our young people’s chance of success.  Key themes come through from both Scandinavia and New York- trust and partnerships.




About neilsgleeeclub

Educator, writer, speaker and leader. Views are my own and not those of the organisations I work for or represent.
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