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In conversation with Professor John Hattie and Sir Michael Barber

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Globalisation, the drive for economic competitiveness, and, increasingly,  international ‘league tables’ of education systems, are spurring the UK’s educators and policy makers to look to the world’s highest performing countries for models of good practice.

But what makes a school system ‘world class’? This was the question discussed by Professor John Hattie, Sir Michael Barber and an enthusiastic audience at an evening debate in London on 20 May, organised by Osiris Educational. It was a rare and exciting opportunity to hear from two prominent figures in the international education sector about what we, in England, can learn from other nations.

Two points in particular from the discussion stood out for me: the importance of teacher recruitment, training and development, and the role of good data in school leadership.

Teacher recruitment, training and development are critical

Both speakers agreed that providers of teacher training, whether universities or schools, should seek trainees with strong academic records. John explained that his research has shown that while intelligence is by no means the only factor governing the success of a trainee teacher, it is a reasonable predictor of how a new teacher will perform early in his or her career.

Sir Michael also stressed the importance of ongoing professional development: the success of an education system will be limited if its teachers hit glass ceilings early in their careers. What we need, he argued, is a systematic commitment to supporting the continuing professional development (CPD) of all teachers.

What would this development look like? John feels that the best teachers are self-critical, evaluating the impact of their teaching methods. All teachers should be supported in doing this. Furthermore, robust initial teacher training and CPD will help teachers to identify and implement evidence-based strategies that are appropriate for their pupils.

Good data should inform leadership

According to John, sustained school improvement and high performance are intrinsically linked to the problems school leaders “choose not to address”. In other words, school leaders must be able to identify, and then prioritise, the challenges obstructing success in their settings.

Sir Michael added that it is vital to address such matters ‘in real time’. For this, having access to reliable, accurate and timely data, and knowing how to use it, are essential. Leaders must be able to separate day-to-day ‘surface’ issues from more deeply-rooted challenges, and can only do this with good data.

He also acknowledged that obtaining such data is a challenge in itself. School leaders and teachers should feel confident that what they are measuring is relevant to their school’s goals, and that these measurements are reliable and accurate.

Some reflections

I have only picked out a couple of the areas discussed, but feel they capture the underlying message of the evening: the success of an education system is dependent upon the quality of its school leaders and teachers.

Systems and structures – different types of schools and governance, or the inspection system, for example – are important in so far as they can support practitioners and leaders. However, they can only be successful when accompanied by high-quality teaching and leadership, and – crucially – an education culture that gives teachers and leaders the space and time to train and develop as professionals.

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