“Changing Education Systems”: A Conversation with Mel Ainscow, Christopher Chapman, and Mark Hadfield

In Changing Education Systems: A Research-Based Approach, authors Mel Ainscow, Christopher Chapman, and Mark Hadfieldshare some of the key lessons from their collective experience working to improve education in England, Scotland, and Wales. In advance of the November publication, we spoke with them about how the book came together and some of what they have learned in the process 

Why this book, why now?
In this new book we reflect on our experiences over the last 20 years or so of trying to use research to promote equity within education systems. This included our involvement in three large-scale improvement initiatives in the United Kingdom: City Challenge in London and Greater Manchester; the Scottish Attainment Challenge (also see this IEN post); and Schools Challenge Cymru in Wales. We also draw on a series of other place-based developments in various parts of the world.

These experiences lead us to argue that the belief that research can simply be applied to practice and have direct effects in the field is naive, even though it is still held by some researchers, who seem surprised or even dismayed that their work is not immediately adopted.

We also challenge the current emphasis – in our own country and internationally – on ‘what works’. This is based on the idea that policy-makers and practitioners are there to ‘deliver’ practices that have been designed and evaluated by researchers. It has created a situation that favours simple, short-term, single-issue interventions and encourages a narrowly classroom-focused approach – even though barriers to learning originating beyond the school gates are known to be even more influential in shaping outcomes.

Most worrying for us, the “what works” approach defines teachers as ‘deliverers’ of the ideas of others, rather than as professionals trusted to develop practices that suit particular contexts and groups of learners. All of this despite evidence from the OECD which suggests that countries where teachers believe their profession is valued show higher levels of equity in relation to learning outcomes. 

What did you learn in working on this book that you didn’t know before?
Over the years, we came to the view that education systems will only be able to use research effectively if steps are taken to overcome locally specific social, political and cultural barriers. This has implications for policy-makers, practitioners and, indeed, for those of us working in the world of academic research. It also reminds us that teachers are themselves policy makers. That is to say, the most crucial factor is the willingness of teachers to adapt their practices in response to the requirements of the changes that are proposed.

Bearing all of this in mind, within the book we propose a way of thinking about system change that offers opportunities to make use of research processes and findings. In summary, this involves a series of interconnected propositions that point to a need for:

  • A shared understanding of overall purposes. Given that change requires coordinated efforts across the different levels of an education system, an agreed and clear purpose is an essential condition.
  • On-going contextual analysis of a system’s existing capacity for improvement. This has to be capable of providing a deep analysis of the barriers that are limiting progress. At the same time, it should identify areas of promising practice, drawing out key learning and applying this to the development of the necessary human and social capital to support system level improvement efforts.
  • Brokerage that crosses professional and social boundaries, within schools and across networks. This is in order to increase exposure to various sources of expertise and innovative practice.
  • The development of capacity for leadership at all levels of a system. This must be capable of leading collaborative learning within and between schools, and with the wider community.
  • The creation of a strong political mandate at the national and local levels. This is necessary in order to develop the conditions within the education system that are supportive of collaborative local action.

Since effective change requires coordinated efforts at all levels of an education system, the use of these propositions has implications for the various key stakeholders within education systems. In particular, it requires teachers, especially those in senior positions, to see themselves as having a wider responsibility for all children and young people, not just those that attend their own schools; it means that those who administer district school systems have to adjust their priorities and ways of working in response to improvement efforts that are led from within schools; and it requires that what schools do must be aligned in a coherent strategy with the efforts of other local players – employers, community groups, universities, public services and so on.

In the book, we also illustrate how the different roles and socio-cultural contexts of policy-makers/practitioners and academics create a complex set of power relations, which have to be factored into the process of introducing ideas from research. This reveals how those who work in the field derive their power from being primary actors: they can cause things to happen or to cease to happen in a way that is denied to academics. Meanwhile, researchers derive their power from standing at a distance: they can problematise the actions of practitioners and policy-makers.

At their most productive, these power relationships lead to dialogue in which the academics’ views are informed by the realities of practice, and practitioners’ views change in response to ‘outsider’ critique. At their least productive, however, academics mistake their distant position for superiority, and claim moral and intellectual authority over practitioners; while practitioners dismiss academics as being unworldly and resist their critiques. Managing these relationships is crucial to the success of attempts to use research knowledge to guide the improvement of policy and practice in the field.

What’s happened in these contexts since you wrote the book?
The extent of the legacy in the various developments we report in the book varies considerably. Progress in London continues to be impressive, although debates continue regarding what factors have contributed to all of this, as we describe in the book (https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/the-london-schools-revolution). The Scottish Attainment Challenge remains a key policy within the Government’s reform programme. In the case of Greater Manchester, we have recent empirical evidence of the continuing impact of its legacy seven years later, most strikingly in terms of partnerships and networks, and system level coordination. Currently, all of this is being taken forward by the Greater Manchester Education and Employability Board established by the ten partner local authorities that Mel chairs.

 What’s next — what are you all working on or what do you hope will happen in these contexts?
We are continuing to refine our thinking through our involvement in further system development initiatives in the UK and internationally. Chris is acting as consultant to a further phase of the Scottish Attainment challenge and various other related national reform initiative. Through his work as a consultant to UNESCO and the Organization of American States, Mel is supporting developments internationally. Most recently this has involved government-led national initiatives to promote inclusion and equity in Colombia and Oman that are informed by the thinking presented in the book.

What do you hope those working in other parts of the world will take away from your experiences?
Given the emphasis we place on the importance of contextual analysis, we believe that the ‘way of thinking’ presented in the book is relevant  to other parts of the world. Furthermore, our recommendations seem particularly pertinent at a time when many countries are seeking to address issues related to inclusion and equity raised by the UNESCO Education 2030 Framework for Action, Indeed, these recommendations have been incorporated into a recent UNESCO guidance document that is now being used internationally.

Meanwhile, the sorts of barriers that we describe in the book continue to impact on efforts to use research knowledge to guide educational change in both the developed and developing world. The implication is that changes have to be made in the way education systems operate in order to create the organizational conditions within which new thinking based on research can be accommodated. Without this, even the most sophisticated ideas and strategies are likely to be ignored or dismissed.

The accounts of our involvement in the projects described in the book point to the nature of the conditions that need to be encouraged. They also illustrate the relationships that have to be created amongst practitioners, policymakers and academic researchers. By and large, these are not based on a technical-rational process through which research-based knowledge is presented to practitioners in the hope that this will then be used to guide decision-making and action. Rather, they involve a rather messy social learning process, within which researcher expertise and perspectives are brought together with the knowledge of colleagues in the field. Where this works, it can lead to the development of new, context-specific knowledge that can support change processes.

The implication is that successful change requires the coming together of different perspectives and experiences in a process of social learning and knowledge creation within particular settings. Researchers who get involved in such processes must expect to face many difficulties and dilemmas. Consequently, they have to develop new skills in creating collaborative partnerships that cross borders between actors who have different professional experiences. They also need to mobilise personal support in dealing with the pressures this involves.



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