Is context king in school improvement?

24 April 2018

Author: James Richardson

For teachers, context is king. How can we understand the challenges of any one school until we have actually taught there? It might be true that nothing can substitute for teaching a lesson on the ground, but it’s all too easy to forget that there are more similarities between schools than there are differences, and there are plenty of ways we can exploit this to ensure we are learning from each other.

Our starting point for comparing schools must be an acknowledgment that pupils with different levels of prior attainment in a school greatly affects the headline exam results. Consequently, a simple comparison of comprehensive schools with selective schools is a meaningless one. Selective schools pick pupils on the basis of performance in a test, so it would be surprising if they didn’t perform better on overall attainment.

How can we compare schools?

Instead, let’s hold some school factors constant that we know matter for results: the prior attainment of pupils, the percentage of children eligible for free school meals (FSM) in each school, the percentage of children with English as an additional language (EAL), and the average income deprivation affecting children index (IDACI) scores of the pupil’s postcodes, and create a ‘family’ of schools based upon these factors. This is how the EEF’s Families of Schools database works, weighting the factors to give greatest importance to prior attainment and the percentage of pupils eligible for FSM. The attainment of pupils on a range of measures can then be compared with similar schools, allowing schools to understand the size and nature of their attainment gap in relation to other similar institutions.

Are there any common challenges across the system?

To improve schools across the whole system, we need to understand which challenges are common for all schools, and which are specific to particular contexts. The need to improve literacy in the Early Years may be considered a universal challenge, but the issue of increasing the number of 8/9s in your Pupil Premium pupils may be more specific to particular schools. Where do school leaders look to find help with both types of challenge?

EEF’s Toolkits (including the Early Years Toolkit), Guidance Reports and online resources provide the starting point for universal challenges, but the Families of Schools database provides a resource to identify schools in similar context who may be able to offer bespoke help for your particular concerns.

The one thing that always stands out from looking at different families in the database, is that it is rare to find one school that sits at the top in each subject. Select reading as the measure and you will often find the school performing the best in the family is not the same as when maths is selected. The lesson? There are always pockets of excellence from which we can draw from when we look close enough at meaningful data.

What next?

Capturing what high-performing schools are doing is a complex process, so the Families of Schools database is being developed to ensure that those with the expertise and capacity to support others are more prominently marked in the database. Of course, foremost among these schools are the Research Schools, and their range of CPD programmes that are designed to show how evidence can be applied to particular contextual challenges.

But a question that often emerges in our discussions with teachers is can we link the database so that it identifies the most promising teaching evidence-based strategies and interventions “for schools like ours”? Are particular interventions more effective for EAL pupils or low-attainers? The evidence base is not yet sophisticated enough to deal with such nuances, but we know that when context is king, this is where we must look next.

Posted on 24 April 2018
Posted in: Blog

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