A recent article warning against the dangers of ‘policy shopping’ (visiting countries and picking policies to take home) sprung to mind as I arrived in South Africa for a visit to SPARK Schools, a network of 15 independent schools, and the Education Partnerships Group (EPG) team. Was this going to be the school network equivalent of policy shopping (best practice shopping)? Contextual relevance is an important consideration for transportability of best practices from successful schools, so what real value is there in visiting non-state operators working in very different places, setting out to achieve very different objectives?
To put it simply, inspiration. The trip gave seven colleagues from PEAS-Uganda and I the chance to observe best practice to inspire ideas for how to help our schools continue to improve.
At PEAS we now have externally generated evidence to show that our schools are, on average, helping disadvantaged students to make faster learning progress than their peers in government or private schools. Moreover, we’re in the lucky position of knowing quite a bit about what’s driving learning progress in our schools – strong school management practices, child protection policies and systems of support for teachers are all important ingredients. However, we also know where we have room for growth. Our external data suggests that classroom practice in PEAS schools, while a bit better than the norm in Uganda, is not dramatically different from classroom practice in government or private schools.
We’re really proud of what our schools in Uganda are achieving for thousands of young people, but we have big ambitions and want to keep raising the bar. We think our journey to do so will involve (1) consistent implementation of what we already know works across all our schools, and (2) making sure great school management and leadership translates into great classroom practice. To help us on this journey we wanted to visit two organisations who focus on both these things – SPARK Schools and EPG.
So, were we inspired? Absolutely. The time we spent in SPARK Bramley and in Disa primary school (a government school on EPG’s Collaboration Schools programme) showed us different and, at times, more effective ways of implementing the same ‘best’ practice.
The experience highlighted a few things that all of us have in common and gave us fresh insight into our own approach:
A belief in the importance of instructional leadership. EPG have established a whole institute (the Instructional Leadership Institute) dedicated to helping South African school leaders facilitate quality teaching and learning in their schools. SPARK focuses on creating an internal leadership pipeline within their own network. Teachers are encouraged to sign up for their internal Trailblazers programme to prepare them for a leadership position. This helps to ensure that leaders have the skills needed to lead learning in their school and are already values-aligned. PEAS sets up instructional leadership teams in all of our schools, who are responsible for supporting teachers in their schools through a regular programme of lesson observations and coaching sessions. But it can be hard to find ready-made instructional leaders in the communities where our schools are. Are we doing enough to help teachers make the jump into leadership positions? How can we encourage and prepare them for doing so?
We all care a lot about data - especially learning data. SPARK’s use of learning data was particularly impressive. How much progress students are making seemed to be the key piece of data used by leaders across the organisation to make decisions, especially around staffing and curriculum. A need to ensure that teachers have enough time to engage with learning data was one of the reasons that SPARK decided to increase the degree to which they standardise curriculum and lesson delivery. Without technology for now (most of our schools are off-grid and hardware costs are high) and with large classes, how can we improve assessment of student learning in our schools and help teachers respond to this data? Could increasing the degree to which lesson delivery is standardised help give our teachers more time for assessment?
‘Culture plus competence’ (to borrow a phrase from this year’s GSF annual meeting) seems to be important to us all. There is a lot to learn from SPARK here. At SPARK Bramley the school culture was both joyful and purposeful – exemplified by Sparks Fly, their daily morning assembly. Students and teachers were proud to be at the school and enjoyed being there. They also wanted to meet the high expectations of the school and SPARK. SPARK know what good looks like for their schools. They also know how to make sure that this is being consistently implemented day in, day out across all their schools. SPARK tries to balance consistency with some autonomy for leaders. They have five core values, which are central to every school, but leaders then select a sixth value for their school. At PEAS, how can we balance a desire for our schools to have the freedom to shape school culture in a way that’s right for their local community (our network is spread across Uganda in very different communities) with wanting to have a strong culture as a network?
‘Some things really are the same when it comes to teaching and learning’ but, unsurprisingly, how best practice is implemented looks very different between an urban South African setting and a rural Uganda one. We found that exploring these differences was what made the experience so useful and enriching. The visit also provided an injection of fresh motivation for us all. Those of us on the visit committed to acting as ‘Ambassadors of Change’ within PEAS to make sure we maintain momentum behind the changes that we think will further improve outcomes for PEAS students.
Needless to say, we’re looking forward to the GSF study trip to India later this year for more opportunities to compare implementation of best practice across settings – and for another burst of inspiration!