‘WE NEVER ARRIVE’
Professor PAMELA SAMMONS, who is Professor of Education, Department of Education, University of Oxford, and Senior Research Fellow, Jesus College Oxford, is a force of nature. A passionate educationist, Pam has been involved in educational research for over 35 years with particular focus on the questions of school effectiveness and improvement, and leadership and equity in education. Pam has carried out several studies of primary and secondary schools and their influence on children. One of her landmark studies was a review of ‘Key Characteristics of Effective Schools’ (1995) that led to the revised Framework of Inspection for Schools by the UK’s Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted).
She also helmed a major study of secondary schools (Forging Links: Effective Schools & Effective Departments, Paul Chapman 1997) and was co-director of a research on ‘Variations in Teachers’ Lives and Work and their Effects on Pupils’ (VITAE 2001-2005) and a large study of teacher effectiveness in promoting pupils’ reading, and mathematics progress and pupils’ attitudes/motivation (Teachers Matter, McGraw Hill, 2007).
Pam was also a principal investigator on a seminal longitudinal study of ‘Effective Preschool Primary and Secondary Provision’, tracking children from age 3 to 16+ years (EPPE/ EPPSE 3-16+, 1996-2014). The British Educational Research Association (BERA) recognised the original Effective Provision of Pre-school and Primary Education (EPPE 3-11) research as a “landmark study” in celebrating 40 years of research (1974-2014) that has had “significant impact on educational policy, practice, research methodology and/or theory” in the period 2004 to the present.
Pam was awarded the Outstanding Graduate Supervisor Social Sciences Division at the Oxford University Students Union Teaching Awards in 2017. “Focussing on promoting the quality of teaching and student learning throughout the school is clearly vital for school effectiveness,” says Dr. Pamela in an interview with Pallikkutam.
You have devoted a significant part of your career on the question of effectiveness of schools. One of your seminal works has been a review of “Key Characteristics of Effective Schools” (1995) that led to the UK’s Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) revising the ‘Framework of Inspection for Schools’. What to your mind, Dr. Pamela, are some of the key characteristics of effective schools today a little over two decades after your review that could apply to schools, shall we say, the world over?
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the important and growing international field of school effectiveness research and what we know about the characteristics of effective schools. One of the major changes over the last two decades has been a move towards the term ‘Educational Effectiveness’, recognising that research approaches can be used to study a range of institutions and wide age range of children and students from pre-school through to older age students at colleges or higher education institutions. And the concept of schools in the traditional sense (a single institution with a building and fulltime students) is also evolving with greater use of private tutoring in many countries plus non-traditional forms of learning, such as the use of online resources or educational apps on mobile devices. Our recent International Handbook of Educational Effectiveness and Improvement helps to document some of the developments in the field over the last two decades. (Chapman, C., Muijs, D., Reynolds, D., Sammons, P. & Teddlie, C. (2016) The Routledge International Handbook of Educational Effectiveness and Improvement: Research, Policy, and Practice, London: Routledge).This book also highlights the increasing emphasis on the processes of change in schools and links with the growing interest in how schools improve as well as greater recognition of the importance of teaching quality.
While school effectiveness originally focussed mostly on promoting students’ academic achievement with an effective school being one that promoted ‘better’ attainment through fostering students’ progress, there is greater recognition now of the importance of a broader range of outcomes that includes attainment but also emphasises students’ attitudes, behaviour, engagement and motivation, meta-cognitive skills (the ability to learn how to learn), and social skills (such as team work) that are also important in their own right and relevant for future life and employment.
In terms of key processes of effective schools the weight of evidence supports the importance of ‘effective leadership’ especially by the school principal but also of middle leaders in schools (such as heads of subject departments or faculties) characteristics; consistent ‘high-quality teaching’ throughout the school with a focus on supporting teachers’ professional learning, a ‘positive school culture’ focussed on supporting learning for all students and with good behaviour management creating and maintaining high expectations for all students; ‘monitoring students’ progress and providing regular formative feedback to support their learning’ using assessment and other data to promote improvement; and ‘involving parents in productive and appropriate ways’, including helping parents to support their children’s learning at home.
Another important part of your research has been the question of teacher effectiveness. There are widespread concerns globally about the effectiveness of teachers, of course, on account of a variety of reasons, both intrinsic and extrinsic. As you note in your paper, co-authored with A.M. Lindorff, L. Ortega, and A. Kington, “Inspiring Teaching: Learning from Exemplary Practitioners Strong Emotional and Reflective Components that Distinguish Inspiring Practice”, the “strong emotional and reflective components that distinguish inspiring practice”, how do we today help build that “inspiring practice” in our schools?
We have a wealth of research evidence on the importance of effective teaching and the impact this can have on student outcomes. Being taught by a more effective teacher for three years or more (it doesn’t have to be the same teacher) rather than by a less effective teacher can make a huge difference to student achievement and thus future life chances. We know a lot about the features of effective teaching from research and there are a number of internationally recognised instruments that have been used to observe and measure practice. One important feature is teachers being interested in and willing to learn from research evidence to help reflect on and improve their practice. Observations and constructive feedback from colleagues (often in pairs taking turns to discuss what went well/what could be improved) can support professional learning.
I’m pleased you mentioned our ‘Inspiring Teaching’ research study of exemplary practitioners in England (the report is free to download from the Education Development Trust website by the way if your readers want to follow it up Sammons, P., Kington, A.,Lindorff-Vijayendran, A. & Ortega, L. (2016) Inspiring Teaching: What we can Learn from Exemplary Practitioners, Reading: CfBT). We hope it stimulates more studies in other countries.
We found that these inspiring teachers were highly effective in terms of research findings but they also had additional strengths. In particular, they were strong in creating positive relationships with their students, they were also good at classroom behaviour management (using fair, firm but positive approaches), they provided students with lots of formative feedback on how to improve their work, and they enjoyed teaching and ensured that their classes were enjoyable places for students to learn. So, they paid a lot of attention to praising pupils for their effort, they communicated high expectations, showed respect, care and empathy for their students, and created purposeful and engaging classroom learning activities. They were also skilled at fostering student engagement and motivation.
In your study co-authored with Christopher Day and Qing Gu as to how “successful principals directly and indirectly achieve and sustain improvement over time through combining both transformational and instructional leadership strategies”, Dr. Pamela, how do we build a sustainable model of such a leadership notwithstanding subjective, cultural, policy, or national contextual differences?
This is a difficult question to address but I hope that our review on Successful Leadership (again free to download on the Education Development trust website Day, C. & Sammons, P. Successful leadership: a review of the international literature., Reading: CfBT) provides a helpful account and ideas. We highlight the importance of a leader’s skills in diagnosing the state of development and needs of their school (e.g. asking questions, such as what are the current and past strengths and weaknesses? And what aspects should we prioritise for our improvement efforts?). This links to the leadership behaviours of ‘setting directions’ by sharing a vision and motivating colleagues and where necessary taking steps to ‘redesign the organisation’.
School improvement involves clear priorities and planning plus there are important personal and intellectual skills of leadership combined. Focussing on promoting the quality of teaching and student learning throughout the school is clearly vital for school effectiveness.
Professional development for teachers, encouraging teacher collaboration working together on learning activities or developing resources, the regular use of observations of teaching in a non-threatening way (peer on peer pairs for example) to provide formative feedback and the use of research can all be ways to try to reduce ‘within-school variation’ in the quality of teaching and support teacher learning to ensure high quality teaching is consistent and becomes the norm in the school.
Finally, a clear focus on promoting positive outcomes (academic, social, behavioural) and making school experiences enjoyable in a safe supportive environment for all students lies at the heart of successful leadership for improvement.
As a corollary to the above, and in the light of your work, what unifying characteristics hold the key to the success of such a transformational leadership in schools?
I think a strong moral commitment to promoting the best outcomes and welfare for all students (not just the gifted or able), intellectual curiosity, and an optimistic disposition combined with intellectual rigour and the ability to use research and evidence and keep pace with educational and social changes are all required.
Dr. Marjo Kyllonen, the head of the Department of Education in Helsinki, last year proposed the removal of all school subjects from school that essentially catered to the needs of industrialisation of the early 1900s. What are your thoughts on the subject? There has been significant debate around the world about the relevance (or the lack of it) of the subjects that are taught in school regardless of the aptitudes of the children or the needs of society. Are we at the crossroads of such a radical restructuring of the curricula?
I am not sure that I would agree with this proposal. Subject divisions have grown and multiplied in many areas. Some subjects once considered crucial have become uncommon in some countries (e.g. Latin and Greek is now rarely taught in English schools but was once considered vital) whereas others have become increasingly important in recent years (educational technology/programming/ICT). Nonetheless, there is clear evidence that the need for language, literacy, numeracy, and scientific knowledge and skills is increasing worldwide. More reading may be online than in paper books in future but it remains a crucial skill.
Similarly, societies have found that the importance and benefits of humanities, social sciences, and the arts remain strong. A broad and balanced curriculum will, in my view, remain important for students.
The particular named subjects may vary over time in different country contexts but the wealth of human knowledge, skills, and research has historically found subject divisions a useful way of organising learning, while recognising the links across subjects and different domains of knowledge.
Where should schools go from here on?
Keep improvement as a core focus, education is a journey for students, teachers, leaders, and schools. We never ‘arrive’. We should celebrate study and spread successful practice, focus on the needs of the most disadvantaged students and promote equity recognising the need for early intervention for those most at risk (the poor, minority groups, those with special educational needs). Planning for improvement should become the norm, encouraging teachers to reflect on their practice and schools to engage in self-evaluation and review to promote improvement. Plus, schools can play an important role in social transformation.
Girls’ access to schooling and their educational opportunities remains a cause for concern in many societies. How can schools help promote better outcomes for girls, promoting equal respect for girls and boys to challenge cultural norms that may perpetuate inequity and mistreatment.