School Days – my day with LiteracyActionNet & Ealing Fields

I spent yesterday discussing schools…nothing particularly unusual there, except that for the most part I wasn’t on Archer Academy business, but talking to others interested in education.

During the day I attended a very interesting seminar organised by Lemos & Crane as part of their LiteracyActionNet project, looking at parental engagement in literacy (and education more generally). Among plenty of interesting presentations and discussion, the thing I found most enlightening was the presentation given by Stephen Hall of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) on what impacts on attainment.

The EEF have looked at (and now started to fund) different approaches and interventions and what difference they make to children’s attainment levels. Their findings – which are inevitably changing as they fund and evaluate new projects – make for fascinating reading and challenge some traditional assumptions about the effectiveness of particular methods or interventions. The EEF have sought to quantify the impact in the number of additional months impact the approach has (on average) on children’s educational attainment levels.

Their research suggests that while giving feedback to pupils and to teachers has an average impact of +8 months, ability grouping actually has a detrimental effect on attainment (-1 month). They suggest that school uniform, physical environment, performance related pay and teaching assistants all have (on average) no impact on attainment. But things like peer tutoring, collaborative learning and ‘learning to learn’ strategies all make a significant difference – +5 months or more. Of course, just because school uniform and teaching assistants may not make a difference to attainment levels, they could have benefits on other things…but nonetheless I found the evidence really challenged some of my assumptions about what matters and where we ought to be investing resources.

It’s well worth having a look at the EEF’s evidence.

In the evening, I went to talk to some of the parents behind the proposal to establish the Ealing Fields School in West London. They are, like the Archer Academy’s founders, a group of parents attempting to address a desperate need for secondary school places in their community. The group hope to open in 2015 and are in the process of developing their proposal and building local support for the school. Sitting around the kitchen table brought back many memories of the early days in the development of the Archer Academy and also made me realise quite how far we’ve come.

In many respects the Ealing Fields group are in a better position than we were at the same time in our development. They have solid educational expertise on which to draw and more time to develop their proposal (ours was submitted just two months after deciding we were going to apply). It also appears that the process of applying to set up a free school is getting better with each round – there is now a rolling programme for applications and more support available from the New Schools Network than was the case when we were applying.

What I realised in talking to the group was how important community engagement and communications is to the whole project. Whilst the educational expertise of Archer founders was limited to just a few of the group, we were more experienced in comms and engagement. I think this was crucial in securing community support, developing our vision in a way that reflected the aspirations of our community and building strong foundations that have stood us in good stead throughout the process. Although, of course, the development of a school must be based on a sound vision and educational plan, the importance of local buy-in is without question a ‘deal breaker’. Without it, I cannot believe we would ever have been able to establish the school, or that any other group of parents will be able to.

Having worked in community engagement for many years, I have seen far too much shoddy practice being sold as ‘effective engagement’. Free school groups must ensure that they do not accept just ‘good enough engagement’ but aspire to something much better and much more meaningful. At the Archer Academy we constantly asked ourselves ‘just how good could this school be?’, this same aspirational thinking needs to extend to how we approach community engagement and communication too.

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