Why it’s time to turn schools inside out

Malcolm Groves and John West-Burnham, authors of Flipping Schools, offer a radical re-think on traditional approaches to school improvement, focusing on the education of the most vulnerable, disadvantaged and often overlooked children in society. Their evidence-based strategies aim to empower schools to ‘flip’ their thinking and address the wider external factors at play when it comes to children’s learning outcomes, with a focus on personal, social and economic factors.

The evidence that current models of school improvement are stalling in their impact has been accumulating for a while. Indeed the current situation across the school system might best be described as one of diminishing returns, where the energy and commitment of students, their parents, teachers and school leaders are simply not producing the outcomes appropriate to those levels of engagement and investment.

The average science, mathematics and reading scores of pupils in England have not changed between 2006 and 2016 (Jerrim and Shure 2016, p.4). Moreover, the evidence presented by the 2019 Education Policy Institute clearly points to the fact that the gap in performance between advantaged and disadvantaged students is not only narrowing but actually growing and potentially lasting into the distant future. It all points to a fundamental lack of equity in our school system that makes disadvantage systemic for the most vulnerable.

A radical change

As a result, we believe it is now time to move away from incremental models of school improvement towards more fundamental and radical change. For us this involves flipping the collective educational mindset away from seeing the school as an organisation towards viewing it as a community. It means turning school-centric thinking inside out to open up a community-centred and learner-focused mindset.
The reasons for this have also been clear for some time. We know from a range of evidence sources over the last twenty years that only between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of the factors that influence educational outcomes are directly within a school’s control. Roughly 50% can be accounted for by genetic factors (Plomin 2018), while social and economic factors such as levels of poverty, social class and family background account for a further 20-30 per cent.

So it would seem sensible to encourage schools to pay a little more attention to engaging with those social, economic and environmental factors beyond the school’s gates so as to exert positive influence on them and to focus in more on the individual learner in their social and educational context. The key to the next phase of school improvement lies in building social and cultural capital.

Of course we have a problem with the current understanding of accountability, which faces four major problems. It fails to differentiate the multiplicity of the many different interested parties in school success. It does not recognise the multi-faceted and sometimes conflicting demands of those users. As a result, it relies on too narrow a range of measurement and it uses and over-privileges methods of measurement which are also statistically flawed.

So although we have models in business which show success can be achieved with radically different models of accountability, and in our book we examine the experience of the British company Timpson, it requires bravery, conviction and the confidence to take a long-term view for a school leader to put the accountability pressure back in its box.

How other schools have done it

At the heart of our book are the experiences of four schools that have started this process of exploring what it means to move from being school-centric to being community-centric in their structures, policies and relationships. They deliberately do not come from brand-new schools able to create themselves from the group up in their own image. They are ‘ordinary’ schools changing even as they continue to function.

Our argument is that if some schools  – such as these four – can make changes in the way they think about accountability, outcomes, purpose and quality and can start to do things differently, then there is nothing in principle (except perhaps fear) to stop any other school wanting to do the same.

Our review of their practice and supporting research led us to focus on four key components of the outward-facing school that inform our thinking about the next phase of school improvement.

Firstly, the outward-facing successful school of the future has to be a place of trust and mutual respect. Relationships matter and drive everything. The school models community in the way it conducts itself inside so that it then able to turn and reflect that outwards to help build community around it. This requires conscious and deliberate purpose. Children do not learn academically if they do not feel cared for. Their wellbeing is linked to achievement.

Secondly, it provides a base of value and values. Its curriculum  is person-centred. By that we mean community, values and curriculum are inextricably interwined. It implies making learning both real and personal for every individual.

Thirdly, the outward-facing school provides an engine of engagement and participation. It engages its students, their families and communities in an ongoing conversation about the purpose and nature of schooling and it values and learns from their contributions as co-partners.

Finally, such a school makes itself a hub of networks and support for learning. This also involves nurturing an environment for changemakers to emerge.

Importantly, it is the interaction of these four elements that generates the social and cultural capital vital to building and developing community.

Proof is in the evidence

We were determined to be evidence-informed in developing the case for change. We believe that all the evidence, experience and expertise that we have assembled reinforces the case for radical rethinking based on the conceptual framework of social justice expressed through the building of social and cultural capital.

We contend that any school improvement initiative which fails to align with a strategy for community engagement is now unfit for purpose. A school improvement initiative based on flawed numerical measures which fails to take into account broader factors, such as personal/social development and wellbeing, can become dangerous and damaging. A school improvement initiative which fails to understand the difference between organisation and community cannot now take us to the levels of excellence and equity we need. Nor can it equip our children and young people to face successfully the unprecedented personal, societal and global challenges that now lie before them.

About the authors
Malcolm Groves has worked at the forefront of educational innovation for over 40 years, embracing primary and secondary education, youth work and adult education. He has been a registered OFSTED inspector, local authority inspector, school improvement partner, NPQH assessor, and national adviser for specialist schools. He is a founder director of the ground-breaking research and development network, Schools of Tomorrow.
John West-Burnham is a writer, teacher and independent consultant in education leadership with a particular interest in innovative approaches to learning in schools and communities. He has been a schoolteacher, education officer and has held posts in six universities. He is now an honorary professor at the University of Worcester and visiting professor at the University of Suffolk. John is the sole or joint author of 19 books and editor of 11 books, and has worked in 27 countries.