There is almost universal recognition that the quality of education which young people receive is dependent on the character and quality of the schools they attend. This has an enormous influence on their subsequent life chances, as well as on their ability to contribute to the societies they live in. It follows that school improvement needs to be at the heart of successful strategies for poverty reduction. We have experience of successful school improvement work in many different contexts including highly developed, middle income and developing countries. The detail of strategies for school improvement can vary considerably depending on the context and indeed, unless the strategy is carefully tailored to local conditions by people who live and work in them, it is highly likely to fail. However, there are some general principles which we believe apply in all circumstances and which form the basis of any successful strategy.
This is not something that can be done to schools by outsiders, no matter how well informed or intentioned. The staff of the school, working with the local community, are the people who have to make the change happen.
If schools are going to be effective centres of development, they need to have enough autonomy to be able to make decisions about their own development. This need not mean that they have large budgets devolved to them, but they do need to control sufficient resources to be able to plan and implement real improvements.
It is one of the central responsibilities of national governments to set the parameters within which schools operate. Most importantly, governments need to explain clearly to schools what they are expected to achieve – what it is that ‘counts as good.’
Although schools work best if they have a high level of self-determination, it is not reasonable to expect them to solve all their problems on their own. They need help in measuring their own success, in identifying problems and in finding solutions. Alongside that support, there needs to be a system which holds schools accountable: which assesses their work and tells them what they are doing well, and where they need to improve.
We have experience of leading and contributing to school improvement in many different contexts: as Headteachers and Local Authority Officers in the UK; as service providers to UK schools; and as consultants working with education ministries in many countries where there have been national programmes to promote school development.
Whatever the context, we aim to operate in the same way, by bringing our knowledge, understanding and experience to the service of local people. That means we will never attempt to tell people what to do, but rather to work with them to promote the development and implementation of plans which benefit from international experience but are firmly rooted in the local conditions and realities.