By:, Forbes, Feb 28 2018
A central plank of education policy aims at improving struggling schools, but a new study argues that we should stop trying to fix failing schools and grow the good ones instead.
Enormous amounts of time and money go into education. The U.K. has spent £550 billion ($757 billion) over the last 15 years on its high schools, according to research published today in the Harvard Business Review.
But despite this investment, progress seems infuriatingly slow. The U.K. languishes mid-table in international comparison tests, while the percentage of students graduating from high school with the government’s favoured benchmark of five ‘good’ GCSE examination results has risen by just 15% over 15 years.
More worryingly, the number of schools where less than a third of students meet the benchmark has stayed the same, while the number of schools where no student hit that target has doubled.
The answer, according to the academics behind the study, is to radically shift the focus of education policy. Instead of concentrating on improving standards in the struggling schools, we should be encouraging the successful schools to expand.
‘Focusing on the bottom is not really working, and at the same time we’re ignoring the top, which could make a big contribution,’ says Dr Alex Hill, lead author on the study and co-founder and director of the Centre for High Performance, a collaboration between academics at Kingston and Oxford universities, London Business School and Duke Corporate Education.
‘The top schools could educate more of our kids, and if they did we would see a whole system shift.’
Successful schools should be encouraged to grow larger, setting up new schools and taking over under-performing schools, Dr Hill says.
While this has been part of government education policy for a decade or more, in practice it has been a piecemeal approach. A more concerted effort to expand successful schools could have a dramatic effect, Dr Hill argues.
One option could be to require successful schools to grow by, say, 10% every year, he adds.
Although most successful schools have not grown in the last 15 years, 5% of them have doubled in size while maintaining results, he says.
And if the strategy of focusing on successful schools had been adopted 15 years ago, results would have gone up by 21% instead of 15%, according to today’s study.
Continuing this strategy into the future would see England top the international comparisons in 25 years and have all its students in successful schools in 30, with a net boost to the economy from a better educated workforce of between £12 and £25 billion ($16.5 to $34 billion).
But there are some caveats. Researchers looked at schools that had grown while maintaining results, and found that most had their sites no more than 10 miles apart. Further apart made it harder to collaborate and exchange ideas, as well as for leadership teams to move between them.
Successful expansions also often involve linking a number of small campuses, rather than creating one huge campus. This helps create the feeling of a small school while being able to call on the extra resources available to a larger school, Dr Hill adds.