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‘Coasting schools’: learning from international ‘best practice’

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 10 July 2015

Paul Morris and Christine Han.
Shortly the Government will enact legislation to introduce the new category of ‘coasting school’ into the OFSTED Schools Inspection framework. Schools which are defined as ‘coasting’ will be required to provide a plan as to how they will cease to ‘coast’, and they can be required to convert to Academy status. It is unclear what will happen to ‘coasting’ Academies. Recent education reforms have been primarily justified on the grounds that they promote the practices which have worked in nations/systems which top the international league tables measuring pupil academic performance, such as PISA and TIMMS. Thus the promotion of Free Schools and Academies in England was, inter alia, portrayed as replicating the high levels of autonomy exercised by schools in East Asia, specifically in those systems which topped the PISA rankings, namely Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore. In parallel, agencies such as OFQUAL are now required to learn from evidence as to ‘what works’ and, specifically, from the ‘best’ international practice.
Given this desire to base policy on evidence, and specifically to follow ‘best’ international practice, the relevant question which arises is: do the nations/systems which perform well on cross national tests of pupil achievement use systems of school accountability that employ a measure akin to that for a ‘coasting’ school? We answer this question with reference solely to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore as these three nations/systems have been most heavily referenced to support current educational policies in the UK. The answer is wholly negative. Whilst the three systems have introduced comprehensive systems of school accountability, their basic rationale differs markedly from that of the accountability system which operates in England.
The English model is premised on the idea of ranking, categorizing and labelling schools based on their performance, so as to provide public information that can, among other things, be used to close or sanction poor performers. ‘Coasting school’ is merely an addition to the existing range of labels. In contrast, in the three East Asian nations, the system of accountability is designed primarily for the ministry to identify and support schools that require improvement, and to inform education policy. Whilst the systems of Shanghai and Singapore previously used public league tables to rank schools, these have been abandoned in favour of a more supportive and developmental role. As we explain: “In England, school accountability is designed to raise standards by making information and data about schools publicly available in order to assist parents to make choices, and to encourage competition between schools. OFSTED allows ‘governing bodies and head teachers to choose for themselves how to evaluate their work’ (DfE 2010: 69), and conducts external inspections to grade schools and produce public league tables. In contrast, school inspection information in Singapore and Shanghai is not made public and formal league tables have been abandoned in recent years (SMOE 2012; Tan 2013).
In Hong Kong, Territory-wide System Assessments, as part of the accountability mechanism, is meant to inform policy and school improvement rather than make comparisons. Moreover, in all three societies, self-evaluation has been recentralised and standardised by specifying the targets, domains, standards or performance indicators (Tan 2013; Ng 2008; Law 2007).” (Yun and Morris 2015, forthcoming). The case of Singapore is illustrative. In 2012, the Ministry of Education abandoned the annual school ranking exercise that had been in use for two decades. The school ranking was mainly based on academic results, and this was no longer considered appropriate in the light of a re-evaluation of education and education aims: there was the recognition that the pursuit of academic excellence should not be the raison d’etre of the education system; this was because each child had different learning needs and styles, and interests and abilities, and the latter should be nurtured, whatever these might be. Therefore, the approach would now be ‘student-centric, (and) values-driven’, and the goal would be to make ‘every school a good school’: good schools would no longer be judged purely on academic results, but on how they nurture learners, enable teachers to be caring educators, and foster ‘supportive partnerships with parents and the community’ (Heng 2012). Instead of publishing academic results of schools and the names of the top Primary School Leavers, a very concerted effort is now being made to judge schools on a range of criteria. Thus a number of schools have been publicly identified by the Ministry of Education as ‘excellent’ because of features such as providing a caring environment, fostering community spirit, and the commitment and professionalism of teachers.
There are several points worth noting in Singapore’s approach to education. First, there is a move away from the purely academic to a broader and more holistic conception of and approach to education (Tan 2011). Second, from an economic point of view, nurturing ability according to the strengths of each child develops talent in diverse fields. Catering for the individual needs and interests of the child, and nurturing the joy of learning, also encourages lifelong learning (Heng 2012). This will, in the view of the government, enhance the quality of the workforce as well as Singapore’s economic competitiveness. Third, instead of a pursuing a combative relationship with schools based purely on academic achievement, the Ministry of Education takes an enlightened and supportive approach.
The focus of the Ministry’s ‘ground-up initiatives, top-down support’ is on the professional development of teachers, and on supporting schools through structures and resources to enable them to educate young people according to their needs (Shanmugaratnam 2006). Fourth, when it comes to education policy, fundamentals are examined before decisions are taken with an eye on the future; there is a ‘joined up’ approach in policy making, e.g. with teacher development provided alongside the decision to cater for diverse learning needs. Finally, there is a stark contrast between the approach in Singapore and that in England. In England, the threat to ‘coasting’ schools is that they should meet certain academic targets or be turned into Academies. In Singapore, there is the firm conviction that ‘cookie-cutter schools’ are inappropriate if all schools are to be good schools. The aim is therefore for ‘diversity among our schools, each with its own niche area and peak of excellence’, and to support teachers and schools in achieving this aim (Heng 2012). References Department for Education (DfE) (2010) The Importance of Teaching: the Schools White Paper 2010, Norwich: the Stationery Office. Heng Swee Kiat (2012) Keynote Address by Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, at the Ministry of Education Work Plan Seminar, 12 September 2012, accessed 9 Jul 2015. Heng Swee Kiat (2013) Keynote Address by Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, at the Ministry of Education Work Plan Seminar 2013, 25 September 2013, accessed 9 Jul 2015. Law, W. W. (2008) ‘Schooling in Hong Kong’, in Going to School in East Asia, G. A. Postiglione and J. Tan (eds), Westport: Greenwood Press, pp. 86-121. Shanmugaratnam, T. (2006) ‘Speech by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Minister for Education and Second Minister for Finance, at the MOE Work Plan Seminar 2006, 28 September 2006, accessed 10 July 2015. Sharpe, L. and Gopinathan, S. (2002) ‘After effectiveness: new directions in the Singapore school system?’, Journal of Education Policy, 17(2), pp. 151-166. Singapore Ministry of Education (SOME) (2010) Press Release: MOE Removes Secondary School Banding and Revamps School Awards, accessed 27 November 2014.  Tan, C. (2011) ‘Philosophical perspectives on educational reforms in Singapore’, in Education Reform in Singapore: Critical perspectives, W. Choy and C. Tan (eds), Singapore: Prentice-Hall, pp. 13-27. Tan, C. (2013) Learning from Shanghai: Lessons on Achieving Educational Success, Singapore: Springer. You, Y. and Morris, P. (2015, forthcoming) ‘Imagining School Autonomy in High-performing Education Systems: East Asia as a Source of Policy Referencing in England, paper submitted to Compare.

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