Quality Leadership for Learning Systems

Leading Education Systems

ISBN: 978-1-80071-133-4, eISBN: 978-1-80071-130-3

Publication date: 3 June 2021


Maxwell, B. (2021), "Quality Leadership for Learning Systems", Brown, S. and Duignan, P. (Ed.) Leading Education Systems, Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 59-86. https://doi.org/10.1108/978-1-80071-130-320211003



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021 Emerald Publishing Limited


The central theme of this edited volume is how system leaders should respond to ensure that the school systems they lead can thrive in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. The urgency of this issue has been clearly set out by the editors in the introductory chapter to the volume and previously in Duignan (2020). Arguably, no area of strategy is more important in this context than the system’s quality strategy. In a report for the European Commission, Maxwell and Staring (2018) define a quality assurance strategy as:

The set of policies and practical arrangements which govern the way a state goes about systematically gathering and deploying evidence in order to monitor, evaluate and generate further improvement in the quality of their school systems.

This definition is not simply focussed on assuring that schools consistently meet a fixed standard of quality provision, but also, more dynamically, ensuring that schools are engaging in the generation and spread of further improvement. Strategies that are successful in these terms will deliver high quality but will also foster the innovation and adaptability so essential to thriving in a VUCA environment. They assure that quality is continuously improving, not just settling at a stable level.

The Evolution of Quality Strategies within School Systems

The distinct strands of policy and practice which need to come together to build an effective strategy will be explored later, but it is important to start by recognising key features of the context in which quality strategies are developed and the forces that influence them.

First, while every system has policies and practices in place in each of the areas that make up a quality strategy, it is not necessarily the case that they will have been articulated as a single, coherent strategy. Some aspects of policy and practice may have been the subject of conspicuous debate in the system, resulting in recent, clearly articulated changes of arrangements, while other aspects may be largely taken for granted with little discussion of how they fit into an overall strategy.

Second, it is rare for a system to change all aspects of its quality strategy at the same time. Rather the approach taken tends to evolve, with different strands of policy and practice changing at different times. As governments change, there is a tendency for individual strands of policy to be addressed and taken in different directions according to the prevailing thinking in the political party gaining power. The more political instability a system experiences, the more likelihood there is that the system’s quality strategy will be pulled in different directions under different administrations, creating major inconsistencies in the overall approach.

Third, it is important to recognise that the development of a system’s quality strategy will, at a fundamental level, have been influenced by the more general ‘theory of change’ about improvement in public services which has been influential in the thinking of the system leaders with the most power and influence to determine the strategy, particularly, of course, the system’s political leaders (Maxwell, 2019).

‘Theories of change’

Hargreaves and Shirley (2009) described an important trend in the development of thinking about how governments can bring about improvement in education systems, showing how it evolved over the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. They describe how the doctrine of the ‘new public management’ approach to driving public service improvement developed during that period, including the ‘third way’ approach developed in the United States, the United Kingdom and a number of other influential nations. This approach was based on the belief that applying the principles of market competition to the management of education systems, albeit with some adaptations, offered the best route to generating system-wide improvement.

In its full form, applying this theory of change to school systems means setting up a ‘free market’ of multiple independent providers of school education and encouraging them to compete with each other to attract consumers. Government’s role is then to concentrate on setting some key measurable indicators of performance, against which the competing providers can be publicly measured and benchmarked, while encouraging consumers to apply ‘consumer pressure’ through exercising school choice and holding school leaders to account for their school’s reported performance. Professional regulation tends to be loosened, and the role of trade unions weakened, to allow these independent providers maximum autonomy on issues like the hiring, deployment and performance management of staff. This approach represents the direct application of a ‘neo-liberal’ political agenda to the development of school systems (Ozga & Segerholm, 2015).

In his analysis of the story of educational change in Finland, Sahlberg (2015) christened this broad approach to driving change with an acronym – the ‘GERM’ approach or the Global Education Reform Movement. He emphasised the pervasive negative influence he believed it was having in many systems internationally, arguing that the Finnish school system’s high level of success in comparative international studies such as Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) was helped greatly by having largely avoided the influence of the GERM approach. The ‘market’ or GERM approach has emerged in its most extreme forms in the United States, where it is associated with the increasing privatisation and commercialisation of public education (Ravitch, 2014), but it is also strongly in evidence in the development of policy in England, for example, and its influence can be seen in many other countries, for example, in Sweden’s development of ‘free schools’.

The impact of this approach has been criticised increasingly in recent years, reflecting and enhancing the kind of concerns that Sahlberg (2015) summarises. Hargreaves and Shirley (2009) accuse it of driving a damaging over-emphasis on centrally mandated targets and the analysis of narrowly based test results, including an associated tendency to ‘make education short-sighted and superficial, preventing deeper transformations in the quality of teaching and learning that can produce higher-order thinking skills and develop deeper virtues and values’ (pp. xi–xii). In these and other critiques (e.g. Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012; Ravitch, 2014; Zhao, 2013), in addition to narrowing and impoverishing the curriculum, the GERM approach has been associated with a range of other adverse impacts including a tendency to widen social inequality and polarisation of quality in the system, a tendency to inhibit inclusion and increase exclusion as schools compete to achieve good placings in league tables and a tendency to undermine the professionalism and motivation of the education workforce.

An Alternative Approach – Collective Capacity-Building for Quality Improvement

As criticism of the ‘market’ approach has grown, an alternative approach has been taking shape and gaining wider influence among system leaders in recent years. Hargreaves and Shirley (2009) proposed a clear model in The Fourth Way. This approach is founded on a very different set of beliefs about how best to generate and sustain high quality across school systems in ways which deliver both excellence and equity for students. In broad terms, this approach proposes that a high-quality system is most likely to be achieved by:

  • establishing a compelling shared vision of the aims and purposes of schooling in ways which ensure that teachers and other stakeholders have strong ownership of the vision and are inspired by it;

  • investing in building a strong profession1 which feels trusted and valued as such – building the capacity of teachers and school leaders to innovate and drive change; and

  • encouraging schools to innovate, collaborate and share practice in a context of shared accountability rather than being set in competition with each other in a ‘high-stakes’ environment.

Despite the continuing strong influence of the GERM approach in the United States and a range of other nations, the development of thinking on quality in the European Union (EU) is an example of how this alternative theory of change is gaining influence internationally. Building on work undertaken by the European Commission’s ET2020 Working Group on Schools, EU Ministers recently made a joint commitment to quality assurance strategies which are based broadly on this type of approach. They specifically committed to pursuing approaches which are based on creating a culture of quality enhancement and trust (European Commission, 2017a). This was elaborated further as a culture which has an emphasis on quality improvement rather than quality control, which promotes effective innovation and which provides appropriate transparency while avoiding the counter-productive pressures of ‘high-stakes’ accountability approaches (European Commission, 2017b). Such an approach is seen as essential to ensure that European school systems are able to innovate, adapt and respond more effectively to the needs of all learners in a context in which a broad and balanced understanding of learner development (European Commission, 2018) is being pursued rather than a narrow focus on academic attainment alone.

This focus on creating innovative and adaptable school systems with a broad and forward-looking vision of the competences and attributes which young people need to acquire resonates strongly with the theme of this book – preparing our young people to thrive in a VUCA world.

Creating a ‘learning system’

The overall objective of a collective capacity-building approach to generating system-wide change can be seen as being the creation of a ‘learning system’, applying ‘systems thinking’ to education policy as advocated by Ndaruhutse et al. (2019). That is a connected system in which schools and teachers are continually seeking new ways of improving practice, within a common understanding of their shared aims and purposes, and in which knowledge about how better to achieve these aims and purposes is continually generated and spread across the system. As this cycle progresses and repeats over time so the quality of the whole system rises.

A learning system is more adaptable and can respond with greater agility to the rapidly changing context which schools are experiencing in VUCA times than a system reliant on ‘top-down’ direction and a culture of compliance. It gives teachers and school leaders a mandate to evolve, innovate and spread new ways of working from the ground up, systematically sifting out more successful from less successful practices as it does so. It empowers schools to respond proactively to changes in their environment rather than encouraging them to look to the centre and wait for instructions.

Fig. 1 presents key features of a learning system.

Fig. 1. 
A ‘Learning System’.

Fig. 1.

A ‘Learning System’.

Successfully establishing a ‘learning system’ requires focussed and sustained commitment from system leaders. In order for such an approach to thrive, leaders need to create the right climate through their words and actions, bringing all stakeholders together, and they need to build an infrastructure to steer and support it appropriately.

Shared clarity and commitment about the core purposes of school education is an essential foundation. This represents the collective dimension of the approach. System leaders have a key role in bringing together all stakeholders to discuss, debate and agree a clear vision of what society expects of its schools and the nature of the competences, attitudes and skills which it expects them to develop in its young people. This system-wide engagement is likely to be reflected in key documents setting out a shared vision and values, aims and high-level improvement goals for the system. To support these core aims, values and goals, there also needs to be some high-level guidance on the curriculum, setting out agreed key principles, experience and outcomes to guide the development of provision at local level. Crucially, however, to ensure schools and teachers are empowered to innovate, develop and adapt provision to meet the needs of their communities and respond to the rapidly changing environment around them, such guidance needs to focus on outcomes rather than process and avoid being over-prescriptive about content or pedagogy.

There are then a number of other key features that need to be in place for a healthy ‘learning system’ to become established. These represent the capacity that system leaders need to build over time. Specifically, to operate well, a learning system needs to have:

  • A highly professional workforce of teachers and school leaders who have the motivation, confidence and skills necessary to take the lead role in creating and developing their school’s provision.

  • a healthy culture of open evaluation, collaboration and sharing of practice across the system, generating evidence about the impact of existing and new practices to inform future development. That includes evaluation happening at multiple levels ranging from reflective teaching practice in the classroom and strong self-evaluation at school level through to appropriately designed external reviews of individual schools and the quality of provision at system level.

  • Effective arrangements for analysing and drawing knowledge from the wide range of evaluative evidence being generated by the system, while also integrating evidence from other external sources such as research and international studies.

  • Well-designed processes for feeding the wide range of knowledge generated back to schools and teachers across the whole system in easily accessible formats.

Building a quality strategy based on collective capacity-building

If system leaders want to take forward a collective capacity-building approach to promoting improvement and develop their education system as a ‘learning system’, they need to give careful, and potentially critical consideration, to a wide range of policies, procedures and processes that will already be in operation across their system. High-level statements of intention and philosophy, such as the commitment of EU Ministers to a culture of quality enhancement and a rejection of ‘high-stakes’ accountability (European Commission, 2017a) are a positive first step, but they achieve little if they are not reflected in how teachers, school leaders and other stakeholders experience the system operating in practice. The challenge for system leaders is taking such broad principles and intentions and turning them into a set of policies, structures and working arrangements which work coherently together to turn the broad approach into a practical reality across the whole system.

This requires a thorough review of the policies and practices that make up their system’s quality assurance strategy. In proposing their framework, Maxwell and Staring (2018) identified six specific strands of policy and practice that comprise key dimensions of a quality assurance strategy.

  • Policy and practice relating to internal review or self-evaluation in schools and the use of the outcomes it generates to drive improvement.

  • Policy and practice concerning the external evaluation of schools, including the role of inspectorates or other agencies charged with external review functions, and the use of the evidence they generate.

  • Policy and practice concerning the design and delivery of national qualifications and examinations at the upper secondary stages, and the use of the data which can be derived from them.

  • Policy and practice concerning the system-wide testing or assessment of student progress at earlier stages and the use of data generated by such processes.

  • Policy and practice relating to the engagement of stakeholders in the quality assurance process.

  • Policy and practice concerning the evaluation and appraisal of teachers and school leaders.

Their framework (Fig. 2) highlights that these six strands of policy and practice are closely interrelated and cannot be viewed in isolation if the aim is to translate a clear strategic approach into a coherent practical reality. If not aligned appropriately, policy and practice in one strand of the strategy can fail to support or even actively conflict with policy and practice in another strand, undermining the overall approach. Leaders need to consider the system holistically and make changes to bring it into alignment, to ensure effectiveness.

The framework also incorporates four cross-cutting principles, considered especially relevant to a collective capacity-building approach. These need to be kept in focus as each part of the quality system is developed to ensure the impact that particular policies and practices have on them is understood and they are kept in appropriate balance.

The first principle, trust, is clearly important for an approach which relies on teachers and school leaders feeling empowered to innovate and develop their provision locally, driving quality improvement in a confident and proactive manner. Policies and practices which have the effect of undermining trust in the teaching profession, in the eyes of the profession or the public, are problematic in this context. On the other hand, high levels of trust in the professionalism of teachers and their leaders needs to be founded on a degree of transparency about the performance of the school system. Blind trust, without any elements of transparency or accountability, is neither desirable nor likely to be sustainable. The ‘quid pro quo’ of securing high levels of trust in the profession and the school system is that there are appropriate arrangements available for evidencing how well the system is succeeding in achieving the agreed vision, aims and goals.

Then, with regard to the characteristics of the evidence gathered and used in the quality system, reliability is a factor that needs to be borne in mind, but it needs to be balanced carefully with the validity of evidence in relation to throwing light on the full range of outcomes that the system has agreed are the aims and purposes of school education. Systems which over-prioritise reliability at the expense of validity by focussing on a narrow set of standardised measures as the sole source of evidence about the system’s performance risk creating a ‘high-stakes’ culture which results in narrowing of the curriculum and the devaluing of many other important aspects of learner development which are not so readily measurable. Equally, while seeking relatively high levels of reliability may be appropriate for system-wide assessments used for benchmarking, that should not inhibit more pragmatic approaches to gathering and using evidence in school self-evaluation and improvement projects, where validity may be the greater priority. System leaders need to ensure that their system balances reliability and validity appropriately by integrating the use of quantitative data with more qualitative evidence in order to steer improvement and, to borrow a well-used phrase, ensuring that the system measures what it values, rather than valuing what can easily be measured.

Fig. 2. 
A Framework for Analysing School Quality Assurance Strategies.

Fig. 2.

A Framework for Analysing School Quality Assurance Strategies.

Within each of the six strands of this framework, some key issues have commonly emerged for system leaders as they seek to develop coherent overall strategies based on a collective capacity-building approach.

School self-evaluation

Establishing and nurturing a strong culture of self-evaluation and continuous improvement in every school is a key aspect of a collective capacity-building approach, reflecting the principle of giving schools and teachers the primary responsibility for driving forward the quality of their own provision, rather than seeing quality as something that is defined centrally then ‘pushed down’ through the system through regulation. In Europe, an expectation that all schools will engage in self-evaluation and improvement planning has become standard in most if not all EU member states (Eurydice, 2015).

Effective self-evaluation is not likely to develop consistently across the system, however, if system leaders simply leave schools to their own devices. Rather, they need to promote the right culture and build a supportive infrastructure which helps it to thrive. One increasingly common element of that infrastructure is the creation of a national framework of quality indicators (QIs) for schools to use as they undertake self-evaluation. Such a framework helps ensure a shared language and a degree of consistency in self-evaluation judgements across the system, and because it promotes consideration of the quality of a wide range of key inputs and processes, it can provide a much more rounded assessment of a school’s quality than would be obtained from test or examination data alone.

Achieving wide ownership of the QI framework is vital to ensure it is well used by schools. The development of such QI frameworks and associated tools and guidance has often been led by national evaluation or inspection agencies, typically drawing on the criteria used in external reviews of schools, but it is important to ensure there is strong stakeholder engagement in the process of creating and regularly updating the framework. The Scottish framework How good is our school? (Education Scotland, 2015), for example, is now in its fourth edition and is almost universally used for self-evaluation across Scottish schools.

Simply providing frameworks is unlikely to be sufficient however. System leaders also need to ensure that school leaders and their staff have access to good quality professional development on self-evaluation and improvement planning, including training on evidence-gathering techniques, training on how to analyse and interpret data and strategies for running effective improvement projects.

Some also support the growth of capacity for self-evaluation by providing access to resources on innovative approaches and successful practice from across the system, as well as accessible summaries of relevant research and national and international reports. This is a key part of the cycle that ensures that a healthy ‘learning system’ is operating effectively. Universities and others may play a role, and a central co-ordinating role may be given to a national agency, such as the role played by Education Scotland in providing the National Improvement Hub (Education Scotland, 2020).

In building a culture and infrastructure to promote the practice of school self-evaluation, system leaders also need to be alert to the risk of its development being taken in counter-productive directions. In particular, while a common quality framework may be beneficial, national requirements should be kept simple and flexible (OECD, 2013). If schools experience high levels of central prescription about how they undertake or report on self-evaluation, they are disempowered and the value of the process is undermined. This can happen, for example, where a ‘market’ approach has been influential and self-evaluation is seen as primarily providing accountability to the wider public or to central authorities. In such circumstances, the system tends to impose tighter standardisation of reporting to allow easier comparison of self-evaluation reports, reducing ownership of the process and constraining the ability of schools to focus self-evaluation on their own local needs. It can also push self-evaluation reporting towards over-focusing on easily comparable data which are readily available. As schools perceive these reports to be ‘high stakes’, then the risk of distortion to present a more positive picture is also naturally increased.

Quality strategies can also benefit substantially from supporting peer review activity within and between schools, including collaborative improvement activities among networks of schools and/or teachers with similar areas of interest (Harris & Jones, 2018). Shared national quality frameworks will support such collaboration, but if a culture of ‘high-stakes’ competition between schools has been allowed to thrive, it is likely to undermine such activities and make the benefits of collaboration harder to achieve.

External Evaluation

Policy and practice on external evaluation is a second key strand of quality strategy, which requires careful consideration by system leaders.

Most systems have arrangements for generating national reviews or evaluations of aspects of their education system at a ‘whole-system’ level, whether through a national agency which has evaluative or inspection functions in its remit or through commissioning universities or others. Many also participate in the major international benchmarking studies, such as PISA (OECD, 2020) and the studies run by the IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 2020) to gain an additional perspective on how the performance of their system compares to others across the world.

A key issue for system leaders is ensuring that the findings of such ‘whole-system’ activity and feedback from international studies are brought together to provide a coherent and comprehensive view of the system’s performance. That means combining quantitative evidence on test results and student outcomes with qualitative evidence such as expert professional evaluations of broader competences and evaluative evidence of the quality of key processes like learning and teaching and leadership. The coherence of the quality strategy will be seriously undermined if the system is constantly having to respond to disconnected pieces of evaluation and assessment appearing in isolation from each other or if system leaders endorse a narrow basis for evaluating the performance of the school system, based on a few statistical measures alone.

Beyond ‘whole-system’ external evaluation studies, another key strategic decision for system leaders is whether or not to have a system-wide programme of external reviews of individual schools, either run by a state inspectorate or by a broader agency with inspection functions in its remit. While some states such as Finland and Norway have elected not to have centrally organised school inspections, reflecting a particularly strong commitment to local autonomy, there has been a growing trend to set up school inspection programmes across Europe.

Well-designed school inspection programmes, undertaken by expert education professionals, can provide a number of benefits within the overall quality strategy. They provide the basis for a rich source of independent evidence and advice to policymakers on standards and quality across the system, looking well beyond what could be gained from analysing test results or statistical data alone. They can help build stakeholder trust and an appropriate degree of transparency in the system, giving the public confidence that the work of schools and school providers is subject to a degree of independent expert scrutiny. School inspections can also, if designed appropriately, provide schools with a valuable source of external feedback and help build their capacity to drive their own continuous improvement.

Where inspection programmes exist, however, ensuring that they are designed to promote the growth of capacity for self-evaluation in schools should be a key consideration for system leaders seeking to develop a collective capacity-building quality strategy. The role and practices of inspectorates can have a profound impact, for good or ill, on the extent to which self-evaluation thrives in a school system (Ehren, Altrichter, McNamara, & O’Hara, 2013).

Inspectorates that are seeking to play a strong role within a collective capacity-building quality strategy have tended to develop their school inspections in a number of ways:

  • inspections tend to start from explicit consideration of the school’s self-evaluation and improvement work, assessing the school’s capacity to improve as well as its current performance;

  • they tend to be more flexible in scope and provide a more rounded, customised narrative of the school’s quality and improvement journey, with less emphasis on reporting grades in the public domain;

  • while a summary of outcomes may be given to parents in the interests of transparency, the primary emphasis is on providing detailed formative feedback to the school and its owners to help it improve; and

  • in a less ‘high-stakes’ environment the style of engagement during inspection can tend towards coaching rather than examining, with more professional dialogue built into the process.

On the other hand, where an inspectorate’s practice has developed to serve a ‘market’ philosophy, a number of rather different features are likely to be present, including:

  • fixed-cycles of individual school inspections on a relatively frequent basis, which can feel disempowering to schools moving in short order from one inspection to the next, undermining the principle that schools take primary responsibility for their own quality improvement;

  • standardised public reporting of inspections in a style which is designed primarily to feed ‘consumer choice’, with an emphasis on categorisation and gradings and with serious consequences for the school dependent on the findings; and

  • the creation of a ‘high-stakes’ environment for inspections which has consequences for the nature of engagement, reducing the scope for a more flexible, ‘coaching’ style of interaction and encouraging an emphasis on a limited range of ‘hard data’ in arriving at judgements to reduce the scope for challenge.

These features are incompatible with a collective capacity-building quality strategy and seriously risk undermining its intent.

National qualifications and examinations in the upper stages

The analysis of data on student outcomes in the upper secondary stages is an important element of the quality strategy in almost all systems. Many have established national agencies to develop and deliver a wide range of national qualifications and examinations accessed by all students and schools, with the aim of ensuring reliability and consistency.

How these analyses are then deployed within the system is a key issue for system leaders, however. Policy and practice in this area presents challenges for those pursuing a collective capacity-building strategy, particularly with regard to balancing the principles of trust and transparency.

The analysis and deployment of results at whole-system level is relatively uncontroversial. It is widely accepted that there are benefits in regularly analysing patterns and trends in such results and using them to inform national policy, to provide public transparency and for use as feedback to schools across the system. The main challenge here is to ensure that exam and qualification results are combined effectively with other sources of evidence, such as evidence from external review processes, to provide a fully rounded view of the system’s performance.

The treatment of results at the individual school level has been much more highly disputed territory however, leading to very divergent policies and practice depending on the ‘theory of change’ that has been influential in the system concerned. The publication of comparative ‘league tables’ of school results has been a defining characteristic of the ‘market’ approach to quality improvement, reflecting the central role being placed on school results as ‘market information’ intended to drive consumer choice. Where this approach has been taken, it has typically led to the creation of a ‘high-stakes’ environment with the adverse consequences outlined earlier. This is clearly incompatible with the aims of a collective capacity-building approach.

Mindful of these adverse consequences, many system leaders have taken a deliberate decision not to produce comparative tables of school-level results and sought to discourage their production by others. Of course, this may not prevent the media seeking to compile such tables, although in the case of Ireland the government has gone so far as to legislate in order to ban the publication of league tables by the press. Nonetheless, in most systems, it is also accepted that there is a requirement for a level of transparency about school-level results to the pupils and parents in each school, and a positive role for the results to be used as benchmarking information to inform self-evaluation and improvement planning processes.

A commitment to promoting the use of the data for school self-evaluation, rather than primarily for accountability, has led some systems to invest in developing sophisticated digital benchmarking tools. These tools give schools access to their own data in granular detail and the ability to look at their results through a range of lenses, comparing their results against national averages. In the more advanced systems, they also benchmark the school’s results against the results achieved by schools serving student populations with similar socio-economic characteristics.

With regard to transparency, systems seeking to avoid creating a ‘high-stakes’ accountability environment have sought to a balance by only making school-level results available through individual school websites or publications. This can give local stakeholders appropriate access to the information but without encouraging crude comparisons with other schools. It can also ensure that the results are contextualised within a wider set of evidence that promotes a more holistic understanding of the school’s performance.

Assessment of student progress at earlier stages

Similar issues arise with the generation and use of student assessment data at earlier stages, although the context is distinctively different. Whereas upper secondary examinations and qualifications tend to be long-standing processes with broad coverage across the curriculum, in the primary and lower secondary stages, there has usually been less system-wide assessment of student attainment, generally in a much narrower range of areas.

In recent decades, there has been significant growth, however, in the development of system-wide assessments at these stages typically focussed on core areas such as literacy, numeracy and science.

Systems that have been influenced strongly by the ‘market’ approach have set about the development of standardised testing at these stages enthusiastically, using the results in the same way as they use exam results to generate consumer pressure. As with upper secondary data, this creates a very ‘high-stakes’ environment, with the dangers of adverse side-effects being even more pronounced, given the narrow slice of the curriculum that such tests generally address. As a result, even market-oriented systems have sometimes re-considered the frequency of standardised testing they initially introduced, as seen in the scaling back of SATs in England.

For system leaders seeking to pursue a quality strategy in line with the collective capacity-building approach, a common dilemma has been deciding how far they can go in developing the use of national assessments at earlier stages without unintentionally creating a ‘high-stakes’ environment. System leaders often see significant benefits in having a source of consistent evidence of how students are progressing at earlier stages in the school system, to inform policy and to avoid an over-reliance on upper secondary data or international studies alone. There is also a potentially useful role for such data as benchmarking information, to be fed back to schools to inform their self-evaluation processes.

Some have nonetheless elected to forego these benefits having judged that the risks of system-wide assessments outweigh the potential benefits in their context. The use of student assessment data in school self-evaluation may well be encouraged, but schools and school owners are left to implement their own assessment processes, with no system-wide tests or assessments at these stages.

In many other systems, however, a variety of practices have been adopted to enable the gathering and use of consistent system-wide assessment data, while mitigating the risks. Restricting the frequency of assessments to only a few key stages is one broadly adopted approach intended to moderate the impact on schools and students. To avoid the risk of school-level results leading to a ‘high-stakes’ environment, some have introduced arrangements which only involve assessing a nationally representative sample of pupils from across the system. This provides some evidence of progress at national level although it foregoes the possibility of using the data to provide individual schools with benchmarking analyses of their own students’ levels of achievement.

Others have decided to gather student assessment data from all schools, prioritising validity over standardisation of the data. Scotland, for example, gathers teacher judgements of their pupils’ attainment nationally at a few key stages in primary and lower secondary, rather than test results. To help strengthen the reliability of these judgements, they also provide an online assessment tool which all teachers are expected to use at a time of their choice.

The specific practices adopted in systems have often caused much debate, with different solutions being influenced by the particular context and history of the school system concerned. Many system leaders share a common challenge in trying to find the right balance between using student assessment data from the earlier stages to provide a degree of transparency and support improvement while avoiding the pitfalls of creating a ‘high-stakes’ accountability culture.

Stakeholder engagement

The manner in which school systems encourage stakeholder engagement in the quality process should also be aligned with the overall quality strategy. The collective capacity-building approach positions stakeholders, especially students and parents, as partners in the quality assurance process. Given the fundamental importance ascribed to securing a shared understanding of the aims, vision and purpose of the system, system leaders need to create and maintain robust mechanisms for consulting with representative stakeholder organisations. They need to engage them in regular dialogue about the performance of the system and any proposals for change. Done well, this can help promote trust and transparency across the system and generate confidence in the system among the general public.

At a local level, stakeholders are seen as partners in a quality process which is driven by high-quality self-evaluation and improvement planning in schools. It follows, therefore, that system leaders should encourage and support schools to engage their local stakeholders fully in these processes. This can include system leaders taking action such as:

  • providing guidance and advice to promote stakeholder engagement in self-evaluation, including access to tools such as model questionnaires and interview protocols;

  • ensuring external evaluators engage directly with stakeholders and place a strong focus on how well schools are engaging their stakeholders in their self-evaluation processes when they inspect schools; and

  • mounting system-wide surveys of parents’ and pupils’ views of their schooling and feeding the results back to schools in a manner designed to feed into school self-evaluation processes, as happens, for example, in Norway.

In more advanced practice, schools are going well beyond simply consulting parents and pupils, towards more actively engaging them in relevant aspects of the improvement agenda, involving them directly in the design, implementation and review of improvement projects being undertaken. This requires a culture of openness and trust within school communities.

Where a ‘market’ approach has been dominant, policies and practices on stakeholder engagement have typically been steered in different directions. The positioning of parents as ‘consumers’ applying market pressure on schools creates a very different context for the development of the relationship between schools and their stakeholders, especially if combined with other strands of ‘market’ practices such as a high emphasis on testing, league tables and school choice. The ‘high-stakes’ accountability environment that this generates can undermine trust and lead to a less open engagement between schools and their stakeholders.

Evaluation and appraisal of teachers and school leaders

Last but by no means least, the policies and practices developed to assure and drive continuous improvement in the quality of the educational workforce are a key strand of any system’s overall quality strategy. In general, there is increasing recognition internationally that ensuring schools have the highest quality of teachers and school leaders is one of the most important issues system leaders should address if they want to raise the performance of their system overall (OECD, 2013, 2018).

More specifically, developing a school system as a dynamic ‘learning system’ which is continuously enhancing its quality relies heavily on having confident and skilled teachers and school leaders operating at high levels of professionalism. The relevant policy and practices need to be focussed on building this professional capacity in the workforce in ways which empower staff and motivate them to continuously improve their own practice in a climate of quality enhancement and trust.

This does not mean that teachers should be unaccountable. On the contrary, it implies that teachers and their leaders accept responsibility for demonstrating that they are achieving and maintaining high professional standards and undertaking career-long professional learning to ensure their skills remain up to date. It is vital, however, that they have confidence that the manner in which their work is evaluated reflects the full complexity of the teacher’s role, placing a high value on professional expertise and endorsing the importance of them being expected to work with a substantial level of professional autonomy.

Policies and practices that align well with a collective capacity-building quality strategy therefore tend to focus on ensuring that strong profession-led arrangements are in place to manage teacher performance. This may involve developing a strong role for an independent professional body which can regulate entry to the profession while also playing a key role in regulating professional standards and promoting continuous professional development as teachers move through their careers. Mirroring arrangements in high-status professions like medicine, some systems are introducing formal requirements for teachers to provide evidence of their participation in appropriate professional development in order to maintain their registration.

On the other hand, some of the policies and practices that have been implemented in systems pursuing a ‘market’ approach would seriously undermine any collective capacity-building strategy. They tend to fail to recognise the complexity of the teacher’s role, undervalue the importance of the state investing long term in teachers’ development and over-rely on narrow sources of evidence. Simplistic appraisal systems of ‘payment by results’, in which job retention is based on annual reviews of students’ test scores, represent one type of extreme example that has been implemented in some US states. The ‘market’ approach tends to favour de-regulation, short-termism and insecurity in the workforce, characteristics that sit uncomfortably with developing teaching as a high-status profession, attracting and retaining high-quality recruits for a long-term commitment.

System leaders pursuing a collective capacity-building approach also need to invest in capacity for school leadership in their system. This reflects a growing recognition internationally of the importance of the quality of school leadership in the development of high-quality school systems (Leithwood, Harris, & Hopkins, 2020; Pont, Nusche, & Hopkins, 2009).

As with teachers, it is rare for national bodies to take direct responsibility for the appraisal of school leaders but increasingly common for governments to invest in the development of more coherent national frameworks to promote quality assurance and improvement in school leadership.

In some systems, this has involved establishing national leadership programmes or leadership ‘colleges’ which provide professional development and networking opportunities for school leaders. It has also led to systems developing professional standards for leadership roles at various levels in schools, and programmes for ‘aspiring leaders’ which act as a ‘gateway’ qualification for achieving headship. In developing such programmes and in influencing the way in which school leaders are reviewed or evaluated, collective capacity-building strategies tend to emphasise the role of school leaders as ‘leaders of learning’, encouraging them to place a strong focus on driving improvements in pedagogy and the curriculum in their schools. All of these types of national actions recognise that developing a cadre of highly skilled school leaders is a collective asset which benefits the whole system and is therefore worthy of strategic investment, rather than simply being left to market forces.

What are the implications for leaders and system leadership in a VUCA world?

It has been has argued in this chapter that system leaders should develop their school systems as ‘learning systems’ by implementing quality strategies based on a collective capacity-building approach, and, that by doing so, they will be putting them in a better position to meet the demands of an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

One key implication for system leadership relates to the need to provide solid foundations for the development of such a strategy. Leaders from across the system need to commit to work together to establish a clear, collective understanding of the vision, aims and goals for the school system. In so doing, they need to ensure strong engagement with education community, with stakeholders and with the public at large. Once consensus has been reached, it needs to be communicated through a compelling narrative which promotes wide ownership and motivates the education workforce and stakeholders alike. Assuring and improving quality requires a clear understanding of what the system is seeking to achieve and collective ownership among those who are charged with achieving it.

Building on these foundations to create a coherent quality assurance strategy is then a complex and challenging task. The policies and practices in place in each of the relevant strands need to be re-appraised for ‘fitness for purpose’, and how each of the strands interacts with each of the others also needs careful consideration. Some may need substantial re-design in order to bring them into alignment and maximise positive synergies across the strategy as a whole. If the policies and practices on school inspections, for example, are not well aligned with the approach being promoted on school self-evaluation, then the effective of the overall strategy will be undermined. Equally, if the way student attainment data are generated and deployed across the system is leading to the creation of ‘high-stakes’ accountability environment, while other strands of the strategy are seeking to promote a culture of quality enhancement and trust, then the system has a problem and a challenge. Many other conflicts and tensions can arise across the different strands. Some aspects of policy and practice may be deeply embedded features of the system which have not been fundamentally questioned for long periods of time and may be very resistant to change.

This means that courageous leadership, from leaders who are willing to open their mindsets, challenge accepted practice and collaborate with others, will be required to bring policies and practices into alignment and establish a coherent overall strategy. This is very much the type of leadership that Duignan (2020) argues is essential for school systems to thrive in the rapidly changing world we are currently experiencing.

More specifically, it means that system leaders need to actively examine the underlying ‘theories of change’ that have influenced the policies and practices currently operating in their systems and challenge them where appropriate. A key theme in this chapter has been the extent to which the influence of the ‘market’ approach to generating improvement presents serious risks of undermining the implementation of a collective capacity-building approach. Leaders need to be conscious of where that influence may be having an unhelpful impact and be prepared to act accordingly.

The wide range of actors involved in leading different aspects of quality systems also reinforces the need for leaders to be outward looking and collaborative in the way they undertake their roles. Leaders in a variety of different roles will have an important part to play in ensuring the overall quality approach is coherent in theory and in practice, from political leaders and policy officials, through to leaders in national agencies and leaders in regional bodies with responsibilities for education in their areas. All need to understand the approach, play an active leadership role in their own area and work in collaboration with others to ensure they are pulling in the same direction.

Finally, there is evidence from the literature reviewed in this chapter that an open and outward-looking style of leadership which proactively seeks to learn from the experience of other school systems can be a major asset to any system seeking to improve its quality strategy. Systems around the world are addressing similar challenges such as how best to balance trust with the need for transparency, or how to balance reliability with validity in the way evidence is used to assess the performance of the system, and a variety of different solutions are being reached. There will be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ set of policies and practices which suit the very varied contexts and circumstances of every school system, but there is much that can be gained from dialogue and exchange of ideas between system leaders as they review, innovate and refine their approaches with the common aim of ensuring their learners benefit from the highest quality of experience in the school education they receive.



Intended to include all types of educators although the term teachers will be adopted for brevity.


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