Alex Massie: Only the best for our kids

Dave Brailsford, centre, and his staff achieved results thanks to his 'aggregation of marginal gains'. Picture: Getty
Dave Brailsford, centre, and his staff achieved results thanks to his 'aggregation of marginal gains'. Picture: Getty
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Some of our teachers are very good; others less so. If we want better schools for our children – and we do – we need all teachers to achieve the highest standards, writes Alex Massie

The other day I had an extraordinary conversation with an extraordinary teacher. What he had to say appalled me. His department, you see, had achieved better Higher results in their subject than every other state school in the country. Quite properly, he was extremely proud of this achievement, not least because his school has a relatively mixed student body and yet, in his subject, was outperforming schools with more affluent intakes. This, I thought, was the sort of achievement the school should celebrate. And yet there had been no mention of this achievement, not even in the local press. Why not?

We need to apply Brailsford's theory to our classrooms. Picture: Getty

We need to apply Brailsford's theory to our classrooms. Picture: Getty

Well, my teacher friend explained, the school did not wish to make a big deal about achievement in one subject for fear that doing so might embarrass other departments that had not been so successful. Brightly shining lights must be hidden under bushels of mediocrity. After all, excellence is elitist and elitism is the very worst thing in modern Scotland.

How depressing. What a miserable reflection on the temper of the times. Excellence must be hidden so as not to embarrass failure. But – and this is the nub of the matter – if one department in any given school can succeed, so can others. They are moulding the same raw material, it is just that one set of teachers is producing better results.

And this leads us to a vital, too often overlooked, element of improving educational attainment overall: the teachers themselves. We need a better school system – it is a question of morality and social justice – but we cannot achieve that without better teachers. So we need to build better teachers.

The best schools know this and are already addressing questions of how to extract more value from their staff. They know that teaching is a skill that can be improved. Professional development should be at the heart of every school in Scotland, both primary and secondary.

Consider the lessons that may be learnt from other disciplines. For years, cycling was something other countries did. Britain was, with just a couple of individual exceptions, a cycling backwater. In recent years, however, it has dominated the sport, especially on the track. This owed something to the emergence of talented individuals such as Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins but even more to a system that has helped more than a dozen British cyclists win international medals. Not all of these riders were necessarily destined to be superstars.

Dave Brailsford, the man responsible for creating an astonishingly successful British cycling programme, summed up his approach: “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, then improved it by 1 per cent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” Brailsford dubbed this the “aggregation of marginal gains”.

Similarly, if you break down everything that goes into teaching and improve each component by just a little, the aggregate result can be transformational.

Like their pupils, some teachers are more naturally gifted than others but, again, like their pupils, every teacher can become a better teacher. Closing the gap between the least and most effective teachers is just as important as addressing the attainment gap between the best and worst schools. Indeed, addressing the former goes some way towards answering the latter problem.

The difference good teachers make, even within a single school, is huge. Research from Stanford University suggests a teacher in the top 5 per cent can impart 18 months worth of teaching in a year whereas, on average, a child taught by a teacher in the bottom 5 per cent will only learn half a year’s worth of material. The gap between top and bottom is worth a year at school.

Firing the worst teachers and replacing them with better instructors is one obvious remedy, but the greater challenge is raising performance levels in every classroom. Paying teachers more, to attract new entrants into the profession, is only a partial answer. Improving teacher performance, year on year, is a bigger challenge.

But it can be done. “There’s no achievement gap that some teacher, somewhere, has not closed” says Doug Lemov, the American educationist whose book, Teach Like a Champion, has become a bible for the teacher-improvement community. “Passing that on means that 30,000 – rather than 30 – children might benefit from that teacher’s methods.”

That means schools need a rigorous culture of internal criticism and learning in which teachers break down and identify what makes their best-performing peers successful. Teaching might be an art but it still has a grammar without which the art cannot be expressed.

Education reform is a means to an end, not the end in itself. It is not an “ideological” crusade except in as much as its advocates are motivated by a fiery sense of injustice. It is a mission to deliver for the poorest communities in Scotland the results that wealthier neighbourhoods take for granted. It should appal us that the link between deprivation and educational excellence is so clear; it should horrify us that the Scottish Government’s own research indicates that the impact of socioeconomic disadvantage is greater in Scotland than in most other comparable countries.

The very best schools in England, where the reform process offers many examples of progress from which Scotland could profitably learn, are achieving results that, weighted for intake, make them the finest schools in Britain. It is relatively easy for Eton to achieve good exam results and produce confident, well-rounded, teenagers; it is very much harder to achieve comparable results when many of your pupils come from deprived backgrounds or speak English as a second language.

It is not easy but it is not impossible. We know this because it is being done. There are comprehensives in London at which more than half the pupils qualify for free school meals, yet more than 90 per cent of pupils pass five GCSEs at grades A*-C. No comparable school in Scotland achieves remotely comparable results. Tellingly, these academies and free schools tend to be enthusiastic followers of the methods pioneered by Doug Lemov and others like him.

It is, more than anything else, a question of raising expectations, focusing on continual improvement, and setting high standards. The work is hard but the rewards are great.

Ambition is the mother of excellence and if we want to build better schools – and a better society – we need to build better teachers.


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