The difference between pupil outcomes in English schools is one of the highest in the industrial world, and reducing it is a persistent problem in education. But sharing good practice within schools can be a better solution than turning to outside experts, say Dr Peter Kent and Ray Tarleton

Within-school variation (WSV) – the difference in outcomes between subjects within the same school at secondary level and teachers within the same primary school – is four times greater than the differences between schools. This startling statistic puts the UK near the top of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s WSV table .

The reality of WSV has exercised the thinking of school leaders and policy makers for several years now, but we know that there are solutions that depend on effective leadership and staff professional development. In his report on the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) Leadership Network’s WSV project, which offers the most up-to-date findings on the subject in England, Professor David Reynolds (2008) argues that over a three-year period, eight of the 10 secondary schools involved succeeded in reducing variation and six showed an improvement in value-added scores.

A ‘must-do’ approachNCSL now has a toolkit, developed by practitioners, of successful approaches to learning that can be used by all schools. Encouragingly, Reynolds (2008) states: ‘All schools have within themselves some practice that is relatively more effective than elsewhere in the school. Every school can therefore look for generally applicable good practice from within its own internal conditions.’

Given the improvement in value-added that inevitably follows, this is a ‘must-do’ approach for every school.

As leaders at two of the 10 project schools involved, we have found significant benefits in squeezing variation out of the system. At Lawrence Sheriff School and South Dartmoor Community College, research evidence shows the impact of strategies on attainment across subjects.

In particular, each school focused, in different ways, on analysing the variation between subjects to understand the strengths and areas for development. Each then linked its findings to systematic and targeted whole-school staff development programmes. We believe this has been the key to our success.

Lawrence Sheriff School
At Lawrence Sheriff the project began with an uneasy feeling. Why did the school’s science department achieve lower results at GCSE than its English department? Granted, they are two very different subjects, but each taught the same groups of students and so surely should have been achieving similar outcomes. Our concerns remained in the file marked ‘must do something about this one day’ until we read that NCSL was looking for schools willing to explore the problem of within-school variation. The information prompted us to look more closely at our latest set of GCSE results. German results were well below those of French, geography was outperforming history, PE lagged behind art and technology. Perhaps it was time to take WSV out of our mental in-tray.

We knew the issues did not relate to poor teaching. Members of the school’s leadership had observed every teacher in the departments concerned and knew they had high professional standards. Good practice existed across all departments, though we often became frustrated that it was not shared more widely. We were also aware that the whole-school community had a profound distrust of outside ‘experts’ who claimed to articulate solutions to problems without first taking the time to understand the context of the school. The culture of the school was positive, centred upon celebrating success rather than highlighting underachievement, and we felt that any project we developed must fit in with this climate.

Departmental partnership
In the light of all this we decided it was time for departments to come together to share their good ideas. Our hope was that in this way they would begin to learn from one another. We adopted a variety of approaches to departmental pairings. Some were based upon academic groupings (French and German, history and geography) or upon the fact that they taught the same group of students (English and science, PE and art). We christened the project ‘departmental partnership’ and asked each pairing to spend part of every training day sharing ideas and good practice that had been developed by the two departments.

We soon found that the pairings had a more profound impact than had previously been imagined. Teachers are the world’s ultimate pragmatists and if one department has some ideas that have been shown to work then the other department is likely to want to use them. Hence I found that German very quickly latched onto French’s use of a modular GCSE syllabus; that history rapidly adopted geography’s model for supervising coursework; and that English and science enthusiastically swapped ideas on how each department could use oral activities. As I walked past the English staffroom I heard one colleague saying that ‘these scientists talk a surprising amount of sense’. Is there any greater accolade?

The impact of departmental partnership upon results was surprisingly quick. When we began the project the gap between the A/* grades achieved by French and German was 46 per cent. After two years the gap had closed to 12% and further reduction has taken place since. Over the same period PE reduced the gap between itself and art from 47 to 2% while history wiped out a 16% gap between itself and geography. In every case the gap between departments was closed while headline results also continued to improve. More importantly, we also found that this process of working together had a profound impact upon the culture of the school. Departments were now much more ready to work together. Hence, a recent training day on behaviour management was based around departmental partnership groupings meeting together and sharing ideas and approaches that had worked within their departments.

Too often school improvement initiatives are here today and gone tomorrow, but WSV is different. We began the project in 2003 and officially completed the research in 2005. However, it continues to have a huge effect upon our results because of the impact it had upon school structures and the culture and values that underpin them. Ofsted summed up the project’s impact when it visited the school in November 2007, commenting on the success of the WSV project which had ‘done much to share best practice and foster a culture of joint learning’.

South Dartmoor
Before the WSV project at South Dartmoor Community College, there was a 22 percentage point difference at Key Stage 4 between the average raw scores at high-grade GCSE in the core subjects, English, maths and science, and the average from across option subjects. The difference is now around thee percentage points. Like inflation, it’s hard to reach zero, but a low figure indicates consistency of performance across all subjects.

The first myth to dispel was that option subjects did better because the students were not conscripts. That has taken time, data analysis, explanation, pleading and even force. But the argument has been won.

We began with data and the story behind it, building our first professional development programmes around subject leadership. This included allowing leaders the time to redefine the language of assessment. The following year, the performance leaders, who look after the whole child, were given extended time and training to engage with, interpret and apply data about their students. And in year three all our middle leaders came together to consider joint approaches to data use. We now have a team that devour data as naturally as they drink tea and coffee.

Learning hubs
The next step was to extend this culture of professional learning. Inspired by the departmental pairings at Lawrence Sheriff, we decided to embark on a programme of collegiate, peer learning. This was done by the staff and for the staff – teachers and teacher assistants, collectively.

We set up ‘learning hubs’ – a whole-school learning community in which colleagues worked across the departmental divide to learn from each other, from the best that anyone can offer. Staff responses and school priorities suggested four themes, which we focused the learning around. These were: the creative application of new technology; personalising learning; classroom research; and special educational needs. The programme was based on the following principles:

  • Teaching and learning as the top priority.
  • Leadership opportunities for all staff.
  • Time for reflective practice.
  • Sharing of the best between departments.

It is WSV to its very core. Staff attend five hubs a year and are able to choose from a dozen or more topics each time. Protocols are based on creating learning conversations rather than presentations or death by PowerPoint. Groups are small to allow discussion and there is both a chair and leader, with formal evaluations at the end. Registers of attendance are kept and guidelines have been produced on how best to run a learning hub, using time effectively to draw everyone in.

For example, a Talking to Learn hub, under the personalisation theme, was led by two English colleagues on how to conduct Socratic and dialogic talk. The science and physical education teachers who attended were so impressed they put the techniques into practice almost immediately. A science colleague told me: ‘We find it difficult to engage students in group discussions. We find didactic teaching much easier. This has given me a real structure and an understanding of how to bring children into focused conversation without distraction and disruption.’

Evaluations of the hubs are positive. Many staff comment on their value in helping staff meet colleagues from other departments. But there are ways to improve. One suggestion was to make support materials available, giving teachers a chance to discuss progress with any teacher assistants they work with in the formal learning hub.

All staff have completed requests for hub topics for next year, including a large number of repeats for hubs missed because of the range of choices. Another development is the involvement of primary colleagues in the hubs. Our nine catchment primary schools have agreed to participate, running hubs on primary topics and attending others which have generic elements. This promises to have a powerful impact on the learning community.

At the same time, to spread practice and reduce variation, every staff member has this year completed three learning observations in other subjects, each lasting about 20 minutes. They attend a short episode as a learner, making no judgement on the lesson. Three bullet points record what the teacher has learned. Examples below show specific cross-subject learning:

  • Highly structured target setting showing how they can move to Level 5 in this strand of maths. I feel I could identify areas within science where such targeting could be applied.
  • Highlighted the technique of ‘noticing’ taught in English lessons. Teachers ask: ‘What do you notice about the text?’ rather than going straight to a specific outcome. I need to consider how this may translate to my science lessons, where there is normally more of an emphasis on discovering a key piece of factual knowledge.
  • Made aware of the parallels between sports training and actor training to explore possibilities of closer links in teaching styles between PE and drama.

Others provide a flavour of the generic learning taking place by teachers:

  • Give opportunity for pupils to personalise tasks to give them ownership over what they are doing.
  • Give clear instructions which are guiding rather than commanding. This allows pupils the opportunity to relax knowing that they are going in the right direction, rather than worrying that they cannot comply with the specific demand.
  • Use silent movements in starters as a calming exercise.

And, of course, underpinning all these statements are the myriad of conversations that they provoke. Learning hubs and learning observations are now part of the culture, along with our awareness of WSV. They are demonstrations of what Reynolds describes as: ‘Systematic attempts to transfer knowledge between professionals at the point of impact of the individual concerned on service delivery.’

The most encouraging aspect of this focus on reducing variation is that: ‘The “engine” can operate at local level, within each organisation and within each workforce, without any need for national “top down” strategies that disempower’ (Reynolds 2008).

Put simply: we can do it ourselves. That, surely, is the best news of all in the next phase of reform in our schools.

References and further information

Ray Tarleton, is principal of South Dartmoor Community College
Dr Peter Kent is headteacher at Lawrence Sheriff School, Rugby