Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 3

Aboard the “Moving School”

Colleagues in the U.S. and other countries can learn from the British experience how to turn legislative mandates into opportunities.

At a time when politicians are under increasing pressure to do something about educational quality, they are in turn overloading schools with legislation. How can schools turn such mandates to their advantage? In many countries, education legislation embodies contradictory pressures for centralization and decentralization. In the United Kingdom, we see growing government control over policy and direction of schools, but we also see schools being given increased responsibility for resource management. Schools here have seen a succession of top-down policy initiatives—not the least of which is the National Curriculum—but at the same time they have been given more responsibility for implementing such changes.
What can colleagues in other countries learn from the British experience? In many ways it is too early to answer this question, but it is clear that some of our schools are struggling with the burden of legislation and others are thriving. In short, the successful schools are adapting external change for internal purposes, and they seem to be examples of what Susan Rosenholtz (1989) calls “moving schools.”

Improving the Quality of Education for All

For some years, we at the Cambridge Institute of Education have worked on school improvement. We are committed to collaboration with teachers, and our approach is best exemplified in our “Improving the Quality of Education for All” (IQEA) project. We work with 26 schools in southeast England and Yorkshire to produce and evaluate a model of school development and a program of support to strengthen a school's ability to provide quality education for all students.
IQEA works from an assumption that schools are most likely to improve their practices when they adopt ways of working that are consistent with their own aspirations as well as the current reform agenda. This involves building confidence and “capacity” within the school, rather than relying on externally produced packages (although good ideas from the outside are never rejected out of hand). In each school, IQEA is based on a contract among staff members, the local education authority, and ourselves. This contract clarifies expectations and ensures the conditions necessary for success.

In Practice

  • reconstructing externally imposed education change in the form of school priorities;
  • creating internal conditions that will sustain and manage change in schools; and
  • embedding these priorities and conditions within an overall strategy.
Schools usually choose priorities relating to some aspect of curriculum, assessment, or classroom process, and their choice represents the school's interpretation of the current reform agenda. For example, some schools address a subject area, such as math or science, while others choose a process issue, such as resource-based learning.
  • are few in number,
  • are central to the mission of the school,
  • relate to the current reform agenda,
  • lie at the teaching end of the curriculum, and
  • lead to specific outcomes for students and staff.
It is essential that some aspect of the internal condition of the school be addressed at the same time as the curriculum or other priorities. For example, some schools have found it necessary to review overall management, organization, or staff development arrangements. When there are circumstances that hinder change, it is especially necessary to limit priorities and improve school conditions.
A school's improvement strategy attempts to achieve developmental priorities and, at the same time, establish conditions to support these improvements. Each school's strategy takes into account the agreed-upon priorities, existing school conditions, and available resources.

Inside the Moving School

From our intensive work with schools in the IQEA project, we have put together a composite picture of what it is like in a school that seems to be able to turn externally driven innovations to its own advantage.
Teacher learning. We find first of all that teachers in a “moving school” are aware that their own learning is very important. Learning how to work more collaboratively with their colleagues is a new experience for teachers who are used to being concerned only with their own classroom.
Concern with teachers' learning goes beyond taking a “whole-school” view. Teachers also focus directly on the nature of teaching, and they meet together to discuss aspects of their work, share ideas, plan, and help one another in problem solving. In addition, teachers spend time in one another's classrooms, observing one another's practice and providing feedback on new approaches. Teams of teachers might plan, implement, and evaluate experimental classroom approaches. Occasionally, external consultants work alongside teachers in their classrooms to provide further support.
Through an emphasis on teacher learning, external policies are recreated in the school and implemented. Change is not experienced as a process involving discrete phases of planning, implementation, and institutionalization; rather, it seems to arise as a result of debate, experimentation, and inquiry. Indeed, inquiry seems to be a preoccupation in the school, and teachers (and their students) are forever gathering information and reflecting upon its significance.
Disagreements. Of course, policy development does not always run smoothly. Different views exist, and these lead to disputes and, on occasion, to open conflict. Such disagreements can sometimes be valuable, as in one school that used the varied, and at times opposing, views of a new math program to construct criteria to inform their decision making about it. When arguments in “moving schools” do occur they are usually good-natured, and even after heated exchanges colleagues seem to remain on good terms. The debates and struggles among those with different perspectives encourages a sense of unity, and staff members usually achieve a compromise that most can support.
The process of change can, of course, be destabilizing for some teachers. Taken-for-granted assumptions are likely to be threatened and long-established ways of working may have to be changed. Support for colleagues as they cope with these difficulties is essential.
Leadership. Teachers in the “moving” school are aware that different teachers take on leadership roles. Indeed, many colleagues seem prepared to take the lead at one stage or another. Leadership roles frequently arise through staff working groups, which are appointed with specific goals, a timeline, and considerable authority. In most schools, virtually every staff member takes part in these working groups sooner or later.
Overall coordination is best handled by individuals who seem to have a gift for maintaining interest and momentum. Coordination is not simply about formal procedures, although these are important. There exists in the school a series of informal social networks that have a tremendous impact upon how things proceed. For example, a group of staff members in one school goes to the pub for lunch on Fridays. Among this group are a number of teachers who are significant opinion leaders. The possibility of a policy proposal being accepted depends to a large degree on the reactions of this Friday pub group.
Student involvement. Another important factor in supporting policy creation can be the reactions of students in the school. When they are unaware of the reasons for change, they may unintentionally act as a barrier to progress. Some of our successful IQEA schools have found ways of overcoming this problem by involving students in the change. For example, a school that is introducing resource-based learning has enrolled some students as resource center assistants.
Vision. Perhaps the most significant role for a Headteacher, or other senior colleagues, is to nurture an overall vision for the school. In one large secondary school, for example, the Headteacher occasionally holds meetings of the whole staff during which he muses about his views on important educational ideas. Staff members report that this helps them see their own work within a broader picture of the school's mission. Similarly, in a small primary school, teachers refer to the Headteacher's habit of “thinking aloud” about policy matters as she mixes informally with the staff. Again, this seems to help individuals as they think about overall school policy.
With so many initiatives and so much participation, it is necessary to have some way to prioritize and coordinate developments. Most of our schools use the process of development planning, and they also review management arrangements within the school (Hargreaves and Hopkins 1991). This kind of planning provides direction and also legitimizes and focuses teachers' activities. The plan helps with the vital business of allocating resources to support developments, not the least of which is making time available for staff. The development plan is a map of the journey, not a blueprint. Like all sensible plans, it is changed regularly in response to circumstances, and the process of planning is far more important than the plan itself. The message, as Fullan and Miles (1992) observe, is not the classical “Plan, then do,” but “Do, then plan—and do and plan some more.”
Equally as important, staff members celebrate their success. They positively reinforce one another's work by collecting and displaying press cuttings about the school in the entrance hall and by accrediting their classroom practice through academic awards. In all these ways, they are maintaining enthusiasm and generating ownership of and clarity about the school's aims and vision.

Achieving the Moving School

This then is our rather idealized picture of life in a moving school. What we see are schools taking the opportunity of externally imposed change to enhance student outcomes. They do this by strengthening the school's organizational ability to support the work of teachers. They also focus on creating opportunities for teachers to feel more powerful and confident about their work.
As we have described them, these strategies involve staff development, inquiry and reflection, leadership, coordination, and planning. They are not linear improvements; on a day-to-day basis, they're worked on together. It is through this holistic approach to school improvement that our schools are “moving” to achieve quality in the context of a national reform agenda.

Fullan, M., and M. Miles. (June 1992). “Getting Educational Reform Right: What Works and What Doesn't.” Phi Delta Kappan. 73, 10.

Hargreaves, D., and D. Hopkins. (1991). The Empowered School. London: Cassell.

Rosenholtz, S. (1989). Teachers' Workplace. New York: Longman.

Mel Ainscow has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 61192149.jpg
Improving School Quality
Go To Publication