School improvement to take away

Kieran Cooke

Programme Manager Kieran Cooke reflects on how, at Education Development Trust, we have successfully exported a UK-proven school improvement initiative to the slums of Mumbai and Nairobi.

In the middle of the impoverished Kibera slum in Nairobi, among the piles of rubbish and open sewers, there is a school which, despite the collapsing roof and dusty floors is achieving brilliant student outcomes. This school is led by Mary, a committed and talented headteacher who has high ambitions for the children of Kibera, providing a focused combination of support and rigorous monitoring of her teachers' performance and progress. Mary's school is a 'bright spot' which is doing wonderful things for the children who attend it. Until recently, the impact of the practices and solutions she has developed for the context she works in were not being shared with her fellow headteachers in neighbouring schools who are facing similar challenges. Many are struggling and wouldn’t have believed that achieving the sorts of outcomes Mary does was possible in such a challenging context.

In every single education system globally, there are similar bright spots: individual teachers and headteachers like Mary who have the potential to act as powerful change agents to support their peers and drive rapid and sustainable improvement beyond their own school.

Leadership is key

Having high-quality school leadership is vital in improving standards in schools everywhere. From global evidence, we know that the quality of school leadership is one of the most powerful determinants of student outcomes, second only to the quality of teaching. Effective instructional leadership – leadership which improves the quality of classroom teaching and ensures resources are directed at issues which impact pupil outcomes – is a smart way to invest funding as the improvement of a smaller group – leaders – has an impact on a much larger group – teachers.

Education Development Trust's The rapid improvement of government schools in England research report explores the characteristics of effective school leadership in 100 schools that had shifted from being graded by Ofsted – the English schools' inspectorate – as 'inadequate' to 'good' or 'outstanding' in two years or less. This study demonstrated that with highly effective leadership it is possible to change for the better schools with a history of chronic underperformance. Leadership and the actions leaders take clearly act as a catalyst for rapid improvement. For us at Education Development Trust, there is no reason why this should be any different in Nairobi than it is in Nottingham.

Quality leadership: a neglected issue

The quality of leadership is, however, a somewhat neglected issue for governments and donors trying to improve education standards in low-income countries. Leadership development programmes designed for low income contexts tend to focus on administrative skills such as planning or budget management rather than developing the practices of effective instructional leadership. But how can we create context-appropriate programmes?

Innovation – in all fields – is costly, risky and resource intensive, which is why most innovation happens in a small number of rich countries. Development economists are increasingly looking at ways that innovations can be efficiently transferred and adopted in low income countries. While there has been some attempt to do this in relation to education technology, we believe there is an untapped opportunity to leverage successful models and approaches to improving school leadership which have been developed in wealthier economies to benefit education in developing countries. Clearly though, this is only going to work if these models are highly contextualised.

Teach thy neighbour

The approach of empowering the most effective headteachers to support others and therefore drive improvement beyond their own school is a key characteristic of many high-performing education systems globally such as Singapore, Canada and New Zealand – and of course, England.

With its roots in the now famous London Challenge, documented in another Education Development Trust research report, School improvement in London: a global perspective, policymakers were quick to spot the benefits of deploying excellent headteachers to offer coaching support to other schools. The subsequent National Leaders of Education (NLE) programme paired headteachers in England with a proven record of success with peer headteachers in similar, but underperforming, schools. The initial two-year pilot of this programme, involving 100 NLEs, demonstrated the schools they were supporting saw their end of primary results (Key Stage 2) increase by 10% more than the wider population.

From Nottingham to Nairobi

So, what happens when an approach to school improvement from England is taken to low income contexts such as those found in Kenya and India? Education Development Trust took the NLE model as the basis for an adapted version rooted in the local context and specific needs of Nairobi and Mumbai.

As in England, headteachers from schools performing highly were paired with those from lower performing schools. Crucially these pairs of schools were both from similar areas and therefore faced similar challenges. Contextualisation however is key and so one modification was to introduce the role of coach to provide support to the ‘mentor’ headteacher and ongoing monitoring to the implementation of the initiative. Equally, many of the high-performing headteachers were not able to articulate their highly effective practice, which is essential if they were to successfully support their peers; therefore, another example of contextualisation was spending time in the early stages of the programme helping these headteachers to better realise what they were doing in their school which was working so well.

The result? Proof of concept pilots have demonstrated the significant relevance and impact of the model – even in these dramatically different settings of the Nairobi and Mumbai slums. The early signs of these models are highly encouraging – strong relationships are being built between headteachers based on the credibility which is unique to highly effective peers who have overcome these same challenges themselves. This is as far from theoretical and administrative as it is possible to be. For example, in one school the number of pupils increased 194 to 269 during this 6-month pilot and the headteacher attributed this to teachers now using more learner-friendly teaching methods. In another school the headteacher said more pupils are now able to read than before they had received support through this programme.

Mutually beneficial

In both Nairobi and Mumbai there were significant improvements in the leadership competence of the headteachers and in the quality of teaching at the schools receiving support from a high-performing headteacher. The impact on the leaders has been overwhelmingly positive: as Grace, the headteacher of Carmel of St Joseph School in Mumbai, said, 'We felt the need to do better, come out of complacency and equip ourselves with skills for improving our performance.'

While the primary aim with this model was to enable the high-performing leader to support the raising of standards in a lower performing school, as has been found in England it also allowed the high-performing leader to improve themselves as well. As a participant of the programme, Mary said that supporting her peer headteachers had 'enabled her to further the outcomes for the students in her own school and allowed her to take the next step on her development as a leader.' This demonstrates the mutual benefit of enabling the most effective leaders to have a multiplier effect leading to improved outcomes across the system as a whole.

There is great potential for the diffusion of effective education innovations such as this. With the right contextualisation, the NLE model has proven to be highly effective; and based on the success of these pilots in Nairobi and Mumbai, the model is being used in DFID's Building Learning Foundations programme improving literacy and numeracy outcomes in Rwanda and – we hope – many more places in the future.