The importance of an evidence-informed global dialogue

Tony McAleavy

We brought together education ministers and policymakers from around the world for our Global Dialogue event in October 2018. Tony McAleavy, Director of Research and Consultancy at Education Development Trust, reflects on the importance of evidence-informed reform on an international scale.

There is a widespread consensus that ensuring better quality teaching and learning in government schools worldwide is one of the key challenges facing humanity in the early 21st century. Ensuring that children go to school everywhere is of course important, but it is not enough; we must also guarantee that all children learn well in a safe environment. Through the creation and sharing of our research, we seek to contribute to an evidence-informed ‘global dialogue’ about these important questions of how we can deliver high levels of school quality.

In our research we like to highlight the positive and make sense of success stories. 

As educators there is much we can learn from the systematic analysis of the work of effective schools and the policies used by improving education systems. Our global programme of education research has this focus on ‘bright spots’ at the levels of both the school and the national system. 

The Global Dialogue series

We continue to work on a series of reports that focuses on promising and interesting stories from England which has been a hotbed for innovation during recent years. In the first reports of the series, three key themes have been highlighted: 

1.    School leadership action leading to the rapid improvement of government schools  
Policymakers and educators in many countries wrestle with the problem of how to improve government schools, particularly those serving relatively disadvantaged communities. These issues have preoccupied policymakers in England in recent years. We have sought to make sense of the experience of schools that have achieved success against the odds.
There are about 20,000 government-funded schools in England, all subject to inspection by the national school inspectorate, known as Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills). Ofsted is well-known in England for its robust no-nonsense approach to the evaluation of school quality. We identified about 100 schools that had been on a remarkable journey. These schools went in less than two years from being in the worst Ofsted category for quality to being graded as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. Our report on the The rapid improvement of government schools in England made sense of these examples of transformation, identifying the importance of school leadership and the practical steps taken by school leaders to bring about rapid change. 

2.    The role of data in system-level school improvement  
The World Development Report, produced by the World Bank in 2018, highlighted the need for measurement that shines a light on learning. We agree: educational data is the fuel for the engine of school improvement. By itself data changes nothing but, properly used, data can stimulate beneficial change at every level: from the dialogue between a teacher and an individual student to the decisions made by national policymakers about priorities for educational reform. The first step to improving systemwide learning is to put in place assessment systems that measure whether schools are delivering good learning outcomes. Assessment data can stimulate a professional dialogue about how well different groups of students are doing and why schools serving very similar communities often achieve very different academic outcomes. Experience from England supports this analysis and provides a case study about systematic tracking of learning outcomes and the use of the resulting data as a guide to action at every level of the system. England’s approach to school performance data – lessons learned tells the story of how the national Education Management Information System has evolved in England in recent years. 

3.    Lessons from London  
The improvement in student academic outcomes in London since 2000 has remarkable. At the beginning of the century London schools were generally seen as the worst in England, based on test results and inspection findings, but today London schools are widely acknowledged as the best in England. At Education Development Trust we have been analysing the London success story for several years. In our latest report, Sustaining success: high performing government schools in London, we offer international policymakers new insights into one of the world’s most impressive stories of school improvement. 

Grounds for optimism and food for thought

Of course, we are not recommending that people in other countries simply copy practice from another country – Matt Davis discusses the very topic of policy transfer here. There have been mistakes in England and every country must chart its own route towards educational improvement. Nevertheless, it is important to learn from others – the good and the bad – and in shining a light on these bright spots, there is food for thought and grounds for optimism.