John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

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Education has always been cautious about the potential of research into the human genome and its implications for our approaches to teaching and learning. For many educationalists there are worrying undertones of a Huxleyian ‘Brave New World’ with education becoming purely instrumental and reductionist and working to create the very worst sort of engineered meritocracy. However Shakeshaft et al (2013:9) are quite clear that education is a moral process where choices can be made to inform policy and practice. A dystopian future can be prevented because it is never nature or nurture but we can choose nature via nurture:

The instruction model of imposed environments is consistent with a one-size-fits-all national curriculum approach, whereas the education model of active experiences fits the trend towards adaptive learning systems tailored to each pupil . . . Genetics will become more specifically useful in such personalized learning programs as specific genes responsible for the high heritability of educational achievement are identified . . . (Shakeshaft et al 2013:9)

In the same way that genetic research holds out the possibility of personalized medicine so it also holds the promise of a personalized approach to learning that has the potential to enhance individual achievement through bespoke interventions.

The second area of influence and significance is usually described in terms of the social and economic – more specifically the permutations of parenting, social class, community and poverty. These variables are almost never found in isolation but act to mutually reinforce and intensify their joint impact. If one of the four is a significant negative then it will exacerbate the others. For example in 2012, at key stage 2, 68% of pupils eligible for the pupil premium achieved level 4+, compared to 84% of all other pupils. This is an attainment gap of 16 percentage points. In 2012, at key stage 4, 38.5% of pupils eligible for the pupil premium achieved 5+ A*-C grades including English and maths GCSEs, compared to 65.7% of all other pupils. This is an attainment gap of 27.2 percentage points.


Most school effectiveness studies show that 80% or more of student achievement is explained by student background rather than schools.  (Silins and Mulford 2002: 561)

A large number of quantitative studies in North America . . . show that school leadership influences performance more than any other variable except socio-economic background and the quality of teaching.  (Barber, Whelan and Clark 2010:5)

A very small and limited study of the impact of a free school lunch found:

The universal pilot had a significant positive impact on attainment for primary school pupils at Key Stages 1 and 2, with pupils in the universal pilot areas making between four and eight weeks’ more progress than similar pupils in comparison areas. These effects on attainment could have arisen through the provision of free school meals directly or through the wider activities that accompanied the pilot, such as the promotion of school meals and healthy eating to pupils and parents, or both.

The improvements in attainment in the universal pilot areas appeared to be greater for children from less affluent familiesand those with lower prior attainment, though it should be noted that the effects between different types of pupils are not always significantly different from one another. (DfE 2012 Research Brief 227)

In other words the provision of a hot meal at midday may have a greater impact on achievement than many pedagogical strategies. Desforges and Abouchaar capture the implications of this conclusion:

It is worth pausing to underline the trend of these results. First, a great deal of the variation in students’ achievement is outside of the schools’ influence. Family social class, for example, accounts for about one third of such variance. Second, parental involvement in the form of home discussion has, nonetheless, a major impact on achievement. (Desforges and Abouchaar 2003:21)

This perspective allows Desforges to argue that it is possible to quantify the relationship between the family and the school in terms of their relative impact on achievement with parental behaviours having an effect size of 0.29 compared to the school’s effect size of 0.05. As Desforges expresses it ‘ It is not who parents are, it is what they do.’

At present, the tragedy of school change is that only about 30 per cent of the explanation for variations in school achievement appears to be attributable to factors in the school . . . Perhaps it is now time for leaders to lead their schools and exert their influence far beyond the school walls . . . (Moreno et al 2007:5)

However while it is increasingly important for many schools to look beyond the walls there is still a very strong case to look inside them. The school remains a highly significant variable and, perhaps crucially, one that is amenable to very rapid change. The school is, potentially the most controllable of the variables influencing pupil achievement in particular through the quality of leadership and the effectiveness of teaching and leaning strategies.


The difference between a very effective teacher and a poorly performing teacher is large. For example during one year with a very effective maths teacher, pupils gain 40% more in their learning than they would with a poorly performing maths teacher.

The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds: over a school year, these pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. In other words, for poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole year’s learning. (Sutton Trust 2011: )


The deployment of high quality teachers can have a significant effect on pupil achievement – such teachers are effective for a wide range of reasons but one of the most significant is that they use high impact strategies. Schools are more likely to close the gap if the most vulnerable pupils are taught by the most able teachers who are making consistent use of techniques that the evidence shows make the greatest difference in terms of progress and achievement.

The challenge for school leaders is to ensure that the 20 per cent of the variables influencing pupil achievement (where they have the greatest influence) are working to optimum effect. What that implies is a high degree of internal consistency in order to minimise the variation in the quality of provision that is directly related to the variation in the quality of outcomes. This in turn implies a focus on improvement through practice-based research with teachers working collaboratively to secure sustained improvement in professional practice.


Possible implications for school leaders


1.    Focus the school’s values on securing equity, closing the gap and the achievement of the most vulnerable.

2.    Securing the 20% that the school controls by:

- Working to eliminate variation,

- Deploy the most effective staff to optimum effect,

- Ensuring the most appropriate teaching and learning strategies are   being employed

- Ensuring that teachers are engaged in improving practice

3.    Identifying all forms of vulnerability and developing appropriate intervention strategies for each.

4.    Developing a culture and system of personalized learning

5.    Using IT to reinforce the strategies outlined above.

6.    Support strategies to secure literacy across the community

7.    Developing parents as co-educators.

8.    Develop partnerships to secure well-being across the community

9.    Build leadership capacity across the school, the community and other agencies

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