The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has, by and large, been a force for good when it comes to education.
Above all else, it has provided a means by which the world’s education systems can compare and contrast their practice with that of others many miles apart.
The growth of international league tables and the ease at which one can travel between countries has opened our eyes to a wealth of knowledge and understanding.
Yet while the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) inevitably steals most of the headlines, the triennial survey is but one part of a much bigger package.
In Wales, said package has extended to numerous reviews, stakeholder workshops and visits from affiliated experts, each with their own unique insight into what works in their home jurisdiction.
Suffice to say the OECD plays a much more prominent role here that it does in other countries; it is a critical friend to the Welsh Government and, increasingly, a cheerleader for the innovative policy reform being undertaken in Wales.
The relationship hasn’t always been as rosy, however, and a largely critical report by the OECD in 2014 warned there was ‘no consolidated approach’ to supporting schools in implementing new policies.
Improving Schools in Wales: An OECD Perspective proposed a ‘comprehensive strategy’ for system-building and served as a stark reminder of the significant challenge ahead.
It is with this context in mind that I write the following short analysis of one of the OECD’s more recent ventures – Schools as Learning Organisations (SLOs).
Well-received by the profession
Wales’ SLO model was developed in partnership by schools, regional education consortia, Estyn, the emerging National Academy for Educational Leadership, the Welsh Government and the OECD between November 2016 and July 2017.
The model was released, somewhat quietly, in November 2017 and a report penned by the OECD and published in October assesses the extent to which schools in Wales have developed as learning organisations in the intervening period.
The report makes a number of interesting observations, not least that ‘the majority of schools in Wales seem well on their way towards developing as learning organisations’.
A positive statement of intent if ever there was one, although the report warns shortly after that ‘a considerable proportion of schools are still far removed from realising this objective’.
Similar claims are made as you work your way through the document, most notably:
‘The evidence suggests that Wales’ SLO policy has been well received by the education profession. Its justification, logic and its place in the larger curriculum reform effort is starting to be understood by parts of the education profession and other stakeholders in Wales, although there is clearly more work to be done here.’
Comments such as these have raised a number of eyebrows within the academic community, given just 1,703 staff from 178 schools are referenced as having contributed to the supporting SLO survey (latest figures show there were 68,238 teaching and learning support staff working across 1,521 schools in Wales earlier this year).
I for one would question just how many people have been exposed to the SLO model – or indeed, how many are even aware of its existence.
It is not yet a fabric of our education system and to suggest otherwise would be folly; indeed, an understanding of the principles that underpin the model cannot be confused with an unmitigated understanding of the model itself.
And you can hardly blame schools, considering the astonishing pace of change in Welsh education currently.
That is not to say there is no appetite to engage in matters relating to SLOs and, in fact, the report makes clear that developing ‘a culture of enquiry, innovation and exploration’ is by no means fantasy:
‘The OECD team were struck by a change in attitudes compared to the OECD 2014 review. At that time, it found an education profession that seemed less open and willing to change and innovate their practice, with some school staff reporting signs of reform fatigue. This situation appears to have changed considerably.’
A change in attitudes is not the only difference worthy of mention here.
‘A need for caution’
A draft version of the aforementioned Developing Schools as Learning Organisations in Wales report was made available to stakeholders at an SLO conference in July – and it is interesting to note some of its more contentious content.
Missing from the final version (but included in the draft) is:
- Recognition that ‘there is a need for caution’ in interpreting SLO survey findings and that ‘the response rate to the SLO survey was not optimal’;
- ‘How well the four purposes (of the new curriculum) are really understood by the profession in terms of what they will actually mean for their daily practice is hard to judge’;
- Uncertainty from school staff about what a new assessment, evaluation and accountability framework will actually look like, and the need for greater clarity ‘to give all schools the confidence to engage in inquiry, innovation and exploration of the new curriculum’;
- Concern that ‘the grading of schools in four judgments (i.e. excellent, good, adequate and needs improvement, unsatisfactory and needs urgent improvement) by Estyn has driven many schools to focus on gathering evidence to meet the requirements of the inspection framework, rather than utilising self-evaluation for the purpose of learning’;
- The need to ‘pay particular attention to ‘bringing on board’ and supporting those schools that for various reasons are less likely to participate in networks and other forms of collaborative learning and working while needing it most to be able to develop into learning organisations and put the curriculum into practice’.
None of the above will come as a great surprise, I’m sure, but it is worth referencing nonetheless.
Also worthy of note is the rather unusual back cover of the final SLO report, which is almost entirely dedicated to the OECD and its work.
Entitled ‘About the Directorate for Education and Skills’, it is like any other self-promotional blurb and reads like a justification for involvement in the Welsh education improvement journey.
Complete with a large, unattributed photograph of Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Director for Education and Skills, it is far from subtle and comes across as slightly unnecessary.
The SLO conference itself was a largely positive affair, and it was heartening to see so many schools present on their progress to date.
Marco Kools, the OECD’s expert representative, spoke candidly when describing the evolution of Wales’ education system since 2014, noting that “the system is so incredibly different to the one we saw a few years back”.
He said Wales was “definitely drawing international attention” and, indeed, moving at a faster pace than other countries.
Interestingly, it was conceded that the OECD had been “too positive” in its 2014 portrayal of the regional consortia, albeit it “clearly see[s] a positive development in that structure” and the consortia are now “an essential piece of the system”.
The need to “expand the public dialogue generated by PISA” was also acknowledged, with Mr Kools concluding that “we are very good at bringing ourselves down – and so are our media”.
I would wholeheartedly agree that we need to change the narrative and promote better our education system, but I really do think that the developing of a more positive image of teaching must at first come from within.
Those immersed in Welsh education must be more inclined to champion its cause. We cannot blame the media for painting a negative picture when we are guilty of doing so unprompted.
Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams told the SLO conference that “all practitioners should be lifelong learners” and on a real basic level, the idea that schools should develop as ‘learning organisations’ is certainly something to be supported.
For me, the more pressing questions relate to the place of SLOs within Wales’ education system at large, and the justification for their introduction at a time of unprecedented change.
Developing new knowledge
The SLO concept is, of course, nothing new and can be traced back nearly 30 years to Peter Senge’s seminal The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization (1990).
In it, Senge described learning organisations as those:
‘…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.’
Closer to home, the Welsh Government (Education in Wales: Our National Mission, 2017) considers schools that are learning organisations as those with ‘the capacity to adapt more quickly and explore new approaches, with a means to improving learning and outcomes for all their learners’.
According to the OECD (Developing Schools as Learning Organisations in Wales, 2018), ‘a SLO has the capacity to change and adapt routinely to new environments and circumstances as its members, individually and together, learn their way to realising their vision’.
These definitions are similar but useful in articulating the level of systems thinking required to support deep and meaningful change.
Their emphasis on developing new knowledge and experience is particularly pertinent, as is the collaborative ethos that underpins it. Then again, becoming an SLO is not a prerequisite for any such activity.
Who remembers Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)?
Defined by the Welsh Government (PLCs: Guidance, 2013) as ‘a group of practitioners working together using a structured process of enquiry to focus on a specific area of their teaching to improve learner outcomes and so raise school standards’, PLCs have had roots in Wales for almost a decade.
The wealth of literature available on PLCs, and similar modes of professional learning and collaboration, tells its own story; we have been here before and SLOs could be seen as a repackaging of that which exists already.
But as new life is breathed into the notion of lifelong, professional development – and overcoming shared challenges for the benefit of all in Wales – we must ensure that each and every school is given the opportunity to engage.
Notwithstanding the vivacity of early SLO adopters, we must consider the barriers preventing meaningful engagement and ensure that the teaching profession is given the necessary time, space and support to join in.
SLOs, PLCs, communities of practice – call them what you will, there is an appetite for professional learning and career development across the profession.
It is how we make it commonplace, sustainable and available to everyone that is the challenge.
The £24m over two years set aside to support teachers to deliver Wales’ new national curriculum, promised by Ms Williams last month, is extremely welcome and will go some way to countering the perception that upskilling the schools’ workforce has not been sufficiently resourced.
Ultimately, any school that doesn’t consider itself an SLO has missed the memo; in signing up to become a teacher, each and every practitioner working in Wales made a commitment to career-long learning for their own benefit, as well as that of their learners.
We should not require a new SLO model to remind us of that commitment and while useful as an overarching framework or guide, there is an expectation that teachers in Wales should themselves be taking the lead.
It cannot be assumed, however, that every school and every teacher will be starting from the same base, and notwithstanding the need to ensure all are suitably prepared for the launch of our new curriculum, development opportunities must be tailored to individual need.
‘Establishing a culture of enquiry, innovation and exploration’ (as identified in the SLO model) will, for example, come far more naturally to some than others – and change won’t happen overnight.
In policy terms, it will be important for the Welsh Government to articulate clearly the place of SLOs in the new National Approach to Professional Learning – and allay fears that SLOs are yet another thing to be worrying about in these exciting, yet uncertain times.
Additional structures should be put in place to make life easier, not more of a challenge, and SLOs will only work if the people they have been designed to support consider them a help, rather than a hindrance.