Creating a high-performing school is a goal that exercises educators in every generation. In 2007, a McKinsey Report tackled this question: How did the world's best performing school systems come out on top?
This is a great question to wrestle with when you are trying to design the structure for a new school; and it's a question I have been studying for almost 40 years.
In order to answer this question for myself, I have taken three different journeys around the world to analyse school systems and see what is working, and why. Here's what I have found.
My journeys around the world started in the early 1980s. I visited North America, and then moved on to look at education in South America and Western Europe. I found countries spending heavily on education but with mixed results. While some of their schools had excellent results, others were failing even with good funding.
I got together with parents, politicians and business leaders, who challenged us as educators to research how the good schools were doing things differently. We pinpointed key factors like clear vision and strong leadership, quality teachers and plenty of professional development, and high expectations alongside plenty of student responsibility.
The outcome of this research and public debate brought in the "Age of Management" in schools. Better-managed schools, carefully catering for all the above features, building systematic solutions, were considered the route to better outcomes.
But the variability remained and because outcomes were still inconsistent, we took a second journey around the world, in the 1990s, look at the highest performing education systems. We found them not only on the Pacific Rim (Japan, Korea, Hong Kong), but also in Singapore and Finland. When studying the commonalities between these countries and regions, we realised that school systems thrived not only when the system was well-managed but when (a) parents were invested in education, and (b) children came to school valuing the importance of education.
Education is a deeply cultural construct and in some countries, parents inculcate in their children a deep respect for education and for teachers. They carry strong ambition to their children which provides a powerful driving force which schools can embrace.
The consequence has perhaps been to see an “Age of Co-Production” arrive where schools are trying to close the gap and join forces with parents, in educating their children. I am sure we can go much further down this path, perhaps in showing parents which behaviours at home boost children’s chances. The successful parents are those who dine with their children every night, who ask them about their learning, who share conversation about what they see, who read to their children or who hear their children read, who take their children on visits at weekends, and who know how to praise their children for effort more than ability.
Where parents, schools and students jointly take responsibility for education, student results get better..
In the last decade, I have taken a third journey round the world to study the new phenomenon of a growth in private international education. The growth rate is remarkable as more and more families choose to spend first on the education they feel their children need.
At first, I was impressed by the new investment that has led to better school buildings and infrastructure. Some of the buildings are stunning. But that impression soon faded as I came to appreciate that there was a growing legion of schools that charged lower fees who were out-performing the rich ‘palaces’.
In Dubai, for example, three of the highest performers in international examinations charged fees that were a third of the premium-priced schools.
Well, because of a mixture of factors. One was the attitude of the parents and students at these schools. They may have had less money to put into their school fees but their ambition knew no limits. They saw education as their road to prosperity and they didn’t waste a minute at school.
Another was the focus of the schools. They concentrated their resources on the main things that matter in getting great student results: teaching quality, classroom effectiveness, and academic strength.
A third factor was the attitude of the leaders. The fact that they existed on lower fees seemed to lift them to beat their wealthier ‘cousins’. They translated that sentiment into high expectations of their students, in terms of commitment, responsibility and achievement. Great results follow.
Our discoveries have led us to believe that moderate-fee schools, like OWIS, can be - and should be - just as effective at education at higher-fee schools; and in some cases, the schools can be even more effective. Why? Because schools and parents can learn how to merge quality with efficiency. I call this a new “Age of Enlightenment.”
An Eye on the Future
As we look to the future, we want to continue to find what works. At OWIS, we want to create a school where each individual child finds their inner strength and ambition, whatever its nature. We want to offer each child a highly personalised learning experience that meets his or her unique strengths and needs.
This is the next question we must ask ourselves - can education be truly personalised?
OWIS' International Baccalaureate program is a great help in this regard, because it's a modern and flexible model for our primary school intake that will allow us to find what students love and to tailor their education, using technology and talented individuals.
We can use this international curriculum to embed strong subject matter know-how and to show students how to apply that knowledge in the real world.
The McKinsey Report of 2007 showed us how to put together school management, co-production and ambitious schools in ways that can benefit students and parents globally. If we can also do this affordably, at what we call a “thoughtful price”, we can bring the benefits to families all round the world. Now, that is really worth doing.
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