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EDUCATION: Educational benefits of keeping it simple; EXPERT VIEW.

Byline: Professor David Reynolds

SOMETIMES in life the very simple is very powerful. In education we have tried very complex mechanisms designed to improve teaching and schooling with little success, yet we have rarely tried the simple. Why not?

Getting the consistency of education right is this simple message, and its importance is validated by a couple of examples. In a review of all the improvement programmes to date, American scholars found that it didn't really matter which programme was followed - the important thing was to apply it consistently, making sure all the staff members bothered to follow the initiative.

Another example reinforces the point. Studies of effective schools, that add a lot of value to how their students perform, show that this is not achieved because some of their staff or departments are outstandingly good. Good, indeed exceptional teachers are to be found in all kinds of schools - even those with less than brilliant results.

What the really good schools do is refuse to tolerate a trailing edge of less than good teachers.

They have an "intolerance of the negative" - they delete (move on or move out) their under-performing staff so they can be consistent.

Thirty or 40 years ago it probably didn't matter whether or not children attended consistent schools. The children came from families who were themselves consistent, with a coherent world-view that was passed down through the generations. Neighbourhoods and communities were real things that gave children a secure identity - in terms of their gender, their school class and their lifestyles. The media had little influence to muddy society's waters.

Now, things are different. Children come from inconsistent families where there is a wide variety of views and values. Communities are not so strong. And the media has made a wide variety of lifestyles possible.

What are the implications for schools? Every school would have had "old so and so" - an eccentric individual in a department of other individuals, who were just, well - different.

But nowadays, an inconsistent school would do damage because its students urgently need a consistency it cannot supply.

And the solution? To adopt the mechanisms that private sector companies and public sector utilities use, namely Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that codify what is expected of staff and ensure that all staff sing from the same song sheet.

SOPs can apply to teaching. For example, any lesson, in any subject, for any children, should begin with a clear introduction to orientate children, and a conclusion of 10 to 15 minutes at the end, to review the lesson content, correct any misconceptions and preview future work.

SOPs can apply to how the school site is maintained. They can apply to school rules concerning uniform, behaviour, language, time-keeping and how students treat their peers.

They can apply to what is expected of students in their learning - that they should bring all the necessary equipment to school with them in the mornings, for example.

They can also apply to the academic routines that boys in particular need, such as work planners, diaries and the like.

An ordered and consistent school need not stop staff introducing their pupils to different ideas about the world.

On the contrary, a secure, consistent environment would positively encourage it.

And for staff? SOPs are a simple and powerful lever. A staff group can be trained together, can see the results of implementing the SOPs and indeed because the SOPs are so visible, can help to enforce them with their colleagues if they work. SOPs can even help bring into the fold those staff members who are isolated.

So let's keep it simple! Why make young people, who already lead complex lives, attend complex schools as well?

Let's make education - in some ways - simple and standardised.

David Reynolds is Professor of Education at the University of Plymouth and Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Exeter. He lives in South Wales
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 15, 2009
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