The policy press

In recent years, governments in many countries, concerned with raising standards of teaching, learning and achievement, have instigated a series of radical structural and curriculum reforms intended to transform the governance, structures and cultures of schools, the curriculum and processes of learning and teaching in classrooms, and, through these, to build capacity for improvements in teaching and learning, create more opportunities for more students to access learning, and close the achievement gap between those students drawn from advantaged and those drawn from socio-economically disadvantaged communities. These policy movements have been characterised as being part of a global educational reform movement, known as ‘GERM’ (Sahiberg, 2012). Essentially, policy movements in all countries are generally related to:

  • 1. a desire to raise teacher, teaching and learning and achievement standards in order to compete with other countries in the worlds of work;
  • 2. decreased levels of trust in the ability and credibility of universities to prepare teachers well;
  • 3. a belief that apprenticeship, i.e. learning from practice under the supervision of those in-school, is likely to result in the ‘production’ of a ‘workforce’ which is better equipped to ‘deliver’ the curriculum outcomes demanded by government.

Whilst there can be little doubt of policy direction internationally, there are, however, differences in the strategies used, and the pace of change between countries.

There can be no doubt that policy-related changes at school and university level internationally have resulted in an increased emphasis on external accountability and more functionally oriented managerial cultures, exemplified in schools by greater emphasis on the development of more ‘efficiency’ in collecting and analysing data on students’ learning and achievement progress, so that much of teachers’ classroom decision-making is now data-informed and schools are better able to account directly to government and parents for the quality of their work with students. There is increasing evidence that the thrust of external reform initiatives internationally is ‘functionalist’, and that development opportunities provided in the established school systems are tailored in part to assisting teachers in the improvement of students’ academic results in core areas of the curriculum. There can be little doubt, either, that schools are now focused far more than previously on meeting the ‘perfomrativity’ demands (Ball, 2003) that the reforms have imposed.

The example of school reform in England, whilst arguably more radical than in other countries, serves as an illustration of the international direction of travel from centralised control to local, system-led control. A central component of the English government-led deep structural and cultural changes has been the development of localised choice through an increasingly diversified and decentralised school-led system. Opportunities and incentives have been offered to schools to become autonomous ‘academies’, independent of local authority (municipality) control, and many have developed collaborative partnerships with other schools through ‘Federations’, ‘Multi Academy Trusts’ (MATs), TSAs and, more recently, ‘Teaching School Hubs’. These are expected to be both ‘self-improving’ and more directly accountable to government for raising levels of pupil achievement. Running parallel with these and other successive reform efforts has been a range of research and evaluation projects, some commissioned directly by government, and some through government-funded independent research organisations. Changes have also been made at both initial teacher education through the provision of more school-centred pre-service ‘apprenticeship’ programmes and in-service school-led teacher development programmes.

Similar changes have occurred in Australia and the United States. However, in many European and South American and Asian countries, universities have continued to take responsibility for pre-service, initial education and training, and ongoing upgrading of in-service qualifications. In those countries, there is a tradition of schools themselves being expected to support teachers in their ongoing learning, with provision being resourced centrally and locally. In China, in addition to this, schools are expected to have regular involvement in, for example, lesson study, collaborative planning, classroom inquiry, data-informed decision-making and research study groups.

Almost simultaneous with system-driven moves towards establishing ‘self-improving’, more autonomous school systems in England and elsewhere, there have been shifts in the criteria used forjudging the worth of university-generated research. In the most recent ‘Research Excellence Framework’ in England, for example, previously known as the Research Assessment Exercise, there have been significant changes in the criteria used for assessing and comparing research quality. In 2014, research impact and engagement with the research user communities became important criteria, and university departments in every university in England and Wales were invited to submit evidence-based case studies of the influence and impact of their research on practice communities. These criteria are being applied to future assessment exercises. In essence, then, it is possible to discern in England and many other countries, a general drive at school and higher education system level, towards what some might consider to be a more utilitarian view of research and development partnerships as being of particular benefit when they have a direct relevance, applicability to and impact, in the case of education, on the work of schools and teachers in classrooms.

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