Improving schools systems: the international lessons

How does a poor school system become good or a good school system become excellent? Those are the questions asked in a recently published McKinsey review of twenty school systems around the world, including both developed and developing countries.

In school systems where there have been significant improvements in performance, McKinsey found that these were often achieved in six years or less from the start of the changes. In other words it is possible for a government to bring about improvements in time for the public to see the benefits before the next election. However, continuity amongst key educational officials (including politicians) is frequently beneficial, with improving systems usually having their educational leaders in place for long periods of time.

Many of those improvements were, according to the McKinsey analysis, brought about without significant changes in the structure of education systems or in the resources put in.

An empty classroomAlthough both these structural and resourcing factors are important, “we find that the vast majority of interventions made by the improving systems in our sample are ‘process’ in nature … [i.e.] modifying curriculum and improving the way that teachers instruct and principals lead”.

However, what works best depends on what stage of improvement the education system is – going from poor to ok and going from ok to good often required different policies, with the resulting warning that, “systems cannot continue to improve by simply doing more of what brought them past success”.

In particular, as schools get better the importance of local autonomy increases in the McKinsey analysis:

These systems achieve improvement by the center increasing the responsibilities and flexibilities of  schools and teachers to shape instructional practice – one-third of the systems in the ‘good to great’ journey and just less than two-thirds of the systems in the ‘great to excellent’ journey decentralize pedagogical  rights to the middle layer (e.g. districts) or schools. However, in parallel, the center mitigates the risk of these freedoms resulting in wide and uncontrolled performance variations across schools by establishing mechanisms that make teachers responsible to each other as professionals for both their own performance and that of their colleagues. For example, these systems establish teacher career paths whereby higher skill teachers increasingly take on responsibility for supporting their juniors to achieve instructional excellence first within the school, then across the system. These systems also establish collaborative practices between teachers within and across schools that emphasize making practice public – such as weekly lesson-planning for all teachers in the same subject, required lesson observations, and joint-teaching – that serve to perpetuate and further develop the established pedagogy.

The emphasis on process in the McKinsey analysis, placing more weight on it than on structure and resourcing, is a mirror image of current debates about the school system in the UK where all three factors are much discussed, but it is structure (e.g. free schools) and resourcing (e.g. pupil premium) which are getting the bulk of attention whilst process issues, such as Michael Gove’s views on the curriculum, get much less attention.

You can read a detailed summary of the report here.

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • I am sure there are plenty of “pedagogical” points can be picked out here for comment, Mark, but my eye was struck by one “process issue” which, I don’t think can be other than a mistake on the writers’ and McKinsey’s part. The text suggests that “excellent” is a higher rating than “great”. This is all very well if you live in celebrity la-la land, or I suppose, in the US (? the same thing?), but for most of us we only encounter truly “great’ people or institutions very occasionally, whereas we can find “excellent” institutions and people reasonably often.

  • @Dane
    Surely when you make statement like : ‘Schools get better when class sizes get smaller. (And when more money is spent on sport.) ‘
    It is reasomable to ask you what evidence you have to support it?
    Class sizes are a bit smaller in private schools (although I suspect not as much as you think). But there are many other differences as well such as the ability to expel dispruptive pupils and the need to attract pupils through good results. Might these have an influence as well on their better results?

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