Turning the McKinsey model on its head
23rd September 2011
There is a quiet revolution under way in Scottish education.
I know this is not a fashionable position. But confirmation comes for me in the unlikely guise of a recent McKinsey report reviewing three decades of educational reform around the world.
‘Lots of energy, little light’ is the headline summary. ‘Most OECD countries tripled their spending on education in real terms between 1970 and 1994. Unfortunately, student outcomes in a large number of systems either stagnated or regressed.’
But for McKinsey there is no problem so complex that exhaustive examination of historical data and a large enough spreadsheet cannot put it to bed. So they have chosen 20 school systems showing significant improvements in outcomes since 1980 (measured by international league table rankings) - ’sustained improvers’ like Singapore, Ontario and Poland and ‘promising starts’ like Madhya Pradesh (India), Minas Gerais (Brazil) and Western Cape (South Africa). In all they dissected over 575 policy interventions these 20 systems had introduced between them to see what works.
The results are not surprising. They can be simply stated as stages on a journey to excellence. The steps, and the policies, are as follows.
To shift the system:
I have some problems with McKinsey’s assumptions here. This kind of data-crunching inevitably looks in the rearview mirror, without a trace of recognition that what counted as useful educational ‘outcomes’ in 1980 might differ from what will count in 2030. And the whole approach assumes change must be driven from the centre, with local innovation and autonomy appearing only on the last phase of the journey.
Even so, it is striking that - despite the recurring spat about whether we should be investing in teacher quality or smaller class sizes - it is this final phase of the journey, from Great to Excellent, that most nearly describes where I think the action is in the Scottish education system today.
I originally tried this line two years ago over lunch with a prominent journalist. He looked at me as if I were mad. We all know, he said, that Scottish education has lost its way. As if to prove the point he promptly published an interview with a leading educationalist under the headline ‘New school curriculum complete nonsense‘. Meat and drink to such a seasoned pro.
So I had to write the story myself, which I did in these pages in the summer of 2009. I suggested that the real challenge for schools in an age of rapid change is to prepare our young people ‘for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that have not been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet’. No school system in the world has adequately addressed this challenge, even though all of them know they must do so.
They also know that it will take a special kind of innovation. We can’t serve these unknown needs simply by squeezing the last drop of performance or efficiency out of the systems we already have - even though the political clamour, especially in the age of austerity, is to do precisely that.
This kind of sustaining or incremental innovation is necessary but not sufficient. We also need ‘transformative innovation’ - innovations, starting at small scale, that have the capacity over time to transform the system itself to deliver outcomes the existing system cannot even imagine. Curriculum for Excellence seemed to me to provide the perfect permissive policy framework to allow at least some schools to make room for this radical shift into the unknown.
IFF published a short book on how to do so - ‘a playbook for pragmatic visionaries‘. It had a simple recipe: give professional staff, school leaders, local authorities, parents and pupils the tools, prompts and frameworks to encourage them to think beyond the constraints of the current culture and support them to move towards more radical aspirations.
At the time I was cautious about the chances of this approach succeeding in Scotland: ‘It will take a sophisticated government and a sophisticated media to engage with real cultural change’, I wrote. ‘Headlines writing Curriculum for Excellence off are to be expected. But if government can hold its nerve, give space and support to the pragmatic visionaries, and encourage an “open conspiracy” for deeper change, we may yet start to develop the education system our global predicament demands.’
Two years on, I have to say that it is happening.
At the Scottish Learning Festival this week Education Scotland will launch significant new resources and a new stance specifically designed to support transformative innovation in a highly decentralised, bottom-up, system-wide approach.
The ‘Opening Up Transformative Innovation’ kit developed in partnership with IFF provides a simple way for any school to engage with an uncertain future. It provides the resources to prompt a highly focused strategic conversation about how the school engages with a changing world, changing policy and changing young people.
The ‘three horizons’ framework on which it is based allows everyone free rein to share their concerns about the present system, to admit deeper aspirations that might be frustrated or under-realised today, and to design a ’second horizon’ transition strategy to shift the system in that direction.
The whole conversation is grounded. This is not ‘blue skies visioning’ but hard-headed engagement with often uncomfortable facts about changes in the real world. But it also allows space for inspiration. Once a desired future has been imagined we can always find glimpses of it in the present. It often shows up in the shape of inspirational stories of practice elsewhere… perhaps even in the classroom next door. Everywhere the kit has been used it has had the effect of unleashing pent up energy: ‘we could try something like that here!’
But there is more. Education Scotland itself is developing its own capacity and competence to become adept at helping support this kind of radical, transformative innovation - innovation that inevitably works against the grain of the dominant culture. That too is an encouraging shift in the landscape.
Make no mistake. This is a long-term play. The schools presenting their stories at the Learning Festival are making encouraging progress, but they know this is a transition that will take time.
Nevertheless I am convinced that when McKinsey next come to review their results 10 years from now they will point to Scotland as one of the first places in the world to turn the logic of their staged approach to excellence on its head.
In today’s complex and fast-changing world central planning can do no more than ensure an acceptable minimum. Everything else requires the philosophy of distributed authority and permissive innovation that McKinsey now reserves for the final push towards excellence. Once again I say: give Scotland a chance - we are leading the way in refashioning education reform for the 21st century.