Stop, collaborate and listen!

For teachers, context is king. How can we understand the challenges of any one school until we have actually taught there? It might be true that nothing can substitute for hours in the classroom, and I’d agree that each school is unique, but it’s all too easy to forget that there are more similarities between schools than there are differences.

I began to appreciate this at the fourth school I taught in, a small secondary in a rural market town in Herefordshire. The challenges of improving results were the same as the large comprehensive in Manchester where I had been Head of Department: improving literacy levels, implementing effective behaviour systems, delivering effective CPD. But the context and student intake was radically different. It was less ethnically diverse than Manchester, with fewer Pupil Premium pupils and lower KS2 scores on average. To improve schools across the whole system, we need to understand the challenges common to all schools, and the specific challenges of particular student populations.

The EEF’s Families of Schools database is designed to help with the latter. It groups similar schools together based on factors including prior attainment, percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals and the number of children with English as an additional language. The attainment of pupils on a range of measures can then be compared with similar schools, allowing schools to understand the size and nature of their attainment gap in relation to other similar institutions. The database provides a wealth of new information to help schools learn from the best performing institution in each family; you can read more about this here.

The secondary school database, launched last year, is now accessed by over 4,000 users each month. Today, we have added 14,000 primary schools to provide teachers with the same level of analysis, challenge and support that has been available to secondary schools for the last year.

Creating the the primary families has been a more complex task than secondaries: there are fewer pupils in each school, yet there are more schools. For small schools the low numbers of pupils means we cannot show all the data for the sub-groups. We attempt to get round this by averaging data over 5 years. Of course, we run the risk of not picking up recent trends in results, but our pilot schools told us the trade off was worth it in order to identify similar schools and benchmark performance.

All of the secondary school information has been refreshed with the latest available data and you’ll notice a number of coloured flags atop many of the school bars. These identify schools in our partner networks: Teaching Leaders, Future Leaders, Challenge Partners and London Gold Club. The Families of Schools is intended to encourage collaboration between schools so that they can challenge and support one another to improve – something that is undoubtedly strengthened by identifying schools from within existing networks and building these relationships.

Where next?

The Families of Schools database is a useful tool in its own right: we all have much to learn from colleagues in other schools facing similar challenges. But a question that often emerges in our discussions with teachers is can we link the database so that it identifies the most promising teaching evidence-based strategies and interventions ‘for schools like ours’? Are particular interventions more effective for pupils with English as an additional language or low attainers? The evidence base is not yet sophisticated enough to deal with such nuances, but we know that when context is king, this is where we must look next.