Prime Minister John Howard sparked debate recently by attributing continued growth in private school enrolments to parents' preferences for schools that eschew political correctness and teach values. His claim raises the interesting general question of how parents choose schools for their children and, perhaps more importantly, what we know about the characteristics of outstanding schools. Recent educational research has shed light on both these questions and suggests that highly effective schools - that is, schools that achieve high standards regardless of gender, family backgrounds or socioeconomic status - have a number of features in common.
First, highly effective schools have strong and effective school leaders whose primary focus is on establishing a culture of learning throughout the school. The school is organised, and resources are allocated, in pursuit of this overarching purpose. The principal, with the support of the school leadership team, drives the development of school policies and sets and articulates goals for school improvement. A high priority is placed on professional learning, leadership and collaboration among all school staff. In highly effective schools, principals are in constant and meaningful communication with the school community and work to build partnerships beyond the school in pursuit of the school's objectives.
Second, in these schools, learning is seen as the central purpose of school and takes precedence over everything else. High expectations are set for student learning, whether in classrooms or other learning contexts. There is a deep belief in the ability of every student to learn and to achieve high standards with appropriate and sensitive teaching. Class time is used as learning time; classrooms are calm and busy; and interruptions to learning are discouraged. Outstanding schools recognise and celebrate successful learning and high achievement.
Third, in highly effective schools, teachers have a thorough and up-to-date knowledge of their subjects and a deep understanding of how students learn particular subjects. This understanding includes an appreciation of how learning typically proceeds in a subject and of the kinds of misunderstandings learners commonly develop. In these schools, teachers know their students well: their individual interests, backgrounds, motivations and learning styles. These schools insist on the mastery of foundational skills such as reading and numeracy, and also work to encourage high levels of critical thinking, creativity, problem solving and teamwork. Teachers in highly effective schools encourage students to accept responsibility for their own learning and teach them how to continue learning throughout life.
Fourth, highly effective schools are characterised by outstanding school cultures. In these schools students have a sense of belonging and pride. They enjoy learning and are engaged and challenged. The school provides a physical and social setting that is safe, well organised and caring. Values of respect, tolerance and inclusion are promoted throughout the school and cultural and religious diversity are welcomed and celebrated. In such schools there is a strong commitment to a culture of learning and continuous improvement and an ongoing search for information and knowledge that can be used to improve on current practice.
Fifth, highly effective schools have well-developed systems for evaluating and monitoring their performance. They promote a culture of self-evaluation and reflection and collect and use data to inform decision making at all levels. They recognise the importance of providing meaningful performance information to a range of stakeholders, including parents. These schools place a high priority on the early identification and remediation of gaps and difficulties in student learning. They give timely feedback to students in forms that can be used to guide further learning, and they encourage students to develop skills in monitoring their own progress.
Finally, effective schools have high levels of parent and community involvement. Parents are encouraged to take an active role in discussing, monitoring and supporting their children's learning. Parents are involved in setting goals for the school and in developing school policies. The school itself is seen as an important part of the local community and these schools often find ways to involve business and community leaders in the work of the school, as well as to establish partnerships with other agencies and businesses to advance school goals.
Not all parents have the same expectations of schools and parents often have different priorities for their children. But research suggests that parents have a shared interest in seeing their children attend schools that are safe and supportive and in which their children are happy and learning. They also look to schools to promote values such as respect for others, honesty, tolerance, fairness and the pursuit of excellence.
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