The happiness dialogue: a cross-cultural strategy of school self-review and external validation

Spokey Wheeler

Spokey Wheeler
Advisor, Adhyayan
(as it appeared in The Mentor, Dec 2011)

This story about happiness began five years ago early in October with two meals. The first was lunch, the second dinner. I think I paid for the first meal. I hope I shared the cost of the second because it was with friends.
At midday I had lunch with Professor Tim Brighouse. Tim is a philosopher and academic, a passionate and inspirational educator and Ex Chief Executive of Birmingham Education and the Chancellor of London Challenge, Dinner was with Bernard Trafford, at the time the President of Her Majesty’s conference, the association of principals of the premier private schools in England including Eton, Harrow, and Manchester Grammar School. Today Bernard is the Head of Newcastle Grammar School and a fellow leading thinker of The National Education Trust.
These meeting were no accident. Tim, and Bernard were there to help me understand the DNA of great schools and to explore their beliefs about what was common to all of them. These conversations were a prelude to a detailed study about what linked schools providing a wonderful education for their children around the world.
You will not be surprised that they both identified happiness as an absolute requirement.

What they did was to affirm that happiness is a critical element of great schools. It is our contention that whether by the number of smiles seen or student and parent evidence collected it is not only possible but necessary to measure happiness. The reason why? We should be measuring that which schools believe is important not just what is easy.

You can’t be a good school if you do not know yourself very well. You must know your strengths and the things you need to do better. Not knowing means that you are unable to chart your school’s future and therefore cannot confidently understand your past, or present. School self review, systematically, persistently, and forensically undertaken is an essential element of every school’s improvement cycle.

While good schools throughout the ages have always asked themselves difficult questions about just how good they were and how they could get better, it took the introduction of national school inspection for all schools to begin the painful journey towards self review.

The modern story of inspection began almost two decades ago. In 1992 The Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) was launched to inspect and report on the quality of its nation’s schools. A cadre of expensive experienced specialist inspectors was trained. An inspection industry erupted to service the inspection regime. Intensive, data rich inspections by large teams were the norm. To begin with it was a ’done to’ culture. For teachers and schools unused to the halogen glare of public scrutiny, the beam was cruelly revealing. Some were permanently blinded by it.

Today inspection is transforming from one in which accountability was externally determined to increasingly one in which accountability for school improvement has been embraced by schools themselves. This has been fuelled by the increasing autonomy and accountability of schools, at the heart of which is the ownership of school improvement. Government inspection agencies and school networks now agree that school self review is a developmental necessity which engages the wider community in the improvement of its schools. Today the process has been humanised without any perceivable loss of objectivity or rigor..
Some of the benefits identified by MacBeath in (2008) include
• more engaging, learning-centred teaching open and receptive to student voice;
• sharing of thinking and practice by teachers beyond the classroom in a whole school dialogue,
• growing willingness to engage with evidence, and to move from impressionistic evaluation of quality and performance to a more systematic, rigorous and informed approach to assessing practice
• the leadership of the principal who saw self-evaluation and external review as an opportunity.

For me as a principal, training as a school inspector was and remains the best professional development I ever had. It taught me to look in a granular fashion, at best practices in other schools. This has been invaluable in shaping our Adhyayan Indian school self review. At its heart is a diagnostic which consists of six domains: leadership & management, environment & resources, teaching & learning, the child, curriculum, and community & partnerships. Each of these 6 domains contains a description of what good looks like internationally. This is translated into the key questions a school or school network needs to ask itself to evaluate its current effectiveness. Each question is supported by a set of quality indicators, each with short descriptive statementsso that schools can benchmark themselves against recognised good practice. This helps school leaders to make confident judgements about their schools’ provision.
At the heart of self review is the Learning Walk. This is a daily imperative. It is the single most important accountability of every principal in the world! It is the daily journey that the principal and other school leaders take around the school, and the journey each teacher takes around their own classroom, and it forms the central means of evidence collection which is then shared at the end of the day for celebration, evaluation, and action.
Our mission is to support schools in defining and then delivering great education whether they are in high end private schools in Indian global cities, or economically challenged rural schools. Our mantra is that persistent, resilient, systemic approaches to culture, to teaching and learning and to school organisation are indispensable for schools seeking greatness, whatever their starting point or reach.

You will by now I hope be clear that happiness, well-being, should be an essential element of every school’s vision. Today, however, we are not alone in that view. Governments are now measuring happiness.
The UK government’s Office of National Statistics will be asked to produce measures that gauge Britons’ psychological and environmental well-being. While governments are belatedly addressing societal well-being, we should be setting our own Indian challenge for all our schools to be happy ones.

‘Great schools are happy ones!’