The imperative here is to agree if learning and well-being are at the heart of the educational process – the ‘core purpose’ or mission. Most educators would probably subscribe, in varying degrees, to these two principles as the basis of what they see as central to their teaching and leadership. Certainly an enormous amount of professional energy and resource has gone into seeking to secure both and although there will be semantic differences learning and well-being would appear in most models of that nature and purpose of schooling. Securing pupil progress, enhancing achievement, educating the whole child are all foundations of the school improvement agenda that has dominated thinking about the work of school leaders for a quarter of a century.
However given the level of investment, commitment and engagement is it worth raising a concern about the actual impact of the improvement process? Has the investment in all the improvement strategies led to a commensurate level of improvement? The evidence of the Sutton Trust report on the pupil premium might be seen as raising questions about the efficacy of some traditional approaches. Bryk (2010) identifies the following classic components of any school improvement strategy:
- Leadership as the driver for change.
- Parent-community ties.
- Professional capacity; promoting the quality of staff and focusing on improvement.
- A student-centered learning climate.
- Instructional guidance – focusing on ambitious educational achievement for every child.
But he then goes on to argue that these components are akin to the recipe for a cake; but just as putting the ingredients for a cake into a bowl is not enough to make a cake:
. . then trust represents the social energy, or the “oven’s heat,” necessary for transforming these basic ingredients into comprehensive school change. Absent the social energy provided by trust, improvement initiatives are unlikely to culminate in meaningful change, regardless of their intrinsic merit. (2010:157)
In discussing the consistent success of the Finnish education system in terms of learning, achievement and equity Sahlberg (2011:130) argues:
Trust can only flourish in an environment that is built upon honesty, confidence, professionalism and good governance.
Trusting schools and teachers is a consequence of a well-functioning civil society and high social capital. Honesty and trust . . . are often seen as the most basic building blocks of Finnish society.
So it might be the case that trust is a more significant element in the improvement agenda than almost any other factor and therefore we should be focusing leadership on building trust.