Schools and the Sky cycling team

Ever heard of the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’?  If you’ve worked in schools over the last few years, you probably have.  It’s the idea that we can achieve success through multiple small improvements.  It’s been made popular by Matthew Syed, Clive Woodward and Dave Brailsford’s Sky cycling team.

Woodward cites marginal gains as one reason for his success with England Rugby.  The tweaks he made included replacing England’s heavy cotton jerseys with a tight synthetic fabric which slipped through the grasp of opponents.  It was the sum of several of these 1% improvements that enabled England to win the World Cup in 2003, so the theory goes.

Dave Brailsford, the brains behind Team Sky and the British Olympic cycling team, credits marginal gains for his success at London 2012 and on the Tour de France that same year.  On the triumphant 2012 Tour, Sky riders had personalised hypoallergenic bed linen delivered to their hotel teach night to ensure a perfect night’s sleep.

The marginal gains model is wonderfully transferable.  It takes about ten seconds to understand, and another ten to think of a context in which a few small changes could make a big difference.

But could our pursuit of marginal gains distract us from bigger issues?  The examples cited above relate to professional sport.  It’s no surprise that in the Tour de France, where every team possesses the best technology and tactics, and every rider is an elite athlete at the peak of his powers, tiny tweaks in preparation and equipment make a big difference, especially once 23 days and 2000 miles have passed.

If we’re honest about the state of English education, we have to admit that our school system is rather different to Brailsford’s well-oiled machine.  For a lot of schools, it’s not the 1%’s that we should focus on, it’s the 20%’s – a systematic literacy catch-up programme which addresses gaps in reading and writing; a coherent curriculum that delivers content in a logical order and provides continuity between the key stages.  An obsession with the 1% tweaks can distract us from these bigger issues that might require root and branch reform, not the pruning of a few leaves.

I was struck by the point made by Eric Kalenze at ResearchEd in Swindon that if we don’t really know what works, then school improvement can involve simply doing the same old things that aren’t working, but just doing them harder and faster. Getting students to work harder and faster on an incoherent and shallow curriculum might win us an extra per cent or two, but nothing more.

I remember working at a failing school ten years ago.  The school wasn’t functioning particularly effectively, and neither was I.  My response was to work harder.  I often set the alarm for 4am to do a few hours before school.  Of course it made no difference – I simply worked more frantically.

Maybe schools should take more time to ask the big questions, rather than tweak at the edges.  Does the Y7 curriculum support students for success at Key Stage 4?  Is every lesson free of disruption?  Does our CPD programme raise the quality of teaching?

Let’s not ignore the other 95% as we look for a handful of 1% improvements.  Schools are different to the Sky cycling team.

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