Reflections on school improvement

Blue banner with the words Think Education: Facing the learning crisis in eastern and Southern Africa

School improvement is the process by which schools become more effective both in terms of academic outcomes as well as in developing the social and cultural wellbeing of the children and adults within the school. It describes conscious efforts to raise school achievements by modifying classroom practices and adapting management arrangements to improve teaching and learning.

As the model below illustrates, school improvement is a product of changes both inside and outside the school.

A graphic depicting a conceptual framework of factors that determine school effectiveness
© Heneveld and Craig 1995Conceptual framework: Factors that determine school effectiveness

Inside school

In-school changes address the enabling framework and the school environment where teaching and learning take place. Becoming ‘better’ involves:

  • creating and maintaining an ethos of expectation and sense of purpose;
  • exercising leadership;
  • promoting teacher quality; and
  • ensuring effective management.

Outside school

The supporting environment includes the quality of relations with parents and the community. It also includes the level of support provided by education management institutions and systems at national and sub-national levels, in terms of funding, data management, and administrative and pedagogical support.

The idea of developing the “whole school” and its environment of support networks is a familiar theme that informs most school improvement initiatives. UNICEF has encapsulated this in the Child Friendly Schools model.


A teacher stands at the head of a classroom full of young school students.
© UN0236413/Uganda/2018/NakibuukaGoretti Arot conducts a classroom session in Longalom Primary School, using Child Centred Methods (CCMs) of teaching for children in the lower classes. She is one of the teachers that have been equipped with the right teaching skills, thanks to the teacher trainings and mentoring sessions provided by Voluntary Services Overseas and supported by UNICEF with funding from Irish Aid.

Reflections on school improvement

Because school improvement is resource-intensive, requiring clarity of purpose and coordinated effort, it is often subject to diminishing returns. Despite this, few governments around the world would exclude school improvement in their list of policy objectives. What then, is the solution to improving schools? When considering, in practical terms, what will make schools better geared to children’s learning and development, three areas stand out:

  • More inspired school management. Schools need competent managers, but they also need leaders who can energize pupils, teachers and the community by creating a purposeful ethos and a shared set of values.
  • Higher standards of teacher professionalism. The interaction of teachers and students is key to determining the efficacy of learning. Structured lesson plans or highly prescriptive teachers’ guides can only be temporary fixes, in the absence of additional, long-term support to help teachers master effective pedagogies on their own.
  • Higher expectations from schools, backed by supportive supervision and better inspection. Setting standards at a national level, making better use of regional and local school supervisors and developing an inspectorate capable of driving up school performance are often underdeveloped aspects of school improvement programmes.


The points above would provide a basis for a programme of school improvement. However, it is not only about what is done, but also how it is done. The following figure aims to demonstrate how school improvement involves movement on several fronts simultaneously.

A graphic depicting school improvement working at different levels of the system
© Stephen Baines School improvement working at different levels of the system

Change at the school level must be supported by system-level reforms, which would include setting, communicating and supporting a national set of standards that focus on children’s learning and development. These can provide concrete examples of inspired school management and teacher professionalism. They can also guide quality assurance and support.

Additionally, public accountability is important to encourage responsive changes within government. As part of this, school standards can engage parents and the community to contribute to improvements: clear indicators on learning outcomes and the learning environment can be shared with parents, guardians and communities so that they can hold their schools to account and provide local pressure for bigger change.

A group of boys walks across semi-circular lines on the ground
© UNICEF/UNI103328/NesbittLearners walk across the school assembly ground at the D’Kar Primary School in the village of D’Kar in the district of Ghanzi in Botswana on November 24, 2010.

Given the complexity of school improvement, the lack of instant solutions and the absence of clear political leadership, pressure for change has to come through public opinion. Shoring up public opinion is not easy for development agencies. The prize for donor-assisted school improvement would come by successfully igniting public concern, while at the same time, co-opting governments to ride the wave of public support by actively engaging in reform. This would mean committing to both internal and external funding to support integrated approaches, intelligently aimed at transforming schools.

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Stephen Baines is an education adviser with extensive experience in educational development at national, regional, and local levels in a wide range of countries. He has been concerned with issues of school quality and the conditions and incentives necessary to improve teachers, schools, and education management.


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  1. Really this is very good initiative for education programme

  2. hello. thanks for the model. i will reread it deeper and give my comment. thank you.

  3. We have experience on developing schools by playing, if you are interested, we are happy to exchange it with you.