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Powerful learning: taking educational reform to scale

David Hopkins
David Hopkins is Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Education, University of London.

Since the early 1980s much has been learned about how to improve individual schools, but successful efforts at systemic improvement have remained elusive. Attempts to reform whole systems have tended to alienate educators, or stall after early successes. Sustained improvement has usually been due to factors outside the immediate control of educators and policy makers, as in Finland.

A modest contribution toward systemic improvement of schooling has been made by the Northern Metropolitan Region (NMR) of the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD). In 2007 the NMR commenced an intervention called the Achievement Improvement Zones (AiZ) initiative. Since the inception of this reform, the region has seen significant improvements in students' academic results and the morale of school staff.

The intervention is now documented in the paper Powerful Learning: Taking Educational Reform to Scale. The paper situates the NMR initiative within international efforts at systemic educational reform, noting relevant research literature and describing several examples of systemic reform overseas. The paper then reports on the implementation and results of the NMR intervention, and draws conclusions about the key drivers of systemic education reform. The current article is adapted from sections of the paper.

Earlier phases of systemic reform

Michael Fullan (2009) has reviewed the evidence on the success of large-scale improvement efforts over the past dozen years or so. He identifies three phases that such reform efforts have passed through. The first is the pre-1997 period where the pressure for reform was mounting, but no innovations produced success at scale. In the second phase, from 1997 to 2002, some cases of whole system reform brought progress in student achievement, but results remained uneven and short term.

In 1997, England's government was the first in the world to use an explicit theory of large-scale change as a basis for bringing about system reform (see, for example, Hopkins 2007). The National Literacy Strategy and the National Numeracy Strategy were designed to improve the achievement of 11-year-olds in all 24,000 English primary schools. The percentage of 11-year-olds achieving nationally expected standards increased from 63 per cent in 1997 to 75 per cent in 2002 in literacy, and in numeracy the increase was 62 to 73 per cent. These achievements were not, however, sustained post-2002. Subsequent success was the consequence of a different strategic approach.

Finland offers a more successful example. Hargreaves (2007) and colleagues argue that between 1997 and 2002 Finland demonstrated that a medium-sized country could turn itself around through a combination of vision and society-wide commitment. However, it could also be argued that much of Finland's success was due to factors outside the control of the educational sector, such as the degree of homogeneity in social structures and the considerable intellectual capital already existing in the country.

Effective reform at scale

The third phase of reform, 2003 to present, includes some more successful reform efforts. The Powerful Learning paper describes successful initiatives in New York City, California and Maryland. In examining these and other reforms, a number of researchers and experts have highlighted the need to balance 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' change and to re-adjust this balance over time (Hopkins 2007, Barber 2009, Hargreaves and Shirley 2009).

Most agree that when standards are too low and too varied some form of direct state intervention is necessary. However, the 'top-down' approach usually raises standards only in the short term. To sustain improvement, reforms need to move from prescription to professionalism, a phase in which school staff themselves begin to lead reforms. Achieving this shift is not straightforward. It is not possible simply to move from one phase to the other without self-consciously building professional capacity throughout the system.

The NMR has drawn on these examples of successful reform, in implementing its own program of change.

The Northern Metropolitan Region

There are approximately 195 schools in NMR, including 137 primary schools, 36 secondary schools, 13 special schools, seven P–12 schools, one P–9 school and one 10–12 school. Together they have a population of more than 78,000 students. The NMR has significant levels of socio-economic disadvantage, with a comparatively high concentration of high-density SFO schools.

The regional office is led by a Regional Director, and three Assistant Regional Directors covering school improvement, operations, and early childhood and youth services. The region's schools are organised in eight networks, based mainly on local government areas. Each network is led by a Regional Network Leader (RNL), formerly known as Senior Education Officers. RNLs assist principals within their network in educational planning and local reforms, coordinating as required with local governments and agencies to support regeneration projects.

Implementation of the AiZ initiative

In 2007 the NMR, led by its Regional Director, Wayne Craig, introduced the AiZ initiative at 55 schools. Principals of these schools were trained as instructional leaders using materials, case examples and activities to help them become more effective leaders of improvement. Around 140 teachers were selected as Learning Leaders to work with their principals in School Improvement Groups, and were released for training one day a week for 16 weeks prior to working as coaches in their own schools. The training they received was provided by recognised state and national experts and centred on the teaching of literacy and numeracy, student management, and assessment.

Learning Leaders worked with other teachers in their schools to improve the quality of teaching as a result of this training, and worked through their School Improvement Group to determine a suitable specific improvement project. The projects were predicated on high expectations for students in each of the schools and the need to improve baseline achievement data, identified through state and national assessments. Opportunities also were provided for project schools to meet together in three smaller groups to share their progress and plans for further improvement.

Senior Education Officers from the region supported the 55 schools throughout the initiative, and played a role in ensuring the projects adopted were rigorous, challenging and achievable.

An external consultant, enlisted to track the implementation and impact from the start of the initiative, presented reports in 2008 and 2009. The 2009 report notes a considerable deepening and expansion of the initiative, finding that it had started to have 'real bite in a number of schools and is becoming embedded for some'. The 2008 and 2009 reports were themselves analysed, using the seven point scale developed by Hall & Hord (1987), as a further means to examine the effectiveness of the initiative's implementation.

In 2009 a further 17 schools became involved. Around this time the region obtained the first tranche of substantial additional funding under the National Partnership agreements targeted at improving the three key areas of literacy and numeracy, low-SES, and teacher quality. Given the emerging success of the AiZ approach, the Regional Director convened an expert group to develop a model of school improvement and an associated program of action, based on the AiZ initiative, for using this funding to the greatest effect.

The impact of the initiative

The Powerful Learning paper provides data sets that compare the NMR's performance against that of Victoria as a whole, using NAPLAN details from 2008 and 2009 performances, and Achievement Improvement Monitor (AIM) data from previous years.

They reveal a dramatic shift in student results. In particular, literacy and numeracy measures for years 3, 5, 7 and 9 are now at or near state benchmarks with the data generally trending upwards. Average scores are improving across the region, the proportions of students in the lower bands of achievement are being reduced, and the proportions in the higher bands are being increased.

VCE data is also beginning to move in a positive direction. This has been achieved despite major structural issues: the region includes many small secondary schools that find it difficult to offer the diverse, quality programs necessary to engage senior students.

Reflecting on the future: the four key drivers of system reform

It may be instructive to reflect on what regions like NMR should continue to do, to deepen and sustain the rise in standards of learning and achievement over time.

Four drivers provide the core strategy for systemic improvement: personalised learning, professionalised teaching, networks and collaboration, and intelligent accountability. The four trends coalesce and mould to context through the exercise of responsible system leadership, through which the transition from 'prescription' to 'professionalism' may be managed.

Personalised learning

It is important to reach down into the classroom and deepen reform efforts by moving beyond superficial curriculum change to a more profound understanding of how teaching connects to learning.

Professionalised teaching  

Significant empirical evidence suggests that teaching quality is the most significant factor influencing student learning that is under the control of the school (Barber & Mourshed 2007). The phrase 'professionalised teaching' implies that teachers are on a par with other professions in terms of diagnosis, the application of evidence-based practices, and professional pride. The image here is of teachers who use data to evaluate the learning needs of their students, and are consistently expanding their repertoire of pedagogic strategies to personalise learning for all students.

Intelligent accountability

There are two key purposes for accountability. The first is as a tool to support higher levels of student learning and achievement. The second is to maintain public confidence. 'Intelligent accountability' refers to the balance between national or state-determined approaches to external accountability on the one hand, and, on the other, the capacity for professional accountability within the school that emphasises the importance of formative assessment and the pivotal role of self-evaluation.

School-led collaboration

The prevalence of networking practice in recent years supports the contention that there is no contradiction between strong, autonomous schools and strong networks, rather the reverse. However, effective networks require strong leadership by participating principals, and clear objectives that add significant value to individual schools' own efforts.

In order to be successful, system transformation requires a fair degree of boldness in setting system level expectations and conditions. Five implications in particular have to be grappled with. First, there is a need to increase the resource of 'system leaders' who are willing and able to shoulder wider system roles. Second, all underperforming schools should have a leading school that works with them in either a formal grouping such as a federation (where the leading school principal assumes overall control and accountability) or in a more informal partnership. Third, schools should take greater responsibility for neighbouring schools in order to build capacity for continuous improvement at the local level. Fourth, the incentives for greater system responsibility could include significantly enhanced funding for students most at risk. Finally, there needs to be a rationalisation of national, state and local agency functions and roles to allow the higher degree of regional support required for this increasingly devolved system.

The model of school improvement adopted by NMR helps school staff to think rather than telling them what to do. Schools that display the most confidence and agency appear to be the most effective at interpreting the national, state and regional reform agendas.


Barber, M. 2009, 'From system effectiveness to system improvement', in A. Hargreaves & M. Fullan (Eds.), Change wars, Solution Tree, Bloomington, IN.

Barber, M. & Mourshed, M. 2007, How the world's best performing school systems come out on top, McKinsey, London.

Department of Education and Early Childhood Development 2009, Signposts: Research points to how Victorian government schools have improved student performance, Paper No. 16, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Melbourne, Victoria.

Fullan, M. 2009, 'Large scale reform comes of age', Journal of Educational Change, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 101-113.

Hall, G.E. & Hord, S.M. 1987, Change in schools: Facilitating the process, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.

Hargreaves, A., Halász, G. & Pont, B. 2007, School leadership for systemic improvement in Finland, OECD, Paris.

Hargreaves, A. & Shirley, D. 2009, The fourth way, Corwin, Thousands Oaks, CA.

Hopkins, D. 2007, Every school a great school, Open University Press/McGraw Hill, Maidenhead, Berkshire, England.

Northern Metropolitan Region 2009, Powerful learning: Northern Metropolitan Region school improvement strategy, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Victoria.

Zbar, V. 2008, Every school a great school: Transforming schools in the Northern Region, Paper prepared for the Northern Metropolitan Region, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Victoria.

Zbar, V. 2009, Continuing to transform the Northern Region: Supporting every school to become a great school, Paper prepared for the Northern Metropolitan Region, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Victoria.


Subject Headings

Educational evaluation
Educational planning
Education policy
Socially disadvantaged