Searching for a precious goal

Best Practice Network director Liam Donnison meets the man behind education’s data revolution, Mike Fischer.

It would be tempting to see Mike Fischer’s enormously influential work in the education world as being driven by the same motivations that spur him on in his many outside interests.

Underwater archaeology is one of his enthusiasms. A project off the Croatian coast that he helped organise uncovered a near perfect Greek statue dating from 400 BC. The bronze is now on display in a museum – an ancient treasure that took many months of planning to find and recover.

The meticulous search for a precious goal appears to have echoes in his philanthropic education work; he’s best known in the sector through the non-profit Fischer Family Trust, which provides schools with analysis tools to help them unpick performance data so they can better support their pupils’ learning. His work in education is wider than just data, though, and was inspired by his experiences of creating a hugely successful business.

Mike Fischer set up RM, a British microcomputer and then software manufacturer, in the early 1970s with co-founder Mike O’Regan. The company produced its first PC six months before a garage-based Californian outfit called Apple unveiled its now legendary Apple II home computer.

RM decided early on to specialise in the education sector and, by the late 1970s, the enterprise was prospering. Keen that the business moved onto the next stage of expansion, Mike eschewed the management gurus of the time and instead began a search for case studies of successful business expansion that would provide inspiration and guidance. That quest for best practice took him to the US and Japan, whereby the end of the 70s the economic boom was now at full pelt, particularly in the electronics industry.

Ensuring high-quality manufacturing standards was the key that would unlock RM’s expansion, Mike concluded. He saw that Japanese companies had excellent manufacturing quality standards, not because of some innate cultural attitude – as was popularly thought at the time - but because they took a systematised approach to quality and improvement. This approach was heavily influenced by the studies of William Edwards Deming, a US engineer, and statistician whose research was based on US arms production during the Second World War, and Joseph M Juran, a management consultant who had been Chief Industrial Engineer at Western Electric.

“Deming discovered that people who were making things that did not work did that because of problems in the process and not because of poor attitude,” Mike explains. “Deming realised that you could improve quality by analysing and correcting problems in individual processes. He developed the concept of the cost of poor quality which was really useful in management terms. He showed that although the cost of trialling and identifying improvement processes was high, the cost of leaving things as they were was much higher than anyone thought, and that the return on investment of fixing processes was typically hundredfold. Building on Deming's insights, Juran’s extensive experience at Western Electric led him to develop a management approach that helped large organisations achieve a breakthrough in quality by understanding the need to prioritise the selection of processes chosen for improvement.

By the early 1990s, RM was a highly successful business. Mike began investigating ways of applying the Deming-Juran quality improvement approach to critical issues affecting UK schools.

“We were selling to education, and it was fairly obvious that government after government kept on doing the wrong things, I decided to look at applying the Deming-Juran quality improvement approach to education.”

Mike took over a project called Education 2000 and, with a team of volunteer headteachers, focused efforts on determining the single area that would deliver the greatest impact on educational outcomes. This so-called “alpha project” was literacy.

“When you come across complex systems that have not yet benefited from an effective improvement process you have to identify the areas which, if fixed, will have the most impact – and then work on those first,” he says. “Literacy was the one because it was so fundamental to children’s progress. A lack of literacy skills starts causing irreversible problems from Year 2 onwards. At the time, 33 per cent of children arriving at the five Education 2000 secondary schools in 1992 had a reading age of nine or below.

“The concept of how to teach literacy was undefined at the time. The approach then was that it was up to each Year 1 teacher to work out themselves how they were going to teach literacy. And there was little or no research in that area.”

Mike had a role in helping the incoming Labour Government to focus on literacy. Their efforts lead to the rollout of a national literacy strategy and the literacy hour in primary schools in 1999.

Literacy learning is now entrenched in the education system, but Mike continues his work. Unfortunately, in his view, early literacy failure is still the alpha improvement project for British education. One project close to his heart is Success for All, a classroom improvement project developed by US educationalists Dr Bob Slavin and Dr Nancy Madden. “At the end of Year 1 you have to crack basic literacy to fully participate in the curriculum,” he says. “The core concept of this approach is that literacy is always taught at a level where everyone in the class can make progress.”

Mike Fischer is probably best known in the education world for Fischer Family Trust data. He acknowledges the debate about data and its role in school improvement and accountability, particularly the views of many school leaders that data can be used as a rod to beat schools.

“We can say with confidence that the quality of data in British education is now in the best category and that the tools for looking at that data are amongst the best in the world,” he says. “If you ask headteachers of successful schools, particularly secondaries, most would say that they couldn’t do what they do without it. But the data is only useful if it informs a leader’s understanding. Its main use is probably to give the leader a method to communicate with confidence about what they already know. It’s a tool that should enable school leaders to evidence to others that this is the right action.”

Mike’s ambition remains to create a critical mass where early literacy failure rates are cut from around 20 per cent today to just five per cent in 10 years’ time. Encouraging a culture of continuous improvement – so central to the Deming-Juran philosophy - is crucial to this ambition, says Mike. But for continuous improvement to develop meaningful results, it is essential to focus in this area and Mike would like to see more people in key positions who preach the adoption of best practice to know about – and espouse - the Deming-Juran improvement methodology. The accountability structures put in place by the government also have to adapt to enable this shift, he says. Once primaries start putting their best and most experienced teachers into Key Stage 1 to support literacy learning - rather than in Years 5 and 6 to push children to meet level 4 standards - then that would be evidence that the culture of the system had changed and was embracing continuous improvement, he says.

Mike Fischer has made a major impact on the education world, so what leadership lessons drawn from his experience of leading large organisations and projects does he think are relevant to school leaders today?

He says that good leaders keep learning and continue to look for best practice outside their organisations. And he adds that in order to learn from best practice, leaders and their teams need to see it for themselves, rather than just hear about it.

Looking at what Mike Fischer has achieved so far, it’s clear that he has applied those principles at every turn.

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