School class with teacher
Inspiring role models: A study in collaboration with Oxford shows what Austria can learn from highly effective problem schools in London. © Kenny Eliason unsplash

Many people are finding that a book helps. But not because the students are reading it. During an interview with a principal who had “turned round” a school – transforming it from a hotbed of violence, drop-outs, drugs, and radicalization to a highly effective place for helping disadvantaged children to develop – he took a book of practical teaching ideas off a shelf and showed it to Roland Bernhard. “He recommended it as continuing professional development for all the teachers who worked at that school,” Bernhard recounts. “Straight after that, we arranged to have the book – Teach like a champion by Doug Lemov – translated in collaboration with the publisher Wiley Verlag as part of the project. The second thing another principal did was to visit all the classrooms and pick out the ‘superteachers’ at the school, reduce their teaching loads, and give them joint responsibility for CPD and in-service training at the school.”

Roland Bernhard is currently a professor at the University College of Christian Churches for Teacher Education Vienna/Krems. During his time as a visiting researcher at the University of Oxford and in other roles, he has studied how some London schools facing major challenges have managed to become oases of equal opportunity for disadvantaged children and young people within just a few years. Instead of simply adding his voice to the many bemoaning Austria’s poor-quality education system, he went about finding effective approaches and inspirational role models with the support of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). In their abridged form, his findings read like a recipe in which ingredients such as time and motivation count for more than what equipment is available in the kitchen.

More resources or more courage?

“The fact that rapid, demonstrable improvements in teaching quality are possible within two to three years with less red tape, a meaningful indicator, and your own ideas should serve as encouragement for us. The conditions in many parts of Austria aren’t as challenging as they are in the London boroughs that we chose to look at,” Bernhard says, summing up his findings. The project encompassed 22 qualitative interviews with principals and teachers at schools that, despite adverse circumstances, have been able to demonstrate high attainment levels by their pupils in care. They are described in completely objective terms using the so-called Progress 8 score.

Austria does not have a quality indicator of this kind although Bernhard sees the “individuelle Kompetenzmessung PLUS” (“individual skills assessment PLUS,” or “iKM+” for short) as a good place to start. Schools in England have a high degree of autonomy but are also inspected to very strict criteria. The score enables fair comparisons to be made because it measures pupils’ progress against others with similar attainment levels to date. A high score means that, despite difficult circumstances, a school is managing to improve its children’s learning performance more successfully than other schools facing similar circumstances.

Learning from each other

Moving on to a second major finding of the SQTE study, Roland Bernhard says: “We know that the teachers are vital to the quality of teaching and to the development of the school. This is an excellent starting point for continuous improvement at the individual school or in collaboration with other local ones.” The ideas suggested during the qualitative interviews were cross-checked against a quantitative survey of over 600 principals and teachers in England. There was statistical evidence that “shadowing” colleagues has an impact on teaching quality: The more often teachers sit in on their colleagues’ lessons, the more progress students make. Many interviewees identified the relatively simple measure of a “professional learning community” as key. Shadowing involves teachers at the same school sitting in on each others’ lessons, observing, and then giving personalized feedback and suggestions for improvement.

Having nothing to do with a school inspection, it offers an opportunity for everyone to learn from one another and harness the power of the “hive mind.” After all, someone somewhere is bound to have come up with a solution to any common problem that a teacher might encounter. Doug Lemov’s book contains 63 handy tips for teaching that have been distilled from countless hours spent shadowing. Such as, for a teacher, pausing for long enough after you have asked a question. Nobody will start to think hard about a question if you answer it yourself or someone else takes it in less than two seconds. Or always addressing all the children in the classroom instead of just the three in the front row. Not as a punishment, but rather so that they can stay on task.

A reality check for Austria

One of the biggest problems in Austria, Roland Bernhard says, is the lousy reputation of the teaching profession and how badly it is spoken of. “This scares off talented teachers, and hardly anyone wants to be a principal any more these days.” Forty Austrian school principals came together in focus groups to discuss the results from the SQTE interviews, a process that culminated in an open letter to the country’s Minister of Education. Principals in this country are drowning in red tape and admin. They do not have enough staff to take care of this side of things and therefore rarely get round to their core duties, from school development and teaching quality through to in-service training and feedback. However, Bernhard is seeing more and more shadowing being done in Austria. He wants to help keep classroom doors open and enable colleagues to support one another with their teaching.

School autonomy in practice

 The “London Effect” is the name given to the trend observed in the British capital from the early 2000s onward. By placing a rigorous focus on developing teaching at schools in difficult areas (with a high percentage of socially disadvantaged children, including many with English as a second language), 50 percent of students or even more could be sent on to higher education. The accompanying initiatives run by local authorities were investigated in detail.

The SQTE study was the first to explore the question of how schools in difficult areas managed to improve so drastically within just two to three years and what that means for teacher CPD and in-service training in Austria. If everyone at a school teaches and therefore knows what they are talking about but, out of 100 teachers, 15 spend a little less time in the classroom and instead work on in-service training with the rest of the leadership team so everyone can draw inspiration from their research findings and from each other, then it actually seems quite simple.

Personal details

Roland Bernhard is Professor for School Development, Leadership & Leadership Culture at the University College of Christian Churches for Teacher Education Vienna/Krems and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Salzburg, where he obtained his postdoctoral “Habilitation” qualification in 2019. He has been conducting research for many years into what distinguishes highly effective schools and education systems, including as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. Roland Bernhard also leads the “School Quality and Teacher Education” project, which is funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF. He has taught at two different schools and at eight universities and other higher-education institutions in Austria and England. Bernhard regards it as his primary mission to see empirically sound knowledge about improving school quality, effective school leadership, and impactful teaching applied in practice.


Bernhard, Roland: Developing schools into research-engaged learning organisations through initial teacher education in Wales. A review of the Criteria for the accreditation of initial teacher education programmes in Wales. Commissioned by the Welsh Government. Government of Wales 2022

Bernhard R., Benischek I., Berger Ch., Hochmeister K. et al.: „Ich kopiere tonnenweise – schade um meine gute Ausbildung.“ Welche Schwierigkeiten österreichische Direktor/innen im Zusammenhang mit Schulqualitätsmanagement sehen und was sie von der Politik erwarten. Mit einem offenen Brief an Bildungsminister Martin Polaschek. SQTE Research Papers 01/2022

Bernhard, Roland: Schulentwicklung in Schulen mit großen Herausforderungen in England. Kontinuierliche Verbesserung durch evidenzbasierte Unterrichtsentwicklung und (kollegiale) Hospitationen, in: R&E-Source 2022

Bernhard R., Harnisch D., Burn K., Greiner U., Sammons P.: “We want your child to go to university.” Raising aspirations in difficult circumstances in London. SQTE-Research Papers 01/20 21