Awash with data for spin cycle of improvement

SELF-EVALUATION: What's in it for schools?. By John MacBeath and Archie McGlynn. SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT: what's in it for schools?. By Alma Harris. Routledge Falmer pound;12.99 each.

IMPROVING THE QUALITY OF EDUCATION FOR ALL. By David Hopkins. David Fulton pound;25.

LEADING AND MANAGING EFFECTIVE LEARNING. By Colin McCall and Hugh Lawlor. Optimus Publishing pound;22.99 plus pound;2.50 pamp;p (www.optimuspub.co.uk).

School evaluation isn't exactly new. It's just that it used to happen largely beyond the school gates. Parents would nod knowingly and say: "It's a good school" or, ominously, "at least, it used to be."

Ofsted brought a more frequent and astringent form of evaluation to schools and, with the addition of league tables, Panda reports and LEA benchmarking data, schools are now awash with evidence they can use to check how they are performing.

Until recently, the goal of school improvement appeared to be a rigorous, continuous cycle of self-evaluation managed by schools themselves. John MacBeath and Archie McGlynn argue in Self-Evaluation: what's in it for schools? that "external monitoring plays an important role in both accountability and improvement".

They provide an excellent resume of the progress UK schools have made in school improvement, setting out the principles for self-evaluation, and make a particularly good case for the importance of context. They quote the inspector who reads in a girl's school work:

"Yesterday, yesterday, yesterday Grief, grief, grief Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow Relief, relief, relief."

"Do you mind if I read this out to the class?" he asks. "It is so beautifully written." The girl looks up at him: "Please sir, those are my spelling mistakes." In evaluation, context is everything.

The chapter on benchmarking will be welcomed in many schools for its clarity and insight on a subject that can seem dauntingly technical. The authors also provide excellent questionnaires and outline other methods for making self-evaluation a reality.

The tone and content of the book are very helpful, with the exception of the question panels, which are intended to get the readers reflecting (for example, "What is your opinion?"). Anyone reading a self-evaluation book is self-aware enough to find the question panels redundant.

Another new title in RoutledgeFalmer's series of slim volumes for the staffroom library is Alma Harris's School Improvement: what's in it for schools? (I hope the answer is implicit in the title). It bracingly reminds us of the realities of school improvement - "It has become increasingly apparent that restructuring or reorganising rarely impacts upon student achievement and learning" - arguing that the best schools focus on cultures rather than structures.

Alma Harris, professor of school leadership at the University of Warwick, distils recent school improvement research to make a powerful case for what works. School improvement plans, for example, too often fail to improve schools. They may make things happen, but that, of course, is not the same as improvement.

Both additions to this series are welcomed. Throughout, they contain references to David Hopkins, formerly professor of education at the University of Nottingham and now director of the DfES standards and effectiveness unit. He gained legendary status as the man who saved Chris Woodhead's life on a climbing expedition.

The second edition of his Improving the Quality of Education for All presents an approach to school improvement that has gained a hugely positive reputation, based on a series of linked schools, driven by research evidence and focused on specific, tangible classroom improvements. The handbook explains the approach and provides necessary resources.

This is a specific approach to school improvement, one which has its own language ("cadre group" for example, meaning the key people who are leading the initiative in each school) and a strongly collegiate basis. If you want to know more about the IQEA package, it's all in here, including the handouts.

After reading several books on school improvement, you trip over the same key words and ideas: "culture", "self-esteem", "self-managing", "emotional intelligence" and "learning" spring to mind. Colin McCall and Hugh Lawlor's Leading and Managing Effective Learning uses its more spacious design to give the reader a variety of panels and quotations. There are frequent "interesting facts", which really are interesting, and panels exploring key issues in more detail.

The book maps out the essential ingredients of school improvement at whole-school and (more importantly, we now realise) at classroom level. The case studies provide evidence of what has worked in various schools. The book is a canny mix of theory and practice - a real handbook for change. It's worth the cover price for the sheer abundance of motivating and illuminating quotations.

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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