From the Bronx to Birmingham

Tim Brighouse uses unpublished OFSTED reports on schools improvement experience in the United States to draw lessons for our own inner cities.

International comparisons are de rigueur for policy-makers and practitioners nowadays, and properly so. They provide wider benchmarking to add to international studies of schools and school districts (or LEAs as we call them). Used in this way, as we are pioneering in Birmingham, it is possible for schools with similar intakes ethnically, socio-economically and linguistically, but with different outcomes, to compare practice and learn one from the other. The same is true of LEAs and school districts.

The urgency of transforming standards of educational outcome in heavily urbanised areas - the great, old industrial cities - is widely accepted. After all, there are very few unskilled or semi-skilled jobs that offer the security and permanence adults seek. If such cities are not to fall into a vicious cycle of crime, drugs, unemployment and despair for the majority of the population, educational standards have to rise.

In Birmingham, we think we are almost on the first rung of the ladder in achieving that. But we need to learn all we can from others in similar circumstances. So we read the research literature, visit other places, constantly monitor and review our own performance and try to apply "best practices". Indeed, we learned a lot from the Office for Standards in Education's Access and achievement in Urban Areas.

It was only by visiting the United States that we discovered that OFSTED had visited too, and formed very similar conclusions to ourselves in respect of what works and what does not. Certainly, their visit to Kenmore in New York State confirmed ingredients which we would see as essential to long-term success. Kenmore shows what can be achieved by school improvement through consistent support both in financial backing and by supportive leadership. In essence the model specifies that: * improvement is a long-term process, involving all schools; * the school is the key unit in development; * improvement is underpinned by a clearly articulated philosophy; * strategies for improvement depend on the enhancement of professional skills and empowering schools and teachers to make changes; * improvements are reinforced by regular monitoring of effectiveness which includes both qualitative judgements and statistical measures: * the educational environment and climateethos of schools is crucial in fostering real improvement in learning; concentrating on improvements in test scores in isolation is felt to lead to short-term gains; * the emphasis is on positive reinforcement to reach goals agreed through consensus, not on external imposition of sanctions.

Central to the model is a high degree of trust in the professional capacity of teachers and schools to improve their practice if the right climate is created to encourage and reward excellence. Participation and involvement, good communication and feedback are central to creating this climate. Judged against objective evidence there is little doubt that standards have improved.

Any incoming government should look at OFSTED's second American study of a state-wide reform in Kentucky which provides a promising mix of pressure and support to energise schools and staff: budgetary stability and growth, just as the politicians here in Birmingham have promised, in return for a commitment to higher standards.

It is, however, in New York City that OFSTED's findings are the most instructive and illuminating: there, "failing" schools have been a feature of focused policy since 1989. Their practice, called Schools Under Registration Review (SURR), bears a striking similarity to OFSTED's own of schools requiring special measures. What is different is that New York has longer experience of the effects of the policy. SURR has not enabled schools to recover: indeed, by public labelling, OFSTED could see it set schools back, as its previously unpublished report says: "It is probably the case that no method of identifying under-performing schools can avoid some degree of stigmatisation, particularly where this is made public.

"The key question is whether this process also contributes to improvement in the school, or if not for the school, at least for the pupils. It may be that such identification can galvanise schools and teachers into action by providing a clear reminder of how poorly their school is doing.

"However, the schools visited were painfully aware of the levels of performance and were often struggling with basic problems to find or retain qualified staff and at the same time were facing an increase in the numbers of children with limited English proficiency or increasing numbers from homeless families units. From this angle the SURR listing seemed much more of a stigma than a stimulus," said the report.

The social and economic conditions in parts of New York City, such as the South Bronx, place them among the poorest urban areas in the United States.

"Such conditions cannot be used to excuse poor education, but it seems equally harsh to judge schools on their performance without taking some account of these conditions."

This implied for OFSTED some moves to assess schools on a "value added" basis that took account of differences in intake.

The parallels between New York and the UK are too close for comfort. Certainly Birmingham's experience with Handsworth Wood Boys would confirm that the present "special measures" system at secondary level can be counterproductive. In a highly selective secondary system such as that operating in Birmingham, where because of the compact nature of the geography parental preference or choice is more rather than less substantial, there is naturally a huge problem for a "special measures" secondary school's viability in the twin and connected matters of pupils and money. After all, which well informed and supportive parent - a factor clearly associated with the effectiveness of successful schools - would send their youngster to a school which is publicly declared to be under special measures? Even if you provide new, inspired and experienced leadership as we did at Handsworth Wood, and change a substantial proportion of the staff - again as we did at Handsworth - it is not immediately obvious that recovery can be effected sufficiently rapidly to overcome the cumulative pressure of falling intake and diminishing resources.

OFSTED deserves some pity. The existing legislative framework drives it to even stranger practice.

Recently in the city we have witnessed an incident that is little short of bizarre. A secondary school labelled as having serious weakness for a number of reasons, including poor and ineffective management and leadership. was revisited three weeks before the old headteacher left, along with others in the senior management team.

The visiting HMI team was obliged by law in the light of the lack of progress to issue a new report which will even label the school as in need of special measures. So the gift to the incoming new headteacher, who has already devised an action plan and will shortly have a new senior team, is to have the school stigmatised, New York-style. All this is to occur in a city where parents can easily reach a number of different secondary schools.

There are of course other issues surrounding the impact of OFSTED. For example, the inconsistency of judgements among different inspection teams can catapult schools either into a higher category than they deserve, with implications for complacency, or a lower one with even more dangerous effects. Even more serious is the mismatch of the OFSTED criteria with the realities of special school practice. They must be as concerned as anyone with the high number of failing special schools, expecially among those catering for emotional and behavioural difficulty.

OFSTED need not be bashful about suggesting these areas for review, just as they should not feel inhibited, expecially when they are so fearlessly outspoken in other respects, from presenting the findings of their American visit.

* In his recent inaugural lecture as an Honorary Professor at the University of Birmingham, Tim Brighouse analysed what was needed not only in terms of school improvement and broader educational policies, but also more widely in social regeneration programmes.

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