David Fulton Publishers SCHOOLS MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Study guide and video of Channel 4 series. Pounds 37.50 Resource Base, Television Centre, Southampton SO14 0PZ.
If you ask the question "do we need to improve our schools?" there is almost unanimous agreement among policy makers and practitioners that we do. If, however, you ask "how do we do it?" then the responses are likely to be very varied. School improvement has become an educational process about which there are fundamental differences of opinion.
There are those who advocate "top-down" change through, for example, a national curriculum and a national programme of assessment and inspection. There are those who argue that a "bottom-up" approach is the only way with schools themselves owning and controlling the process. There are those who favour a combination of the two and insist that you cannot have one without the other.
The basic premise of the authors of Creating the Conditions for School Improvement is that the success of any educational change, be it initiated from outside or inside a school, will be determined by internal factors or conditions which will either support or stand in the way of the improvements sought.
All four contributors Mel Ainscow, David Hopkins, Geoff Southworth and Mel West are well known and respected in the field of school improvement. They draw on the lessons of research and of their work with schools, particularly their "Improving the Quality of Education for All" project, to provide a handbook of staff development activities, targeted at teachers with a particular responsibility for school development. Readers are encouraged to avoid a "quick-fix" approach and to treat the handbook as the "recipes and ingredients rather than TV suppers".
The authors identify six internal conditions which they argue are necessary for effective school improvement, namely enquiry and reflection; planning; involvement; staff development; coordination; and leadership. These are examined in detail and accompanied by very useful staff development activities, readings and photocopiable overheads and hand-outs.
They acknowledge that simply working on internal conditions is not enough and are planning another handbook which will focus on improving clasroom practice. Without doubt there will be teachers who find Creating the Conditions for School Improvement a valuable experience.
The same can be said about the practical strategies offered by Schools Make a Difference. This is a training pack developed for a partnership involving local education authorities, broadcasters, schools, higher education institutions, trusts and foundations, business and industry. Again the authors David Hopkins, Louise Stoll, Kate Myers, James Learmonth and Hilary Durman are well known for their school improvement work and between them have written up case studies of initiatives in seven primary, secondary and special schools. The fact that real schools are used, brings the materials alive.
The pack contains a video of three programmes which were broadcast on Channel 4. The first examines how the schools set priorities and went about strengthening their own ability to change; the second how they carried out their improvement plans and the third how they sustained the momentum of change.
The accompanying study guide paints a portrait of each school, offers a general framework for improvement and takes the reader through each of the programmes in detail. Important issues are highlighted, discussion points raised and a useful set of questions provided to guide those involved. As with the other materials, much emphasis is placed on the need for schools to work on almost the same internal conditions. There is a readable section on the lessons practitioners can learn from research and at the end there is an annotated bibliography and a section on sources of external support.
The practical activities incorporated within this pack are such that they can be used not just by school staffs but also by parents, governors and pupils. However, the pack cannot be used without a facilitator and guidance is provided for whoever is likely to play this role.
Both of these guides describe school improvement as a journey a journey in which teachers learn with and from one another as they travel together on the road to improvement. Both emanate from fellow travellers who have much experience in supporting schools. The type of support, I would guess, which is also combined with that necessary degree of external pressure.
Schools using either of the guides would do well to remember that and to remember that ultimately the focus for school improvement must be improving pupil learning in the classroom.