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How to be effective

When more than 600 people sign up for a conference on school effectiveness, as they have for the London University Institute of Education's two-day Learning from each other event this week (see centre pages), it is clearly apt to speak of a school improvement movement. It has been nurtured by pragmatic research at the London Institute, where Professor Peter Mortimore has built an impressive school effectiveness team, and elsewhere.

Newcastle University's Professors Carol FitzGibbon and David Reynolds are also doing work that directly supports schools' efforts to make a measurable difference to pupils' achievements, whatever their background. For refusal to accept low previous attainment or weak aspirations as an alibi for underachievement is the central tenet of the effectiveness movement and one that should command the allegiance of every teacher who aspires to professional status.

The idea that schools should be encouraged to plan, organise, motivate and teach their pupils more effectively has been espoused equally enthusiastically by the Department for Education and Employment, which has set up a school improvement division, and by all the main parties. And there are encouraging signs that schools too are responding; as Sir Tim Lankester points out in our supplement on school effectiveness this week, recent improvement in GCSE performance has been particularly marked among the weakest schools.

But like all indicators of improvement, these results need to be treated with some caution. Are improving results really an indication that schools are doing something better or are they the result either of rising levels of public expectation or the higher proportion of the pupil population coming from better educated and supportive homes?

Are the league tables and open enrolment that were supposed to drive up standards bringing about across-the-board, comprehensive improvements in effectiveness, or are schools simply giving more attention to the borderline five grade A to C GCSE candidates that can boost their public ranking? The DFEE's own statistics may show that the bottom 25 per cent of schools made the greatest progress but they also show that the bottom 25 per cent of pupils have made the least. The top half - the average and above average pupils - improved their average GCSE points score by three times as much as the bottom scoring quarter between 1991 and 1994.

There is still some way to go before the effectiveness movement can claim a real national impact on the low-attaining underclass who gain least from their schooling. As several contributors to this week's conference will make clear, ultimately the answer must lie in the classroom; in the conditions created for pupil learning and in the creativity, skill, verve, encouragement and support of teachers.

Those schools which are making a measurable difference against the odds have things to teach those which are not. The National Education Commission's imminent book of case studies, Success Against the Odds, may well provide some of those lessons. Ritual incantations about leadership, on the other hand, or mindless attempts to transpose those things that seem to characterise effective schools to those less effective, may not answer. Some of those things that seem to be the hallmark of effectiveness may simply be the result of it rather than the cause.

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