Learning past, present and future

BEYOND THE SELF MANAGING SCHOOL. By Brian J Caldwell and Jim M Spinks. Falmer Press Pounds 14.95

Mike Peters looks back at education reforms and forward to what may be to come

Here is a book for connoisseurs interested in plotting the course of educational thinking in the English- speaking world over the past 15 years. The reader will also gain some valuable insights into a possible future. Struggling with some of the tortuous models, examples and references is worth it for the real gems that are buried here.

The crunch question is: does the book help practitioners establish a framework for understanding the educational landscapes, reflect upon their practice and en-able them to transform learning?

Caldwell and Spinks outline three key themes, or "tracks", of educational development at the end of the century. Track one describes the experimentation and movement towards self-managing schools in Britain, North America, Australia and Hong Kong. Much of this work running through the Eighties and Nineties plots the familiar theme of decentralisation of powers to the level of the school at the same time that centrally determined frameworks have been maintained if not strengthened (to use Caldwell and Spinks's words).

While set out in a scholarly way with many references and followed through with some fluency, I could not help feeling that there was something of the rake's progress of inevitability about it. Perhaps the dominant paradigm over the past 10 years has been the track towards school self-management and centralisation of the curriculum, inspection and assessment, but the reader is left wondering if there were other tracks of structural reform worth exploring.

The authors take the reader from structural reform almost for its own sake to a focus on higher levels of learning outcomes for all students. This they map and summarise superbly in two pages fairly early on in the book. I almost stopped at that point - hunger satisfied - but not quite. There were more gems to come, such as self-managing school being about self-improvement rather than resource control and stagnation.

Self-management is about developing leadership at every level from national government through to the classroom. Policies and practices that develop leadership should, in the authors' view, be applied across the board. While I was agreeing with this and asking myself 'What do they mean by leadership?', up pops the gem borrowed from one Ms C Johnstone, who describes learning-focused leadership as a "rich concept but it is strategic and empowering more than it is heroic or hands on".

The journey on track one is completed with a 10-point description of what a successful self-managing school should be doing. This is another little gem to help governors, school leaders, education officers, politicians and others interested in school improvement to use as a benchmark.

Track two is about the relentless focus on learning outcomes. It's a mega-description of the here and now in England and Wales. The authors highlight use of symbolism as a way of setting the national agenda. Examples are Tony Blair visiting a primary school within a week of becoming Prime Minister and the first publication of his Social Exclusion Unit concerning itself about school exclusion, attendance and truancy matters.

A practical application of this will be seen in the movement towards output and outcome related resourcing of 16-19 education. All staff in schools with sixth forms would do well to understand this agenda.

The third track is a gestalt for schools. Caldwell and Spinks predict a transformation in learning as technologies become as much part of the learning scene as books. Brave descriptions of virtual schooling are given and for the building conscious several sets of outline plans have been set out. These are useful starting points in re-examining school buildings to reflect educational thinking. The Victorians did this in a big way, so why do we not think about how the learning centres of the future should look and design these now?

If the best way to predict the future is to invent it, then the third track sets out the terrain and offers some thoughts on the human dimensions of schooling in a knowledge society and how new schooling will be led.

Overall the book is a scholarly canter around the racecourse. The answer to my question at the start is yes, but as a library copy.

Mike Peters is director of education for York City Council

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