ONE size does not fit all when it comes to school improvement, Professor David Hopkins of Nottingham University told the TESKeele University school management seminar.
Those who see management changes as the key to school improvement underestimate both the importance of teaching and learning in raising standards, and each individual schools' varying capacities to move forward.
"If we take seriously the aspiration of continual improvement then the main focus of any school improvement effort needs to be on ... the school's capacity for development," he said.
Pupils in apparently similar schools often achieved above or below the average.
But the strategies for improving the seriously underperforming schools were quite different to those for maintain a school that was overperforming or even improving a school already achieving average results.
"There are few universal quality management strategies that are applicable across all stages of an organisation's development.
"Much current school improvement practice assumes that all strategies are equally effective, and for all schools, irrespective of their effectiveness or stage in the performance cycle," he said.
"Organisations need to change their quality management strategies as they progress through their performance development cycle.
"The strategies that are effective for improving performance at one stage of the cycle are not necessarily effective at other stages of the cycle."
So far, however, research had provided only a tentative list of which actions were most suited to the different stages of school development. Strategies for failing schools appeared to include:
new leadership at all levels
information from staff and students on where to focus improvement
short-term focus on easy changes to demonstrate that things could be different
a focus on learning behaviour rather than behaviour management - praise not punishment
new teaching styles
wider staff involvement in planning
withdrawal of external pressure.
"Failing schools can become paralysed by the fear of imminent inspection. They dare not take the risks required to produce long-term improvement which takes time."
Schools under achieving rather than failing need to focus on specific teaching and learning issues and build the capacity of the school to support such work. Development strategies for this kind of school include:
diversity andwider involvement in leadership
better work and social areas to indicate that pupils were valued and should value the school
longer lessons to permit a wider range of teaching styles
focusing the attention of teachers, pupils and the wider community on achievement
developing a shared language to talk about achievement
mentoring students who underachieve at all levels
talking to pupils about their hopes to inspire achievement
harnessing the optimism of new staff
generating a dialogue about the values and beliefs of the profession and the school
"Schools are good at assessing pupil effort and achievement. They are less skilled at assessing potential and it is in this gap that the potential for improvement lies," said Professor Hopkins.
"There has been little debate or research on improving good schools." His suggestions for what would help them remain effective include:
leaders who articulate the school's values and reinforce them at every opportunity
an achievement orientation that constantly strives to raise expectations of teachers, pupils and the wider community
pupils who feel involved in the learning process
collaborative planning at department and classroom-level with creative timetabling and more co-ordinated use of non-contact time
outside support for developing leadership skills, team-building and models of teaching and learning
a common language for learning and achievement to ensure staff understand the basic terminology of pupil learning and achievemen
space for teachers to experiment and take risks
celebration of success to re-
inforce the appetite for change
A differential approach to improvement had to apply to the national literacy strategy prescribed for all schools in England.
He said that while average schools might well use the NLS approach and materials, "Schools whose literacy results are already outstanding may not feel it necessary to adopt the NLS wholesale but to use its specifications to modify their existing programmes and perhaps in addition adopt a supplementary programme like Just Read.
"Schools at the bottom of the performance cycle may find that the NLS is not sufficiently comprehensive or intense for their needs and they may select a literacy strategy such as Success for All."
The next TESKeele Seminar will be given by Professor Michael Fullan of the University of Ontario School of Something or Other at 5pm on Thursday 22 June at Keele University. Details from Dorothy Tyson, telephone: 01782 583 126