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Opportunity knocks quietly but firmly

Both the supporters and detractors of the failing Hackney Downs School, whatever their differences over its eventual closure, were agreed on one thing: that the borough's difficult social circumstances need not by themselves have prevented this or any other school becoming a popular and successful institution.

This belief is also at the root of the final publication from the National Commission on Education. Success Against the Odds, released this week, is an account of 11 thriving schools operating in unpromising, sometimes acutely deprived, settings from Belfast to Billingham. It is the first time such a systematic national exercise has been conducted and it has been hailed by educationists as an important step forward in the attempt to pin down the factors that make a successful school.

Even the recent conference on school effectiveness at London University's Institute of Education found that there were no up-to-date, comparative studies of good schools in operation.

Surveys of the 11 schools were carried out by teams of people from the worlds of business and management as well as educational commentators and academics. These included Howard Davies, now deputy governor of the Bank of England; Professor Peter Mortimore, director of London University's Institute of Education; Professor Michael Barber; Professor Margaret Maden; Anne Sofer, director of education for the London borough of Tower Hamlets; Roy Jobson, chief education officer for Manchester, and Tim Brighouse, CEO for Birmingham.

The exercise was conducted in a context of increasing inequality which in turn has presented schools with ever-more-pressing difficulties, says the book.

"The scale of disadvantage is larger now than it was in 1977, particularly for children," writes Josh Hillman, the commission's research officer. "Despite the fact that there is an increasingly standardised school system, educational disadvantage is as much of an issue as ever. And the odds remain stacked against schools in poorer areas."

In the concluding chapter, Mr Hillman - now a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research - and Professor Maden, from the University of Keele Centre for Successful Schools, describe the schools as having been "stuck in a cycle of low expectations, lack of direction and external perception of failure. Most had experienced inertia or had neglected to focus on, or even recognise the need to improve on a continuous basis."

The answers, needless to say, are not straightforward. And Professor Barber, of the Institute of Education, said this week: "Perhaps above all else the exercise has shown that there is no whizz-bang solution for schools. Improvement is a slow and often frustrating process. But improvement is also something within the grasp of all schools."

The commission identifies a wide range of factors behind the success of the 11 case studies. Although none can be seen in isolation, the importance of the headteacher and his or her ability to foster a sense of shared purpose emerge as key. "The right sort of leadership is at the heart of effective schooling, and no evidence of effectiveness in a school with weak leadership has emerged.

"In schools serving disadvantaged and troubled areas, an abundance of energy and commitment is needed just to tread water." Shared goals are also central. "All those involved in the school must have reached some sort of consensus as to its aims, and such a consensus needs to be reached as early as possible. "

This does not however mean a wholesale ditching of staff: "There is little doubt that 'new brooms' can have a part to play in fostering a common purpose and in raising aspirations. But wholesale changes in staff were by no means necessary for a change in direction.

"The process of change generally originated with a single individual (usually the headteacher) engaging in hard-edged analysis, identifying and getting to grips with the critical issues of the school and its community and defining strategic priorities, all as a matter of urgency."

The physical state of schools, while impossible to ignore, was not absolutely a determining factor.

"It is certainly not the case that all of the schools were in good physical condition. In many, all resources allocated for buildings were eaten up by non-structural maintenance and repair, rather than being used to improve the learning environment."

Generally speaking, however, "It is clear from these studies that a key component in the strategy for improvement has been the close attention paid to the physical environment." Also, good pupil behaviour "was seen to be an important precondition for staff motivation for improvement, and early identification. "There are few common features among the schools in terms of the strictness of teachers or in terms of the degree of formality of pupil-teacher relations.

"The essential feature seems to be the clarity of the school's policies. Just as important are clear policies for praising good behaviour and public acknowledgement when pupils are working well."

All the schools set out, self-consciously, to raise the expectations of staff and pupils. "Senior staff are involved at a practical level in monitoring all aspects of teachers' work and in ensuring that targets are set for pupils, and in some cases departments and the whole school. Positive feedback is given not just for good academic performance but also for improvement."

The schools made sure they fostered good relationships among children and staff: "an essential corollary", says the commission, "to any formal statement of school policy or procedure." "The 11 accounts are full of examples of schools encouraging pupils to take greater control over their work, listening to and responding to their views and giving them responsibilities in the life of the school."

Initiatives to improve links with parents needed to come from schools themselves, in the first place. But there was a limit, say the authors, to what the school can achieve on its own.

The nature of school improvement, concludes the commission, is yet to be fully understood. But there is one major lesson. "It is that every school has the opportunity to succeed against the odds. None of the schools studied holds itself out as exceptional or puts success down to any particularly gifted individual. Nor does the possibility of success arise as a once-for-all gift-wrapped opportunity. It is the steady accumulation day on day and week on week of positive progress which emerges so clearly."

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