Peter Mortimore's book chronicling two decades of research into school effectiveness and improvement is bang on target, writes John Dunford
From the Prime Minister to the newest newly qualified teacher, we are all engaged in school improvement. It is timely to have a book by the doyen of school improvement researchers, Peter Mortimore, which chronicles the main signposts of the research into school effectiveness and improvement over the past 20 years.
Eighteen of the 20 chapters are research papers and articles by Mortimore and his collaborators, a veritable Who's Who of education researchers in recent years - John MacBeath, Jo Mortimore, Desmond Nuttall, Pam Sammons, Louise Stoll, Hywel Thomas and Sally Thomas. David Reynolds, as editor of the Context of Learning series, commissioned the book.
The papers, written between 1978 and 1997, form a fascinating tapestry of school effectiveness during this critical period. The 30 pages of bibliography provide enough references for even the most avid reader.
In the introduction to one of the later papers, Mortimore notes the sea change in the attitude of central government to school effectiveness research between 1978 and 1998. At first, he says, there was "mild interest but a refusal to see any implications for the way central government worked". Now policymakers use the research as a vital tool in lifting educational standards. "This long-awaited recognition is pleasing, but it has its dangers," argues Mortimore. "Like all new converts, there is an element of zealotry in the Government's attitudes and expectations."
The relationship between research-ers and policy-makers is the subject of one chapter. This was Mortimore's 1995 inaugural lecture as director of the Institute of Education at London University. His career began with nine years' school teaching in London, then, in 1975, he joined Professor Michael Rutter's research team at the university's Institute of Psychiatry.
After a brief spell as an HMI, Mortimore became director of research and statistics at the Inner London Education Authority. The reputation and achievements of ILEA in this area were way ahead of the work of any other local authority.
in 1990, when ILEA was disbanded, Mortimore became professor of education at Lancaster, before returning to London later that year as deputy director of the Institute of Education.
Frequently reflected in the book are two major influences on his career from the end of the 1970s. The first was the work he carried out with Michael Rutter for the Fifteen Thousand Hours research project, published in 1979, a critical point in school effectiveness work which proved that schools really do make a difference to the achievements of their pupils.
The second was Mortimore's contact with researchers from the United States, particularly Ron Edmonds. The questions they were trying to answer in 1979 continued to set the parameters for research during the ensuing 20 years.
It is amusing to be reminded that the Rutter study was attacked at the time by the teacher associations and by other researchers in the field, partly because it generated so much media interest. Now, as Mortimore points out later in the book, researchers publish their conclusions with one eye on the deadlines of the Sunday newspapers or The TES.
Those who comment on the results of education research nowadays would do well to note that Fifteen Thousand Hours, perhaps the most influential piece of educational research in the past 30 years, emphasised the positive effects of schooling. Had Rutter and his team concentrated on the negatives, the course of school effectiveness research could have been very different.
Mortimore cites the most significant understandings to come out of the research on the way schools work:
* Recognition that schools can make a difference to students' life chances.
* The need, when judging a school, to take account of its intake.
* Disadvantage and its relationship to school improvement.
* The importance of achieving an academic balance in the intake of students.
* Recognition of the importance of leadership in schools.
* The creation of "outcome-based" school improvement strategies.
His list for the policy-makers reads:
* Sustain emphasis on improvement.
* Stop blaming schools with disadvantaged students for failing to achieve.
* Listen to what researchers have to say about positive reinforcement.
* Create a less harsh inspection system, based on school self-evaluation.
* Provide extra resources for schools.
Some chapters are aimed at educational researchers, but his advice to the policy-makers makes fascinating reading for those who have been working in the field of school improvement during the past 20 years. And that includes all members of the teaching profession.
John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association