School improvement studies have therefore, in recent years, focused more on the actions taken by those working in and with schools, with a view to identifying successful practice and disseminating it more widely. The ever growing membership of our school improvement network at the Institute of Education is testimony to this change in emphasis.
However, there is a growing body of research evidence which confirms what policy makers and practitioners have learnt from their own experience,namely, that bringing about improvement is a complex process, not least because schools themselves are complex organisations. This means that whenever a model or a particular process is offered as a means of improving schools and raising achievement, while it merits close examination it also needs to be treated with caution.
I was duly cautious, therefore, when I read James McLean's "how to" guidebook. He claims to have developed a "perfect model" for providing an individual school or district with specific information which will lead to improvement. A strategy for action research is offered along with a very detailed description of how to implement this strategy through the use of a particular programme. The statistical package enables input and output data, particularly test data, to be quantified in order that a school can make a comparison between these two sets of measures. The school then uses the results to change its practice.
The book is written for the American market and the implementation of the model is heavily reliant on schools having available, at regular intervals,test data on pupils. The examples provided illustrate the problems of using such a simplistic model and I found the author's contention that this kind of action research "has the potential to improve education as does no other educational innovation of the past century" unconvincing.
Marion Dadds offers a very different kind of action research. Far from taking a detached approach she provides a vivid, somewhat emotional, case study of one primary teacher's passionate enquiry into some of the practices in her own school.
She tells the story of how Vicki struggles to complete a two-year part-time diploma course. Over the two years, course members were required to complete three self-chosen action research assignments within their own schools. The aim was to help the teachers to become more reflective and analytical about their own practice and, where possible, disseminate findings to their colleagues - both worthy and important goals.
Vicki's story is very readable and I found myself empathising with her as she struggled to balance the day-to-day demands of teaching with her determination to complete her assignments on the humanities curriculum, children with special needs, and gender issues. The problems she had in trying to be detached in her analysis but finding that her feelings and beliefs got in the way, were noticeable throughout as was the growth in her confidence and self esteem and her consequent improved ability to contribute to school development.
Running parallel with Vicki's story, Marion Dadds tells of her own learning as a result of talking to Vicki and others about their work and examining the end products of the assignments. She offers useful insights for those planning and leading such courses. She reminds those working in higher education of the need to be aware of the very different contexts within which practising teachers have to work. Through the exploration of five theoretical themes she concludes with an examination of the validity of this kind of research which, she argues, can include subjective and emotional dimensions. Space does not allow me to debate such an assertion, save to say that while passionate enquiry of itself may not be too problematical, whether or not it can be called research is quite a different matter. Having said that, both authors, quite rightly, remind us of the need for more educational research which can be used by practitioners to help them improve the quality of their own work in the classroom.
Barbara MacGilchrist is dean of Initial Teacher Education at the Institute of Education, University of London.