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Sharpen up your game

It's no good chasing after a silver bullet; there's no catch-all solution for struggling schools. But Tim Brighouse welcomes an update on what works and what doesn't

Improving Schools in Difficulty By Paul Clarke Continuum pound;19.99

This book revived a vivid memory of waiting in the foyer of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school eight years ago. I was part of an independent commission into Islington's schooling system and waiting to see the brilliant and determined headteacher, Jill Coughlan, who was bringing the school unparalleled success. As I sat there, I felt I knew the school, but not by its name. And then it clicked. I'd first known it as Risinghill, in Leila Berg's book Death of a Comprehensive School (1969), and then as Starcross girls' school, as it tried to throw off its difficult past.

Improving Schools in Difficulty, as this volume of articles illustrates, is a tricky enough business to define, let alone provide the general or, more importantly, particular answers demanded by schools. So many schools, like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, have multiple pasts. So many have had more than one "fresh start". Their corridors, stalked by heroes from time to time, are full of memories of success always painfully gained against the odds, then suddenly lost and won painfully again.

What we know now, about teaching and learning as well as about school improvement, is far greater than in 1979, when Michael Rutter published Fifteen Thousand Hours: secondary schools and their effects on children.

Rutter first established that schools made a measurable difference to youngsters' life chances. (Before that, social circumstances including class, race and living in challenging circumstances were reckoned to be the key determinants.) Improving Schools in Difficulty will bring you up to date on what does and doesn't work in school improvement. But the author's purpose is to identify and rectify the weakness of the research so far: namely that it's been general and not context-specific.

Worse still, impatient governments want instant success and always seek the silver bullet that will guarantee it. Like Eric Briault, former education officer for the Inner London Education Authority, they yearn for what he called the "one-armed researcher": someone who wouldn't state infuriatingly that the evidence on the one hand suggested one thing and on the other another.

Sometimes ministers have acted as though they've found the silver bullet, but to their credit Blair's government hasn't turned its back on the problem. On the contrary, it has sustained a relentless focus on schools in difficulty, those "in special measures" or experiencing "serious weaknesses", which are the subject of this book.

However, as John Gray points out in his chapter, the introduction of the concept of value added has provided as much confusion as clarification; schools can be seen to succeed under one criterion only to fail under another. The most likely outcome is to sweep yet more schools into the net of apparent failure. Elsewhere, Terry Wrigley highlights the disproportionate disadvantage suffered by poor children, as they are more likely to be in schools in difficulty. Although he criticises the validity of the conventional GCSE measure, he then calls into question whether an intermediate GNVQ in ICT is worth four GCSEs at grade C or above. "Scarcely a substitute for English, maths, Spanish, history and drama," he argues.

Well, no, but by 2006 we shall all have a new rod to beat ourselves with: five higher grades including maths and English. For my part that sounds a better measure than the one we have, especially if one of the other three higher grades is Asdan's (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network) certificate of personal effectiveness.

Whatever our measure of success, we mustn't be distracted from the reality this book highlights: namely, that some schools in very challenging circumstances find it almost impossible, over any length of time, to achieve and sustain a culture of success.

The book opens with an account of a 2001 DfES-funded intervention in eight struggling secondary schools, which were reckoned to have outstanding leadership but were among the worst-performing inner-city schools in the country and in especially challenging circumstances. This was an ill-conceived and expensive project, and the authors' account does not attempt to hide the thinness of the rationale for intervention and the flimsiness of its outcome.

Other excellent chapters are provided by Alma Harris and her Warwick research team, bringing us up to date on all the research on school improvement and providing insights into their own progress. The high points of the book for me, however, lie in three chapters.

The first is Maria Nicolaidou's beautifully written study of four primary schools in Greater Manchester, united by the phenomenon of "special measures". She reveals in particular the personal and professional trauma that such a process usually induces, even in hitherto successful career teachers. They find it so difficult to make the connection between their own performance and behaviour and the collective failure. "Ofsted has damaged me... since then I've had no confidence in my teaching. In fact I'm going home every night crying my eyes out," says one. Another says: "I just want my life back: my children and my husband." But there's nothing sentimental in this account of "what's special and in special measures", just the uncannily vivid and brutally persuasive accuracy of a faithful and incisive researcher.

Maria Nicolaidou is also a co-author with Mel Ainscow and Mel West of a second chapter drawn from experiences in Manchester. Here they provide helpful pointers for the future as they recount and analyse a study of a group of secondary schools taking on the recovery task for another failing school. Schools working together seem sometimes to work more speedily and effectively than most LEAs can manage. I wish I had read more of these authors' work.

I save the best for last, a thoughtful chapter on "learning disadvantage" written by Richard Riddell. He both explores what he means by the phrase and the circumstances that give rise to it. For those interested in the Every Child Matters agenda - and which LEA now in the process of transforming itself into an LCA (local children's authority) is not? - the book is worth having for that chapter alone. There's much more in it besides. But be warned: there's not a silver bullet in sight.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser for London schools

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