Success turns on the nature of failure

Tes Editorial

Not all "failing" schools are failing in the same way, say researchers from the International School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre at the London Institute of Education. It follows then that schools in difficulty cannot all be helped in the same way either. The chronically failing may need more in the way of "intensive care" than those which can help themselves.

Dr Louise Stoll of the London centre says that some researchers argue that standing still is not an option for schools because of the rapid pace of change being imposed on them from outside. Schools must either be improving or declining. She defines three types of ineffective school: * The cruising school, which may be considered effective by outside agencies and parents, particularly if it is in a middle-class area which provides pupils who are likely to achieve in spite of teaching quality. Such schools may be marking time or actually becoming less effective without anyone realising.

* The struggling school is one which is ineffective, knows its weaknesses and is trying hard to improve. Ultimately a struggling school will succeed because it has the will to improve.

* The sinking school, on the other hand, is not only ineffective but has a staff which is either too ignorant or apathetic to change. These are the schools which get into a spiral of decline which is difficult to reverse. They are often in working-class areas where parents are undemanding and teachers are able to explain away failure by blaming inadequate parenting or unprepared children. They have all the characteristics of ineffectiveness which researchers have identified as critical: lack of vision, poor leadership - headteachers, for instance, "who assume the posture of a burrowing animal" - staff relationships characterised by in-fighting and mistrust, and ineffective classroom strategies.

Given the million-dollar question: "What can be done to turn around an ineffective school?" Louise Stoll argues that it is important first to work out which category of failure it falls into.

Cruising schools, she says, require a "wake-up call". Staff development and a meaningful school development plan are ways to recreate a culture of continuous improvement. Struggling schools lack direction and planning. They need to start with small, solvable problems before moving into bigger issues. Outside consultants can help because staff recognise that change is needed.

Sinking schools require strong and rigorous intervention if decline is to be halted. The head can start the process by making the school receptive to change and by listening to the pupils, parents and teachers. In the least effective schools, she says, it may be necessary to break down years of mistrust and defensiveness, before staff feel able to participate in any form of improvement.

She suggests some prerequisites for a successful change: * shared goals: a sense that the school knows where it is going and puts teaching, learning and pupils' interests first.

* responsibility for success: a belief that "we cannot fail", that everyone can make a difference, and that all children can learn.

* collegiality: a feeling that everyone is working together.

* continuous improvement: the assumption a school can always be made better.

* lifelong learning: that everyone has something more to learn, teachers as well as pupils, and that both can learn from each other.

* risk taking: the willingness to try something new and the acceptance that you can learn through failure as well as success.

* support: the knowledge that there is always someone to turn to.

The complexity and challenge of ineffective schools, Louise Stoll, ISEIC, Institute of Education, London University.

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