A fine balance between order and chaos

20th June 2003 at 01:00
LEADING LEARNERS, LEADING SCHOOLS. By Robin Brooke-Smith. RoutledgeFalmer pound;18.99

EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP AND THE COMMUNITY. Edited by Tony Gelsthorpe and John West-Burnham. Pearson Education pound;18.99

Robin Brooke-Smith was principal of Edwardes College in Peshawar, Pakistan - very prestigious, very conservative - then director of the University of Toronto school, a high-achieving "laboratory" school committed to innovation, research and argument. It would be difficult to imagine, he says, two more different schools, yet the problems of management and leadership they posed were essentially the same: how to unlock the creativity that is the well-spring of good learning without generating the tensions that block it.

The trick, he says in Leading Lessons, Leading Schools is to find the balance between order and disorder, stability and change. Nothing new about that, you think, but the term he chooses to describe this (he calls it, deliberately, "the edge of chaos") betrays its complexity and challenge.

The current orthodoxies of school effectiveness and improvement ("we know what works") are often counter-productive, precisely because they fail to address that. They assume change is linear; that learning is mechanical, and that schools are predictable, ordered, straight-line systems.

Wrong, he says. Chaos theory, organisation theory and psycho-dynamics are far better guides to the "slippery and messy realities" that confront most leaders, and the heart of his book is a carefully researched argument to this effect. Some readers will skip this section and move immediately to the key lessons he develops from it: that strategic planning, for instance, is often counter-productive, that vision and mission can't be mandated, that anxiety ("we must simultaneously control and create it") is the heart of our learning.

It's stimulating stuff: more of a guide to reflection, perhaps, than to action (it would have been interesting to hear more about the author's handling of the "deliberately destructive and negative forces that sometimes take hold of an institution"), but encouraging none the less as a counterblast to the control-and-command mentality that characterises most education policy and practice today. The trouble with the mantras of school effectiveness and school improvement, Brooke-Smith says, is that they try to pick the fruit before it's ripe. It's a perceptive and apposite image.

One of the principles he identifies deals with the locus for improvement that exists between schools individually and collectively and their environment: an interesting comment in the light of the Department for Education and Skills's sudden and belated endorsement of co-operation and community involvement.

Educational Leadership and the Community is addressed precisely at this issue. Subtitled "strategies for school improvement through community engagement" and published in co-operation with the Community Education Development Centre, it argues that community involvement brings two-way benefit: better learning for children (learning is so obviously inclusive), and the build-up of social capital.

That is hardly a revolutionary argument, and John Grainger's chapter, "Schools and the community", pays appropriate tribute to the local education authorities and schools that, from Henry Morris onwards, pioneered it. Tactfully, perhaps, he and his contributors refrain from pointing out that it was the policies of this government and its predecessor that so weakened this early and optimistic vision.

What they add is a belief that as the concept of "school" changes, as it surely will, so will that of "school improvement". If the inclusion agenda is serious, schools will be judged on the basis of what they contribute to the communities they serve, not just on their league table ratings. Various contributors show how this may, perhaps, be starting to happen in a handful of newly designated "community colleges" and visionary primary schools.

Several international examples are included as well: pointers to emerging good practice.

But as Chris and Frances Bowring-Carr recognise in their chapter on Northern Ireland, much depends on your "community". Like wealth, social capital is unevenly distributed; there are signs that the gap is growing.

New Labour's rhetoric of inclusion does not yet address the paradox that schools that most need community help are those whose communities are least able to provide it.

Which is why Pat Bagshaw's account of the early years of the London borough of Newham's all-inclusive Royal Docks school is so compelling. The theory of inclusive education is fine, she says; "the practice, here, is extremely difficult". Honest, realistic and well worth reading.

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