With a little help from my friends;Platform;Opinion

18th June 1999 at 01:00
Partnership and trust have a crucial role to play in helping schools to improve,say Brian Boyd and Jim Doherty

IF MANIFESTO commitments are anything to go by, high expectations will almost certainly be placed upon schools by the Scottish Parliament. If schools are to be seen to "deliver", a key question must be whether the policies which successive UK governments have pursued will continue to dominate the Scottish agenda.

Tory league tables, national testing and performance indicators were replaced by new Labour target-setting, baseline testing and an apparently value-added version of publication of results. Competition, accountability and measurement have continued to be the mainstays of centralised school improvement policies.

But there are signs that other voices are beginning to be heard. The world of commerce has discovered that top-down change does not lead to sustainable improvement, and that efficiency is a necessary, but not sufficient, part of effectiveness. And educational research itself is moving away from the input-output model of school effectiveness towards the processes which contribute to effective learning.

The classroom, not the whole school, is becoming the focus of attention. Not only that, collaboration and competition are no longer seen as ideological opposites, and new community schools could, if fully implemented, be in the van of developing inter-agency approaches to combat underachievement and social exclusion.

It is in the context of partnerships that the concept of the critical friend has emerged as a factor. Our work as part of the Improving School Effectiveness Project (ISEP), the Schools Speak for Themselves study funded by the National Union of Teachers and an ongoing partnership with Newcastle and Gateshead education authorities suggest how schools can benefit. This critical friend (or "ambassador of good practice", as one headteacher put it) should be outwith the school as an organisation but would have an interest in its well being.

They would be someone with "an enlightened eye" (Eisner), with experience of schools, knowledge of the theory and practice of organisational change, and the skill to know when to listen, to speak and to offer advice.

In an OFSTED-dominated England and Wales, Chris Woodhead rejected the Schools Speak for Themselves recommendations of self-evaluation and the use of a critical friend as "soft" and less rigorous then external inspection. Yet in Newcastle and Gateshead we have found that some of the primary schools in a sample of 20 had recent "OFSTEDs" in which no "areas for improvement" have been identified - yet they wish to pursue their own agenda for change.

If change is to lead to sustainable improvement, then it is axiomatic that the organisation and the people in it and affected by it have to have ownership of the change. Michael Fullan outlines a three-stage approach of "initiation, implementation and consolidation". The critical friend can help at each stage, particularly in ensuring that the initiation phase is not rushed.

The move towards implementation can be fraught and the critical friend can help the organisation to look at its priorities, locate where its strengths are and build in clear criteria for evaluation. If, as in Newcastle and Gateshead, the focus is the cluster (or "pyramid") rather than the individual school, then the critical friend, with no particular alliances, can bring professionals together and facilitate the sharing of perspectives and a commitment to common goals.

Finally, consolidation is crucial. Although the current slogan of "continuous improvement" may be as dispiriting as it is uplifting, change needs to become embedded if it is not to be "just another initiative". The critical friend's role here is to help the school evaluate the impact of the change, in qualitative and quantitative terms.

An evidence-based approach to school improvement is likely to be more sustainable than one based on dogma or externally generated priorities. Confronting negative evidence without creating conflict - department with department, teacher against teacher, senior management against the rest - is not always easy.

But there are barriers in the system to the effective use of a critical friend. One is the very Scottish suspicion of the external "expert", often portrayed as a refugee from the chalkface or the inhabitant of an ivory tower. While street cred is important, it is wrong to assume that there is no place for external expertise (if not "expert-ness").

Another problem is the relationship between critical friend and the school. "Whose friend are you?" is a legitimate question, and in many of the schools in Newcastle and Gateshead our main concern was to convince teachers we were not from OFSTED.

Finally, there is the question of cost. The issue here is whether whole-school or cluster initiatives can complement one-day, single-teacher courses. The answer is that both are needed and staff development budgets should be sufficient to support a mixed economy.

School improvement, in the final analysis, comes down to trust. If the Government believes that schools are mature organisations which can set their own targets in negotiation with staff, pupils, parents and local authority, then the role of a critical friend would be to help ensure that there is rigour in that process. The job of HMI should be to have a light-touch overview rather than to dictate change and evaluate it at the same time.

The Scottish Parliament can become part of the solution by supporting a range of partnerships and ensuring that everyone with a stake in education is moving forwards together.

Brian Boyd works in the faculty of education at Strathclyde University and Jim Doherty is an educational consultant. Both are former secondary headteachers.

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