Agenda

4th October 1996 at 01:00
Q. Ours is not a high-achieving school. It is in a poor area where few parents have jobs and our young people haven't much to look forward to.

Just the same, as governors we feel our staff make too many excuses. There is another secondary school in the city with almost identical problems where results are better, and we feel staff and governors should meet with opposite numbers there - and elsewhere - to share some of our performance figures and ideas generally. Suggestions like these produce a negative response and we are made to feel disloyal. Even within the school, we get the barest of information. We do not know, for instance, whether any groups are especially at risk of low achievement or whether some teaching groups do better.

A. One must have sympathy with how teachers feel in situations where they may work twice as hard to achieve half as much. But I do agree that expectations of children in depressed areas are often too low, that teachers become defensive and fear that unfair comparisons will be used to make them feel even more inadequate. They have not been helped by the fact that raw test and exam results were published long before enough work had been done to make the comparisons fair.

Nevertheless, research does show that schools in similar situations often achieve strikingly different results. It seems hardly credible that with such a situation under their noses, professionals will not want to know why. You have a right to insist on more illuminating statistics and discussions with other schools. The law says that we must be given all the information we need to do our job, and there is nothing to prevent governors organising their own inter-school discussion. But it is much better to proceed by persuasion, and I hope you will go on trying to get agreement.

The aim of strategic intervention is to get more results from teachers' undeniably hard work: they often wrongly think that we are asking the impossible in the form of even harder work. When people ask me what "strategic" means, I say that a lever is a strategic instrument in the way that a hammer is not, since it gets more out of the same effort.

Levers in schools include how ability grouping is organised; what exam boards and syllabuses are chosen; what target-setting is employed; what attention is paid to under-achieving groups; what tasks are assigned to curriculum leaders or faculty heads, how they are chosen, what non-contact time they have; how pupils are helped with study skills and revision. These are only a few - I find that you can always learn more from discussion and comparison. Even comparison of what money is spent on can be helpful. You know that a school with an old boiler and high ceilings will cost more to heat, but what can you make of differences in spending on senior management salaries versus IT equipment, teachers versus administration, etc? You must contrive to share some of this with your head.

*These ideas are fully explored in Joan Sallis's new book, Governors are People Like You, for the Advisory Centre for Education, 1B Aberdeen Studios, 22 Highbury Grove, London N5 2DQ. Pounds 5 plus Pounds 1 pp. The paper on democracy in education, Their Schools or Ours, mentioned in this column last week, costs Pounds 1.50 from CASE, 158 Durham Road, London SW20 0DG

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