An air of irresistible optimism

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
Margaret Maden, a member of the National Commission on Education, previews its final report Success Against the Odds

The girls are not as awful as they used to be at this school - in fact, they are really nice now." In such terms does a Birmingham teacher express what is, to her, the real significance of school improvement. The girls she refers to continue to come from the same neighbourhood and same families as before, so we have to ask ourselves how such an apparent change of human nature has occurred.

Indeed, in the 11 improving schools described in Success Against the Odds, the final product of the National Commission on Education, to be published next week, there are many such instances of people feeling more confident and competent both in themselves and in relation to each other, whether as pupils, parents or teachers. It is all too easy to forget that schools are intensely human places. Their health and success depend on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of human exchanges in any single day.

The nature of such exchanges rightly lies at the heart of a collection of case studies which illuminate and analyse how 11 schools are improving. While the neighbourhoods served by them happen to share characteristics associated with social and economic disadvantage, the book's editors suggest "it would be wrong to try and create a sub-species of school improvement studies for schools serving disadvantaged areas. It is clear that most of the processes described here apply to all types of school".

The 11 schools represent all parts of the United Kingdom, including a special school in Scotland, four primary schools (with one in Wales serving a large rural area) and six secondary schools, one of which is a religiously integrated school in Belfast. The extent and depth of disadvantage, or "odds", vary from one school to another, as does the definition of "success". Each case study has been put together and written up by a leading educator assisted by a local businessman or woman and someone who is directly engaged in regeneration projects beyond the confines of education and schools. Hence, a broadly-based and probably unique range of insights and expertise is brought to bear on a project which seeks to enter the private world of publicly-funded schools. Teasing out the detail and dynamics of improvement processes is the aim and the resultant authenticity comes from a good deal of generous and truthful recounting of both success and of failure, by headteachers, governors, staff, parents, pupils and neighbours. The quality and tone of the authors' voices also add greatly to the power of the analytic narratives presented; Michael Barber, Tim Brighouse, Alan Evans, Anthony Gallagher, Gerald Grace, Roy Jobson, John McBeath, Agnes McMahon, Peter Mortimore, Jean Ruddock and Anne Sofer are the lead writers, aided and abetted by representatives of industry, both very large (Howard Davies, then of the Confederation of British Industry and now at the Bank of England) and much smaller (Bill Browne, managing director of a Teesside building firm).

The main findings relate to the overwhelming importance of combining heart and mind; an all-pervasive air of "irresistible optimism" and an abiding sense of "future perfect" are as important as hard-edged, cerebral analyses or the establishing of systems where, in one instance, we are told "very little is left to chance". In order that low academic performance can be tackled, three priorities emerge among the several strategies used; the need to improve pupils' behaviour, the physical environment and the ways in which pupils' progress is assessed and reported. In all the schools, significant movements in these have depended, in turn, on better communications and participation among and between teachers, support staff, pupils, parents and governors. One of the associate authors who works for BP comments on a simple, but effective, practice found in most of these schools: "The staff have a daily 15-minute staff meeting which all teaching staff attend to discuss immediate matters of the day and take the opportunity to share each other's plans. Points are also raised for discussion at a greater length at the full staff meeting. This is proven good practice. It enables matters to be dealt with as they arise and ensures that everyone knows what is going on."

Related to this is the singular importance attached to team building (as they say at Selly Park, Birmingham, "all should be chiefs and all Indians"), and there are high levels of investment, both human and financial, in many forms of staff development - and not simply for teachers.

Not surprisingly, the headteachers provide high- quality educational, professional and organisational leadership but the words used most often to describe their style include "unobtrusive" and "low-key" rather than "charismatic". "She doesn't carry her professionalism in front of her," one parent perceptively observes at Lochgelly School in Fife. The head's "omnipresence" is frequently referred to but is manifested in many different ways. But even in larger schools, it involves activities centred in "getting to know pupils, following their progress and spending time observing the processes of teaching and learning".

While much is revealed about the nature of headship, the conclusions indicate that the case studies tell us "very little about how these key agents of change came to acquire their present level of skill, empathy and intuitive judgments". We are also reminded that "the way in which headteachers and other leading professionals in schools are nurtured and developed has been identified by the National Commission as a matter of real concern. Allied to their professional development is the selection and appointment system - currently a random and pot-luck affair at best". All of this suggests that the curriculum and development experiences which need to underpin the Teacher Training Agency's proposed headteacher qualification cannot be as soundly based as our schools require.

There are some other larger-scale policy issues which arise from these case studies, the extent to which, for example, the formidable "odds" described should be so heroically confronted by schools alone. The detailed support and development provided to parents by most of these schools, so that parents may, in turn, know how to support and help develop their own children's learning surely demands rather more financial and multi-agency back-up than currently exists. Likewise, the essential extension classes, homework clubs and extra-curricular activities, throughout the year, make so much difference to these pupils' motivation and achievement. An average AWPU (the age-weighted pupil unit in a school's budget formula) doesn't even begin to include any realistic costing for such necessary work.

The other side of the equation, "success", also throws up some difficult and thought-provoking questions. For a secondary school to have moved, from one year to the next, from just 6 per cent of its pupils gaining five or more grades A-C at GCSE to 29 per cent is highly commendable, but well below the national average. When, in the following year, the figure slips back to 15 per cent, this is confounding and depressing. As the editors point out, "a steadily upward curve of improvement cannot be assumed" and we frequently observe the salient progress taking place over two to four years on the basis of "two steps forward, one step back". Likewise, some aspects of improvement occur more quickly than others; better attendance (of both pupils and staff), punctuality and behaviour precede and are also, of course, preconditional to the advances sought in the harder-edged academic performance indicators, be they national test scores or exam results. Perhaps some more recent strategies concerning "failing schools" need to be re-thought. It is suggested that "the public spotlight, if focused too strongly and too quickly on better academic results, could well be an unreasonable, unrealistic expectation".

It is also worth noting that in none of these schools is there any marked preoccupation with talking about, fighting, lauding or applying to the letter, the major reforms which have swept across the educational landscape in recent years. These reforms are not ignored, for that would not be possible, but what predominates is an organisational dynamic and release of energy "generated primarily by what the school itself believes it can and must do". In her account of a Tower Hamlets primary school, Anne Sofer describes a process through which the aims of an older "progressive platform: child-centred primary education, comprehensive secondary education, anti-racism, a heavy emphasis on equal opportunities" still apply, but the headteacher's strategy is to "colonise whatever structures present themselves in pursuit of these aims". Tim Brighouse describes the release of "high- quality intellectual energy" being applied to both the "what" and "how" of teaching and learning in Selly Park girls' school and in a Manchester primary school we are told about how developing new forms of effective learning is the overriding "obsession" of staff and how, a few years ago, "talk in the staffroom was about anything and everything but that".

In the same school, the working aim statement is: "All children can succeed". As in the other schools here, this is not allowed to lie dormant as a piece of empty rhetoric. Rather, it informs and supports each and every detailed policy development and human transaction arising in the course of any given day or term. A parent in another school is able to say, "This is a school that doesn't understand failure" because of her own direct experience of her son's painstaking progress, monitored on video and regularly discussed with teachers. She is also, and equally, affected and moved by the "tunes and vibes" of a staff who convey optimism and steady cheerfulness. They, in turn, are able to feel like this because they know their own skills and talents are being nurtured and appreciated. Regular, but discerning and thoughtful praise is certainly a marked feature of these schools both for pupils and staff.

This is but one important lesson to be learnt (or simply reminded about) from a hugely encouraging collection of case studies. There are, inevitably, further questions, uncertainties and gaps concerning the trigger-points, pace and maintenance of school improvement which arise from these and similar studies.

But if Success Against the Odds can build on the practical helpfulness and theoretical possibilities of Ten Good Schools some 15 years ago (and everything that has emerged since then), it will have proved its worth times over.

It is worth recalling, also, that the National Commission's main report in 1993 was carefully entitled Learning to Succeed and in Success Against the Odds, the very heart of that report's main concern and aspirations is robustly and engagingly revived.

The infinite potential for learning and growing, which exists in all organisations and people, is celebrated and, most importantly, released and developed through a combination of cool analysis and warm feeling.

Professor Margaret Maden is director of the Centre for Successful Schools at Keele University and is a member of the National Commission on Education. Success Against the Odds is being published by Routledge this month.

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