Butterflies will free your mind

26th May 2006 at 01:00
It's rumoured that one Birmingham teacher, anxious to go on a full-time secondment, when such things existed, accompanied his written appeal to the governors with a tape of himself singing Engelbert Humperdinck's great hit, "Please Release Me".

(It's also rumoured, less reliably, that the governors replied with a close harmony rendition of Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere".) Release from the classroom was then, and is now, a precious commodity, not to be squandered on courses and meetings that don't do the business. Maybe that's why there's an increasing trend towards learning directly from the work of successful schools and individuals. That, significantly, means using the idea of "release" in a different and more positive way. It means unlocking the talent, experience and knowledge that's within you and the people around you, and releasing it to the benefit of all.

Nobody has been a more evangelical crusader for the idea of releasing the creativity and skills of the people who work in schools than Professor Tim Brighouse. It was a defining feature of his leadership in Birmingham, and continues in his present role as chief adviser to London schools. Now it's a running theme in "Butterflies for school improvement", compiled by Professor Brighouse and David Woods of the DfES.

Available since last autumn as a PDF download, "Butterflies" is an inspirational collection of real-life chalk-face London case studies, all of which have something to say about improving children's learning. It is an effective response to those heads who, faced with exhortations and broad-brush ideas about improvement, say "Yes, but what can we actually do, right now, in this school?"

Just about all of the examples are of the "right now" kind. (Or at least they are compared with most major initiatives.) How long does it take, for example, to pilot and start a one-way system of movement around the building? The school that did this, in collaboration with its students, found it to be a prime example of a "high leverage" innovation - simple to do, yet with far-reaching consequences. "The discussion ... encouraged our students to have a stronger voice. It raised awareness within the student body of their responsibility towards each other. It also contributed to the creation of a better environment (aural and behavioural)."

"Butterflies for school improvement" begins with quotations including this from Charles Handy: "Change comes from small initiatives which work. We cannot wait for great visions from great people, for they are in short supply at the end of history. It is up to us to light our own small fires in the darkness." Stirring words and in its own way, "Butterflies" (the title, and the idea, of course, come from the fabled "Butterfly effect") is a stirring document, quite moving in places, which is not something you normally associate with Teachernet downloads. It's not difficult to see why. It's because it is, above all, humane and child-centred, focusing on ways by which the individuality and achievements of young people can be celebrated and built upon to their own benefit. How difficult could it be, for example, to send birthday cards to every Year 7 child? One school does this. Imagine the effect in the child's home - and the ripples going out among relatives and friends.

Here's another simple one: "Every August, as students come to the school to pick up their exam results, staff are there taking photographs (joy, hugs, tears etc). The display co-ordinator then sets to work to ensure lively displays ready for the first day of term."

You can imagine these big, colourful, heart-tugging photographs in your own entrance hall can't you? How they'll be pored over by children and visitors. How your younger pupils will pause to see these familiar brash teenagers rendered disarmed and emotional, and maybe think - "So this is what it's all about."

Some of these ideas - 60 or so, culled from London secondary schools - are readily transferable. You could start on them tomorrow. But as Brighouse and Woods remind us, schools vary from each other along a host of overlapping axes of comparison.

"No wonder practising heads say with a sigh, 'It's so much messier than you make it sound'," they write. So the point of these stories isn't so much that they're to be imitated (though many could be). No, the real lesson is that "Butterflies" of your own are always there if you look for them, and that properly recognised, nurtured and brought to maturity they really can generate worthwhile amounts of energy and change.

Download "Butterflies for school improvement" from www.teachernet.gov.ukpublications Gerald Haigh is a former head.

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