Why yet another book on the well-worn topic of school improvement? Bruce Joyce, Emily Calhoun and David Hopkins, co-authors of The New Structure of School Improvement (Open University Press pound;16.99), ask themselves the same question and conclude that the words are the same but the tune is different.
They argue that improving schools are evolutionary schools - schools that have built around themselves a coalition of "responsible parties" (teachers, parents, business people and people from "the community") who give the school its strategic direction and its "sense of the possible".
In the United States, from where their research and examples come, their argument may be convincing. However, in spite of the editorial contribution of David Hopkins, it doesn't cross the Atlantic very well. There is nothing, for example, relating the role of our governors to that of the "responsible parties", and nothing on the all-important issue of accountability. To whom, precisely, are these powerful groups responsible? And what happens to those schools that, by reason of their location, simply can't attract the sort of know-how (and the time to use it) that these decision- takers need?
Policy-makers tend to duck that second question. All schools make a difference, they insist: "We know what works." And up to a point, of course, we do. Alma Harris's Teaching and Learning in the Effective School (Ashgate pound;35) has a David Hopkins foreword and is a straightforward and teacher friendly summary of effectiveness research which looks at the characteristics, not just of effective schools, but of effective departments, classrooms and lessons. It is clear, succinct and helpful, and there are lessons here for thinking schools.
The trouble is that schools start from very different places. It's a very short step, for instance, from "all schools make a difference" to "schools make all the difference" - but a crucial step for schools with disadvantaged intakes. Martin Thrupp, whose vigorous Schools Making a Difference (Open University Press pound;16.99) is subtitled "Let's be Realistic!", argues that the weakness of Michael Barber and the school effectiveness campaigners is their assumption that, in the learning stakes, it's only the quality management and instruction that really count.
That's nonsense, Thrupp says. He believes that what students learn from each other is equally important - which is why a balanced intake is so often a feature of what researchers deem "successful schools". The implication - that we need to be addressing issues of social advantage as well as those of educational blame - is political dynamite, but the evidence cited is persuasive.
Paul Boyd starts from a similar premise in The Pupil Exclusion Maze (QEC pound;9.95), but comes to a rather different conclusion. For him, exclusion from school is a symptom of what he sees as a much more damaging condition - the spiritual, moral, mental, social, cultural, and racial exclusion visited by society on an ever growing number of young people. We even exclude them from childhood, he says.
Schools (which have become, he says, educational "production plants") are both the victims of this condition and its only cure, and he looks to them to produce, quite literally, a mission statement. His book is a passionate and moral call to action, sometimes repet- itive and disjointed, but always crunchingly thought-provoking.