Education books

8th September 2000 at 01:00
What does it really take to lead an excellent school? The Government now has such a stake in education that it tends to say: "We know exactly" and points to its national standards for headship by way of confirmation. The National Association of Head Teachers, more sure of the complexities than the solutions, commissioned research to find some answers. From this project came Leading Schools in Times of Change (by Christopher Day, Alma Harris, Mark Hadfield, Harry Tolley and John Beresford, Open University Press pound;15.99).

It is interesting both for its approach and its findings. The heads of 12 schools in the original survey, all identified as "effective" by inspection, results or reputation, were interviewed at length. So, unusually, were a cross-section of their colleagues, parents and students. Was there a factor, the researchers wanted to know, that these 12 people in very different schools had in common that accounted for the general perception of their success?

They claim there was. They describe it as "values-led contingency leadership", which transcends the systems-led managerialism of so much current theory. It is marked, they say, by a combination of principle and critical reflection and (crucially) the ability to develop that quality in others. "Invitational leadership", in other words, may matter more than control and monitoring.

True, the sample is small, and we learn nothing in these extracts about the contexts and pressures within which these heads work. The focus is on the general, but the findings are important.

Paul Clarke, author of Learning Schools, Learning Systems (Continuum pound;14.99), is an independent consultant. Unlike many contributors to the improving schools debate, he has no axe to grind. He is highly critical, though, of the "illusions of certainty" that pervade it. The real crisis schools are facing, he says, is a lack of conjecture, speculation and vision from the grass roots and an overwhelming amount of it from external agencies.

His book is a highly personal blueprint for remedying the first part of his crisis. It argues that there is a journey ahead, if schools and learning are to be lifted out of the 19th-century model that still shapes them.

The first part of his book is speculative and iconoclastic, but it's certainly not set in cloud-cuckoo-land, for the second part chronicles the ways that partnerships of real schools have established, even in today's heavily prescriptive and over-managed framework, what he calls knowledge-generating and knowledge-using systems.

In essence, this is about schools and their students rethinking assumptions, cultivating teamwork and embracing flexibility. They need, together, to map out change. There are a lot of pointers in this convincing and readable account to help them do it.

Images of Educational Change (edited by Herbert Altrichter and John Elliott, Open University Press pound;16.99) covers similar ground from an academic base. All over the world policymakers are decreeing educational change: the trouble is, say the authors gathered here, that often they don't begin to understand it. Barry MacDonald's searing critique of the Blair and Thatcher control-and-market model is judiciously echoed by contributors from Sweden, Spain, Austria, the United States and elsewhere. Do we want compliance, the writers ask, or creative engagement; "standards", or the development of autonomous thought and reason?

Stephen Brookfield asks the same questions in his chapter on self-directed learning in Educational Issues in the Learning Age (edited by Catherine Matheson and David Matheson, Continuum pound;15.99). Other contributors identify issues which go to make up the uncertainty as well as the challenge of educational change: cultural identity, religion, citizenship, lifelong learning, empowerment and disempowerment. They put together a persuasive outline of that map of change. It is an outline for fellow academics, though, rather than for schools and teachers. Whether fellow academics really need the rather laboured essay on Foucault and "discourse" that precedes it is another question.


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