A secondary school is not a unified realm with a single king-emperor. It is more like the United States - a federation of highly autonomous departments which, in many ways, compete with each other, and are in a strong position to subvert the president's intent.
How refreshing, then, to read Forging Links: Effective Schools and Effective Departments (Paul Chapman Publishing Pounds 16.95), an important book about school improvement. Its authors, Pam Sammons, Sally Thomas and Peter Mortimore, aim to "highlight the importance of moving beyond 'league table approaches' and the need to focus on individual departments using value-added approaches".
Based on a three-year study of GCSE performance in almost 100 schools in eight London authorities, it uses sophisticated but well tried statistical techniques to tease out trends and patterns at department as well as school level.
It adds statistical weight and case study evidence to what most heads already know - differences of performance between departments can be significant, and improvement demands these differences be addressed.
What makes this book required reading among all those interested in school improvement (and who is not?) is the way it gives impetus and academic bite to a group of messages already gaining credence among thinking teachers and governors. Some of the messages it punches home are:
* Secondary schools (like primaries) do make a difference
* Publication of raw league tables "is not justified as a mechanism for accountability"
* School performance needs to be measured over at least three years.
* Resources, especially in the form of good staff in difficult schools, are important
* The Office for Standards in Education's achievements need to be built on with a more flexible and infrequent inspection cycle
* Senior management teams need to be real teams
* Good leadership (defined and described in detail) is vital
* Effective classroom teaching is more important than whether or not a school has streaming.
Importantly, these authors also acknowledge that with the arrival of universally available information, and the increasing inappropriateness of "control and conformity", the secondary school as we know it may well be in its sunset years.
They say: "The factory approach we have inherited from the last century is likely to disappear." Which, of course, is just what the free-schoolers and de-schoolers were saying in the early Seventies - and being called mad for.
Just to emphasise this point, Cara Martin's The Holistic Educators, a recent title from the Educational Heretics Press (Pounds 7.95), reads: "Whilst employers plead for a wider vision of the meaning and purpose of education, politicians insist on a return to more traditional methods which encourage students to regurgitate their received knowledge through a process originally designed to keep Victorian children off the streets."
The sunset feeling is enhanced by the steady stream of school histories that crosses this desk, each illustrated with intensely nostalgic photographs of youngsters in class groups, or of adults "preparing for tea after a sports day at the school".
Sports day tea" is in My Adventure in Education by Peter Pineger (Peter Pineger Publications, Woodstock House, Halstead Road, Gosfield, Essex CO9 1PG. Pounds 10). He spent 54 years at Gosfield School, 35 of them as head. My favourite story is of the time Mr Pineger, finding a garage unlocked "turned the key and made all secure" not realising he had imprisoned two teachers, male and female, who had just driven in after an evening out. "They were in no way annoyed with me," he says. "I can only assume they had a great interest in cars."
Also closely focused, but containing many recognisable trends is Papworth School, Past Present and Future by John Baxter (Pounds 3.95 from Pendragon Community School, Varrier Jones Drive, Papworth Everard, Cambridgeshire CB3 8XQ). The best bit of this is the description, from a governors' minute in the Fifties, of how an incoming head found the school, and what she was doing about it. "There was no timetable or scheme of work operating. The children's books were a disgrace. Anything difficult was left out. I am being more of a martinet than I would choose to be until I am satisfied that an improvement has been made. I enjoy a battle."
As schooling becomes more flexible, the boundaries between teachers and parents become increasingly blurred. Parents as Partners in Schooling, a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, looks at how the partnership works in nine countries. There are differences of emphasis and approach, as you might expect, but there is clearly a worldwide trend towards partnership and participation.