Education books

1st June 2008 at 01:00

There are shelves upon shelves of books on school effectiveness, but not quite so many on school improvement. It is one thing to describe the characteristics of successful schools; quite another to identify the factors that help the struggling school to lift itself to that standard. School effectiveness, the researchers tell you, is a matter of quantitative analysis: you measure inputs and outputs. School improvement, however, demands a qualitative approach: it's a matter of judgment.

And which is more important? It is an idle question. No definition of the one is possible without some agreement on the other. Improving School Effectiveness (edited by John Macbeath and Peter Mortimore, Open University Press pound;17.99. TES pound;17.99; 10 copies pound;170 ) and Effective Change in Schools (Chris James and Una Connolly, RoutledgeFalmer pound;16.99. TESpound;15.99; 10 copies pound;150) are both concerned with this relationship. Both are based on projects that study change in actual schools: significantly, for Macbeath and Mortimore in Scotland and for James and Connolly in Wales. In England, perhaps, there is so much central control that it is difficult to distinguish between school effects and national prescription.

Both studies are important, readable and convincing. They share a common theme: schools do make a difference, especially at the primary level. But bringing about change in schools is much more difficult than policy-makers will allow. It simply isn't true (if one last Woodhead quotation is permitted) that "we know what works". The evidence of the Macbeath and Mortimore survey is that school context is a key factor. It really matters where schools are and where they start from. Some schools just can't get off the starting block. Different schools, in other words, need different school improvement strategies. DfEE please note.

James and Connolly confirm these findings, and add a third dimension. They argue that change in schools - especially externally imposed change - is more threatening than change in other professional contexts because it affects not only the teacher's practice but also the all-important and complex issue of classroom relationships with pupils. There is a double whammy effect. Good school leaders recognise it; governmet prescription doesn't.

All agree that part of the answer is professional development, another topic that generates a lot of titles. Managing Professional Development in Schools (by Sonia Blandford, RoutledgeFalmer pound;16.99. TES pound;15.99; 10 copies pound;155) and Continuing Professional Development by Anna Craft (second edition, Routledge Falmer, pound;16.99) are helpful additions to the list. Inevitably, they cover similar ground, but the perspectives are different. Blandford's book, as the title suggests, is essentially about managing it: how best to combine what she calls management theory with government requirements so as to develop the confidence and competence of teachers. Total Quality Management is here, for example; so is Investors in People; so (of course) is the School Development Plan.

Craft's volume, based on an OU Masters-level programme and subtitled "a practical guide for teachers and schools", is primarily about evaluating CPD: how best to ensure that it actually adds to effectiveness? TQM and IIP feature less largely; the acid question (back to school improvement) is whether we should be looking for accountability or development. Both books will be useful for the staff development co-ordinator. Both, however, suffer (as teachers do) from the pace of educational change. Inevitably, their chapters on appraisal have been overtaken to some extent by the new performance management requirements. That doesn't invalidate their advice, though.

Michael Farrell's latest book, Key Issues for Secondary Schools (RoutledgeFalmer, pound;16.99), faces the same problem. Like its companion primary volume, it's a guide in a nutshell to 30 or so of the perennial issues that senior managers and subject leaders have to deal with: everything from attendance to value added and assessment to very able pupils. It deals less with issues than with requirements: it draws heavily on DfEE circulars, and even a leavening of jocular anecdote doesn't always lighten the tone.

Some topics are too big for their four- or five-page allocation; others (such as performance management) aren't here at all. But it is a useful and reassuring manual for teachers in training, those seeking promotion, and certainly for governors.


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