Education books

28th September 2001 at 01:00
SCHOOL EFFECTIVENESS AND SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT (edited by Alma Harris and Nigel Bennett, Continuum pound;17.99) aims to bring an alternative perspective to the claims and counterclaims of these fashionable and noisy movements. Alone, it says, each has obvious limitations.

The school effectiveness lobby sees schools as similar mechanisms that can be controlled and regulated; the improvement lobby sees them as individual and potentially dynamic organisms. Both, though, pay too little attention to the importance of context.

The solution, the authors say, is to link these two theoretical frameworks with a third, organisation analysis: the study of the structural, cultural and political (with a small "p") factors that make schools so different and so complex. It's a welcome message. Whether policy-makers will heed it is an open question.

The theme is repeated in Kimberley Kinsler and Mae Gamble's Reforming Schools (Continuum pound;16.99), which aims to explain why school systems are so difficult to change and why reform efforts so often fail. The setting is New York City but the case study at the centre of the story (a top-down school improvement programme that misfired) will resonate with UK teachers.

Not that teachers come out that well. Too many of them believed improving Harlem pupils' learning was impossible. Their attitude was "this too will pass". But the politicians and administrators come out worse.

The message is that schools need less naming and shaming and more support. Improving public education, the authors say, is society's obligation. It can't be left to schools alone.

Is it, then, the task of the local education authority? Yes, say the editors of Effective LEAs and School Improvement (David Woods and Martin Cribb, RoutledgeFalmer pound;17.99), provided they "restructure, refocus and re-culture their services to meet the new and challenging agendas". The agendas, of course, are those of central government - hence this handbook to the new roles and requirements. And very comprehensive it is, as long as you accept the fundamental premise that "support has to be focused on the cause of the problem, which in policy terms is the school". Hence the checklists of aims and objectives and inputs and outcomes and the constant stress on the audit trail. It is a mechanistic model.

It is left to Tim Brighouse to point out in an almost elegiac contribution that the bottom-up approaches of many pioneering and creative LEAs are being killed by "the dead hand of national imposition".

There has to be room for vision and leadership. Leadership for Quality Schooling (edited by Kam-Cheung Wong and Colin Evers, RoutledgeFalmer pound;50) addresses that need for academics rather than practitioners, drawing together thinking and research on what has become an international preoccupation.

What is striking in these chapters is the growing realisation that effective leadership, too, is "complex, shifting, and context-bound". It is also, as a comparison of Chinese and Australian thinking makes clear, a cultural construct. Do you want management through mechanisms of compliance, or leadership through "strategic conversation"?

Thomas Sergiovanni, whose question it is, is clear about the answer - and wants practitioners to know it. His Leadership: what's in it for schools? (RoutledgeFalmer pound;12.99) is short and punchy and fully meets the promise of its title. We've tried the pyramid model, he says, and the running-a-railway model; now, we're deep in high-performance, target-setting mode. This is an improvement, but school leaders still feel they are running in sand.

There is, he argues, a better model: one that asserts community over control, vision and values over authority, and conversation over communication. Old-fashioned? Not at all, he says. It is our hope for the future.

Finally, The Performing School, edited by Denis Gleeson and Chris Husbands (RoutledgeFalmer pound;16.99), pulls together all these themes. Government control of school structures, curricula and assessment is now a global phenomenon, but so increasingly, in the name of "effectiveness" and "improvement", is state prescription of teaching, management and leadership methods.

In Britain, performance management is what locks effectiveness and improvement together, and this book analyses the long-term implications of that.

Practitioners contribute as well as teacher trainers and researchers, and the tone is not wholly hostile. But there is a strong consensus in the conclusions. Flexibility or control? Dynamism or the status quo? The answers matter - and not just for schools.

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