The corridors are filled with noisy pupils minutes after the bell. When lessons eventually start, there is noise and disruption. Exercise books show evidence of scrappy, inadequate work and poor teaching. Loud-mouthed, aggressive pupils rule the roost. Quieter ones keep their heads down. The staff room atmosphere is deeply depressing, and conversation centres on the inadequacies either of the head or of the pupils and their parents. Welcome to the failing school.
The problems, once you start looking, are easy to see, and the solutions, given some professional insight and expertise, not difficult to define. The real challenge lies in discovering the will and the ability to make things happen. This is made abundantly clear in No Quick Fixes, an absorbing and very timely new book on schools in difficulty edited by Louise Stoll and Kate Myers (Falmer Press Pounds 14.95).
In one chapter, for example, Christine Whatford, director of education in Hammersmith and Fulham, tells the painful story of Hammersmith School ("Is this the worst school in Britain?" asked the Daily Mail) through its time as one of Ofsted's failing schools, up to its rebirth as the Phoenix School and its eventual emergence from special measures. It is an often distressing tale of support strategies being devised only to founder on the rocks of inadequate leadership.
The low point was probably in March 1995 at the time of the resignation of the school's third head in four years. This, though, was followed by the decision to change the name of the school and actively to seek out the kind of head who would turn things round.
Whatford highlights the various paradoxes that face local authorities in dealing with their problem schools - that, for example local management formula funding fails to recognise the need that such a school has for experienced staff, supply cover, consultancy and ultimately for a good and experienced head.
There are other, equally illuminating case studies, by Linda Turner, for example, who came from the authority advisory service to take over a "special measures" primary in Oldham, and by Steven Pugh, who became head of a similarly beleaguered residential special school in Derby.
So far as I can tell, Stoll and Myers miss none of the issues. In their chapter, "The Cruising School", Louise Stoll and Dean Fink tackle what is a common complaint among teachers who battle in difficult surroundings - that there are schools in "good" areas, with well-motivated pupils, which manage to underperform quite seriously while giving quite the opposite impression to their admiring clientele.
This is a significant book, timely and highly relevant. It provides helpful insights into the causes of school failure, and, more importantly, points to some of the ways forward.
In Leading Primary Schools (Open University, paperback Pounds 12.99, hardback Pounds 42.50), David Clegg and Shirley Billington focus on the role of the primary head. This very personal and thought-provoking account focuses on a holistic, contextualised view of educational leadership that challenges much of the compartmentalised management thinking that has crept into headship training.
Assessment in the Classroom by George K. Cunningham (Falmer Press Pounds 14.95) offers highly practical advice on what, for many teachers, is a continuous source of worry and often unproductive hard work. It gives basic information on the technical aspects of measurement, and tells teachers how to construct effective classroom tests.
Finally, anything - well most things - you want to know about Education in England and Wales is to be found in the book of that title from the NFER, by Gill Holt, Sigrid Boyd, Barbara Dickinson, Heledd Hayes and Joanna Le Metais (Pounds 12). Well indexed, authoritative and accessible, and reasonably priced, it is an excellent quick reference source for answering queries about systems, definitions, acts of parliament, codes of practice and the like.