Essential ingredients of greatness

19th November 2004 at 00:00
What makes an outstanding school? Andy Schofield reads a guide that tells it how it is

Excellence in Education: the making of great schools

By Sir Cyril Taylor and Conor Ryan

David Fulton pound;25

This is a book that needed to be written. The English specialist schools movement has been one of the most successful networks for improving education anywhere in the world in the past 15 years. Taylor and Ryan explain how it was done. Here is a crystal clear account of the ingredients that the authors believe are needed to create great schools, not just from those that may have been merely good, but from others that were underperforming or worse.

If the specialist schools movement is a phenomenon, there is no doubt that Sir Cyril Taylor is one too. He has manoeuvred his way around eight education secretaries since being appointed chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust in 1987, and has overseen the conversion of a once controversial Tory initiative into a flagship New Labour policy. His co-author, Conor Ryan, has been in on the act too, as special adviser to David Blunkett during the latter's time as education secretary.

In some ways this book is unashamedly straightforward. Each chapter is devoted to explaining one of the vital characteristics of a "great" school: for example, primary-secondary transition, using data, financial management, or discipline and attendance. These strands are unexceptional in themselves, but working together they can lead to major change and improvement.

Each chapter then offers the reader practical guidance using real examples.

Overall, the book stands as a tribute to the outstanding headteachers (many of whom are quoted extensively) who have set new standards for all of us of to aspire to. This is where this book really hits the mark, revealing the passionate commitment and dedication of the people who work in and lead secondary schools.

You can, of course, improve a school's results by changing the intake. Some specialist schools reserve the right to interview or select according to aptitude, which is a shame. But the real stories of greatness in this volume are of schools in challenging circumstances that have transformed the fortunes of the communities they serve, while still educating the same students they had before they earned specialist status. There is a positive energy running through many of the case studies, generated by an overwhelming refusal to accept failure. Time after time, schools have managed radically to change their fortunes.

The overwhelming message is that if it can be done in Croydon, Birmingham or Newcastle, it can be done anywhere. This is a direct challenge to our education system, with its long tail of underachievement and disengagement evident at 16-plus, coupled with the continued link between low attainment and poor socio-economic status.

Some people have long memories and will never be convinced by the specialist argument. But the message of this book is loud and clear: don't be distracted by the extra money specialist status might bring. Here are real-life examples of educators who have worked hard to bring about change that has bettered the life chances of thousands of learners.

The book challenges many orthodoxies, showing how schools have broken with tradition to bring about improvement. There is much to ponder in relation to restructuring the workforce, lesson and term length, personalised learning and the use of ICT. Do all students need to spend three years studying at key stage 3? Where can we look elsewhere in the world for ideas? Knowing that other schools have grappled with these issues and changed their practice can encourage others.

Excellence in Education will not be to everyone's liking. Some will be put off by the back-cover endorsement from Kenneth (now Lord) Baker. Others will deride the lack of theory or criticise the emphasis solely on what works, to the detriment of a wider political perspective.

The narrative does sometimes border on the idiosyncratic. For example, the authors see a direct link between good order (a prerequisite for successful change) and school uniforms. So readers shouldn't be surprised to learn that "appropriate shoes are equally important. A good school extends its dress code to ban outlandish hairdos or the wearing of body jewellery such as tongue bars, nose-rings and earrings." This is an excursion into a peculiar English obsession we could probably have done without.

Some may see over-simplification or even over-confidence in a chapter headed "How to turn round a failing school", but the beauty of this book is that it shows how some schools have been saved; the nuggets of gold and artful insights from practitioners far outweigh any minor eccentricities.

Excellence in Education brings together the pieces of the jigsaw that have enabled an increasing number of schools to effect radical change and improvement. Here is a positive, successful story about how schools in the UK are continuing to achieve great things. It is a refreshing and uncomplicated message in a business often dominated by hot air.

Some of us can over-analyse and over-complicate what is sometimes fairly straightforward. Others are too cynical or too modest to pass on success stories. This book is an antidote to all that. It is a manifesto for all those practitioners who still hold on to the dream that we could be doing so much better for those in our charge.

Andy Schofield is headteacher of Varndean School, Brighton, East Sussex

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