Hold tight, we're going forward

26th November 2004 at 00:00
TRANSFORMING LEARNING AND TEACHING. By Barbara MacGilchrist and Margaret Buttress. Paul Chapman Publishing pound;17.99

After years of political prescription, targets, league tables and obsession with accountability and bureaucracy, it is not surprising that some people working in education eventually snap. Five primary schools in the London borough of Redbridge decided instead to wrest back control of their own destiny. This book is an account of how it is much better, and indeed more enjoyable, to be a driver than a passenger.

It is a fascinating story of how the schools worked with their local education authority and London University's Institute of Education to improve teaching and learning. The co-authors, an academic from the university and one of the headteachers, describe how the schools carried out their plans, involving pupils and the community.

Books about school improvement can be exceptionally dreary. After 500 pages of deadly text, they usually come to the shocking conclusion that headteachers are very important. It's a long wait for such a truism. This 10-chapter book is not of that kind, because it tells the story, stage by stage, of real schools: how they started off, developed their ideas, supported teachers, provided leadership, accelerated children's learning, tracked their progress, evaluated the results, and consulted them.

The process the authors describe is based on a thorough understanding and application of what is known about teaching and learning. Some of their discoveries are not transferable to other schools, but a great deal has wider implications. Research into teaching and learning is not clear-cut.

Even researchers who are used to summarising a wide range of findings can reach a number of conclusions, often because of the varying contexts within which teachers work.

The Redbridge teachers developed and implemented ideas in their own classrooms. This is one of the most effective ways of applying research, because it allows people to adapt theory to their own circumstances. One strand, such as the management of pupil behaviour, can be tried out, then evaluated to see how it has worked.

One of the schools had been in special measures. Teachers tried to help pupils manage their behaviour, for example by encouraging them to take responsibility for their own anger and cope with it. Children are often left out of professional deliberations, but in this project they were part of the process.

Value-added scores are still problematic, but they are usually better than raw scores and are worth exploring. In this case they show that, over the course of the action programme, the five schools improved more than other schools in the borough. The evidence is bound to be shaky; the analysis is simple, and to some extent all experiments are likely to work in education when people believe in them. Nonetheless, at least they tried to evaluate what they did.

While I liked much of the content, I have to say, with the greatest reluctance, that I found the style of telling irritating from time to time.

The text often goes bullet-mad; this book has more flying bullets than a 1920s Chicago backstreet, with more than 200 in the final chapter alone.

The exclamation mark is also overused; there is a limit to how often the reader wants to be dug in the ribs.

Too many expressions appear inside inverted commas, sometimes several on the same page, the enclosed words being used in a perfectly normal way, while some sections are laced in cliche. The publisher should have offered the authors guidance on these matters during the editing process.

But, despite these criticisms, Transforming Learning and Teaching is well worth reading. The story of five schools acting together to improve what they do is a heroic and admirable one, especially in the present climate.

The pressure to comply with prevailing orthodoxy, rather than devise original treatments, has been too strong for many to act with the same courage and insight as the five Redbridge schools, but it can be done with enthusiasm and integrity, as these teachers, heads and pupils show.

Ted Wragg is emeritus professor of education at Exeter University

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