How to get the most out of life in the city

7th March 2003 at 00:00
Managing Urban Schools: leading from the front

By Jim Donnelly, Kogan Page pound;19.99

Teaching is beset, Jim Donnelly says, by people who think they know how to do the job better than those who actually do it, often in tough circumstances. How true that is. It is certainly not a comment that applies to Jim himself, however. Thirty years of teaching - 10 of them as head of a demanding school in Liverpool - have given him real insight into the challenges that face the urban school, and a shrewd and streetwise understanding of how they are best surmounted. He is well worth listening to.

The thrust of his argument is that we've got our priorities wrong. Whatever projects like Excellence in Cities may achieve, the overall effect of diversity and choice and league tables and the rest of the paraphernalia of a market-driven schooling system is to strengthen confident suburban schools at the expense of their struggling downtown neighbours. The resources that matter - the best parental support, the best teachers, the best heads - are unfairly shared.

Especially, perhaps, the best heads. Somehow, Donnelly argues, we've got to reverse the notion that the inner-city headship is the one you have to escape from, or avoid altogether. That's partly a problem for government: equally, he says, it's a problem for the profession. High-fliers have got to be persuaded that the problems of disadvantaged schools are surmountable and the challenges satisfying. Hence this book - a simple, down-to-earth and positive guide to what works best. At one level, perhaps, it's predictable: 10 short chapters highlighting, as you would expect, the centrality of leadership and vision, the crucial issue of developing self-esteem among all who use the school, the nuts and bolts of "organising oneself" and of managing buildings, resources, people, the paramount importance of winning friends and allies. Nothing, you might say, that hasn't already been covered in the earnest tomes of the school improvement movement.

The difference is that Donnelly is in the thick of it. He's writing from the front line: he is saying not "we know what works", but rather "we know what worked for us". The tone is unpretentious, almost diffident; the short sub-sections of these chapters sound more like notes from a staff working party than memos from head office.

But don't be fooled. Open this book at random and you'll find good practice and realistic advice. On reward systems, for example, and the familiar problem of merit certificate inflation: a "cycle of achievement" and merits with a notional cash or voucher value. On the potential (and the pitfalls) of web-sites; on lavish advertising (often a waste of money compared with the word on the street from satisfied parents); on business cards for staff (and pupils); on giving pupil councils a school improvement budget (much better at countering vandalism than homilies in assembly, he says, and an example of trust in action).

As you would expect from an expert on ICT, he is particularly good on ways of maximising its benefits and minimising its aggravations. Why not store pupils' work on the network? Printing is expensive and time-consuming.

It's not a long book: little more than a single evening's reading. Though it's written from a secondary background, primary teachers will find it equally applicable to their experience. Most heads will find new insights here; teachers beginning to think about leadership, especially, will find it both encouraging and helpful.

If there is a reservation, it is that Donnelly underplays some of the problems that disadvantaged schools face. There is nothing here about discipline, for instance: yet teachers know how energy-sapping disruption can be, even in the best-led schools. And there is too much about schools having the courage to set their own agendas and determine their own criteria of success. One of the problems of schools "at risk" is that this is just what they cannot do. Donnelly rightly says "you must value every child". The league table culture adds a vicious rider: "especially if they are on the CD (or 34) borderline".

He makes this point obliquely in his intriguing (and too brief) concluding chapter, "Dealing with the enemy". His central argument, though, is that in the end the problems of disadvantaged schools come down to leadership. That is certainly what the politicians would like us to believe, but it isn't true. Unless we are clearer about the hurdles that such schools must climb, leadership may be a matter not so much of dealing with the enemy as colluding with it.

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