There has been a great deal of emphasis on failing schools, a subject that bar-room bores (and politicians) find it easy to sound off about. But it is much more interesting to study schools that are improving - and there are just as many of them.
Analysing the 1996 performance tables, I discovered that 278 schools, all from the state sector, had improved on their 1995 performance by 10 or more percentage points, on the standard benchmark of 5 or more A-C grades at GCSE. (By coincidence, 281 schools at that time were regarded by OFSTED,the school inspection service, as failing.)
It is clearly important that we pay as much attention to success as to failure, both for the sake of improving morale and for disseminating good practice. I decided to ask the schools that had improved how they accounted for their performance.
The range of schools was wide. Some moved up from low scores to 20 per cent or more 5 A-C grades, while others raised achievement levels from 80 per cent or more. Comparisons with a single previous year may not, of course, indicate a trend, and many schools had simply returned to a level they had reached two or three years earlier. Still, an improvement of 10 percentage points or more is a significant shift.
Thirty-nine of the schools had fewer than 100 pupils aged 15, and these I excluded from the survey. The remaining 239 schools were invited to identify and place in order the factors which they believed had most contributed to their improved results. Around two-thirds of them replied. The perceptions of headteachers, who answered the questionnaires, may or may not represent the views of their colleagues and students; but heads are duty-bound to take an overview of their schools and are generally skilled in doing so.
The widespread uptake during the last five years of courses in educational management (leading to post-graduate qualifications) is evidence of a fundamental change in the culture of schools. The new government' s reinforcement of this process, with the adoption of mandatory training for headship, is another staging post. Local management of schools seems to have convinced heads and their deputies that they must either learn to manage or opt for early retirement.
Effective management may also call for structural changes, and many schools identified the need to change or modify the roles of senior management teams, heads of faculties and departments. But rapid transformation of job-descriptions is likely to be impeded by existing salary structures.
Successful curriculum development presupposes successful staff development. It is clear that successful schools are seeing staff development programmes as integral rather than as the expression of individual preferences by members of staff. The recognition that certain school improvements have been directly related to the quality of recruitment of new staff is also a hopeful sign.
Good schools have always paid attention to the needs of individual students, even when their management structures created conflict between pastoral and academic responsibil ities. The impetus in most of today's improving schools has been to focus these activities. The result has been a growth in after-school study clubs, additional lessons and workshops, help with revision skills and a more flexible approach to the school day.
"Mentoring" is a term that cropped up in nearly every response. Schools generally use the term to mean the provision of extra support for individual students, probably outside normal classroom arrangements. (Teacher-training institutions, on the other hand, use it to describe the process in which one experienced teacher supports another, less experienced, teacher. This confusion of terminology should be cleared up.)
Pragmatism has led many schools to ask themselves how to push more candidates into the 5 A*-C category. Many have recognised that the careful monitoring of borderline candidates pays dividends, especially if they are then targeted for special support. If, for example, a school with 200 15-year-olds achieves a 30 per cent 5 A*-C pass rate, the successful targeting of just 20 borderline DC candidates can deliver a 40 per cent pass rate. If this can be done without disturbing the balance of care for the other pupils, then, it is argued, the targeted pupils gain in self-estee m and the school gains in reputation. Some schools have also been quick to recognise that certain subjects are easier to get a C in than others, and have steered students towards them. It is difficult to judge how widespread this practice is.
It is sometimes difficult to decide which comes first: the feel-good factor or the good examination results. Many schools said they improved their performance because the staff had higher morale or greater expections; because the students had greater confidence and self-esteem; or because the parents and community were more supportive. On the other hand, all these things may flow from examination success. What is incontestable is that success does not come overnight. Schools spoke of the long haul to achievement, of sustained effort and commitment.
A small but emphatic group of heads attributed the jump of 10 or more percentage points solely to a higher ability level in the 1995-6 cohort. They expressed confidence in the prognostic tests carried out when their pupils were 11 years old, and in some cases believed that they could accurately estimate performance levels for the next two or three years. There will be many who regard this as a counsel of despair or a self-fulfilling prophecy. When one year can be called good, another can be called poor. The idea that a group of perhaps 200 students can be written off in such a way is worrying. Now that we have the evidence of tests at key stages 2 and 3, together with mock exams in Year 11, should so much emphasis be placed on single estimates of ability?
* Ian Lawrence is a freelance management consultant, writer and researcher