How to lift our pupils' game in 100 days;Opinion

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
We need to create a climate in which it is seen as being cool to succeed at school, says Brian Boyd

Since Michael Rutter and his colleagues found that schools serving similar catchment areas could have quite different results, the focus of educational change has been on the school, as both the source of underachievement and the solution to society's ills. Gurus from the world of business, such as Charles Handy and Tom Peters, have argued that to make schools more effective we have to make them more efficient. The most recent publication from Scotland's HMI How good is our school? is in this tradition. To become better schools we need to embrace some 33 performance indicators, to move from aims to audit to action and to aspire to best practice in similar schools elsewhere. It is, par excellence, a managerial model, top-down and systems-based. But, it has, in a very short time become a bestseller, in educational terms, being snapped up in England and Wales and selling well abroad.

The underlying problem with such approaches to school effectiveness is that they focus on the measurable and are very light on the substance of learning and teaching. They seem to start from the premise that schools as organisations are the same as businesses, and can be subject to the same managerial processes. But schools are not businesses. There are essential differences which need to be addressed: * the objectives of schools are more difficult to define; * many of the objectives are not easily measurable; * children are not goods or outputs; * teachers are professionals; leducational management is fragmented nationally; * time to manage effectively is in short supply in schools.

All of these suggest that schools need to be treated differently from business, though not, of course, that management can be ignored as a key issue.

The same Scottish HMI which produced How good is our school has also produced excellent material to help schools examine their ethos and their values. They have produced ethos indicators for all schools in Scotland, and they coined the phrase "an ethos of achievement" in their 1993 report The Education of Able Pupils. The challenge is one which all schools must face - does your school have an ethos of achievement?

First of all, it demands a debate on what counts as achievement. If it is to be seen only in terms of narrow, measurable, academic attainment, then we will be failing to develop the whole child. And if all we recognise, reward and celebrate is this same narrow range, then pupils will continue to be turned off.

We need a climate for learning, an ethos where peer-group pressure is challenged, where it becomes "cool" to succeed. This means removing the barriers to effective learning and focusing on the attitudes, motivation and self-esteem of young people. If we really want to make all young people effective learners, and if we want to enable them to fulfil their potential, then it is not enough to test and to select. "Emotional intelligence" - self-esteem, motivation, perseverance, aspirations - are if anything more important as indicators of potential to learn than any standardised test which only measures cognitive attainment.

The phrase taken up recently by Hillary Clinton, "it takes a whole village to educate a child", is a timely reminder that there are still children who are born to fail. Any government seriously intent on tackling underachievement, promoting social cohesion and making the country competitive, must tackle poverty and its associated ills of disadvantage, disaffection and disenfranchisement. I would suggest that the new Government needs to do four things in the first 100 days to raise standards for all and not just for an expanded elite. It must: * focus on early intervention ensuring not just on all children learning to read independently but also on raising the self-esteem, aspirations and confidence of their families; * invest in the teaching force with an entitlement model of staff development ensuring through a general teaching council that all teachers are required to keep their skills up to date and are given a say in the measures designed to raise standards; * reject the notion that you make schools better by inspecting them, and replace the current Office for Standards in Education model with a four-strand approach to school improvement. This would involve rigorous self-evaluation within an agreed framework of success criteria, the appointment of a critical friend from the local authority to each school or cluster to act as an objective facilitator of school improvement, and inspection on a random - and unannounced - basis using published criteria of the kind used by Scottish HMI. It would also mean replacing the publication of raw results (which tell us nothing about the contribution the school makes to pupil attainment) with a value-added system which measures pupil progress as well as attainment.

We should also focus on values and seek a consensus in society about the aims of education and the contribution schools, parents and the various communities can make to achieving these aims.

And, finally, if there are lessons to be learned from Scotland let us open up the debate. The Scottish system has, more than most, managed to combine caring with excellence. but we too still have too much underachievement in the system. The Scottish education minister's announcement of new funding for early intervention initiatives is indeed welcome. It has the added merit of involving local authorities as partners in the enterprise, and signals a return to the traditional Scottish consensual approach.

But none of us can afford to be complacent. Children get one chance at schooling, and it is incumbent upon us as educationists to ensure that their experience is positive.

We need to challenge stereotypical assumptions that some children are incapable of effective learning and shift the focus from the managerial systems to the relationships among people in our schools. After all, Charles Handy himself in The Empty Raincoat has recently recanted and said that he was wrong to argue that you can make organisations more effective simply by making them more efficient.

Dr Brian Boyd is associate director of the Quality in Education centre at the University of Strathclyde

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