The importance of managing change

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Organisational Effectiveness and Improvement in Education. Edited by Alma Harris, Nigel Bennett and Margaret Preedy Open University Press; Pounds 14.99

There used to be a full-back who played for Nottingham Forest who could, if the need arose, rake his studs down the inside thigh of the opposition striker without the referee even realising that there had been a confrontation. The art lay in concealing what was going on. This book plays such a game to perfection.

Reading it, I was reminded that academic discourse really is extraordinarily mannered. There are few remaining areas of life which offer the opportunity to observe so many rules. Maybe it's a necessary precaution, a way of ensuring that the body in the library is fictional rather than real, but it does have some curious effects. In a book like this, which reprints a number of essays and extracts from the current research literature, it can leave the naive reader conscious that there may be more to the juxtaposition of different points of view than is immediately apparent but unable to pin down exactly what it is.

On the face of it, the book is exactly what it claims to be, a well chosen (and superbly edited) collection of readings about school effectiveness and school improvement. It's in that fine tradition of Open University publications that squeeze a whole shelf of books into 300 pages, in order to compensate, no doubt, for the problems of students who don't have access to a library. You half expect to find each chapter Dewey referenced. The way in which all the essential features of the debate about school effectiveness and school improvement are represented is genuinely impressive.

There is, however (and perhaps inevitably), a price to be paid. The sources that are most handy in compiling a book of this kind are those which are themselves, in some sense, compilations. There is no shortage of theoretical models as this or that contributor seeks to provide their own version of a unified theory of whichever aspect of the topic they are dealing with. There is less room for the more partisan contribution, for the demolition job that may be harder to justify but at least gives you a clear view of the landscape.

For this reason, the book exists in the shadow of a number of key figures who are extensively cited, but not actually represented. It is, if you like, haunted by the bodies in the library. John Gray and Carol FitzGibbon, for example, don't actually get to speak for themselves on "value-added" and there's no space for Michael Rutter or Peter Mortimore. This probably doesn't matter a great deal, but it does, in part, explain the feeling that there is more of a potential to be engaged in, if only it could be flushed out into the open.

Despite this, there is much in the book that is very helpful. I found particularly valuable parts two and three which seek to relate theory to practice and tease out some of the important issues for the management of change. The chapters on added value, for example, include some disarmingly simple reminders about how progress should be measured that have far-reaching implications. Take this maxim from Andrew McPherson's piece: "A simple statistic may not be an adequate summary of a school's effect on pupil progress." That may look obvious, but it puts a big question mark against the plans of both political parties for publishing information about value added (the contribution each schools makes to its pupils) and it is a useful reminder to the profession that if the only data available is about whole-school effects, then it will have limited value.

The book also takes seriously the view that school improvement is about what happens in classrooms, and provides some insights into what that might mean for policy makers and managers. Michael Fullan's piece on the management of change is, as usual, an inspiration even though he is not saying anything that won't already be familiar to paid-up members of his fan club, and David Hargreaves addresses the vital issue of school culture in a way that should serve as a caution against making any easy assumptions about what kind of culture is most receptive to change.

The editors are a touch optimistic in their belief that the book will be of direct value to practitioners - few will find the time to read it. But it is the kind of publication that justifies educational research and ought to persuade government of the need to ensure that teachers still have opportunities for higher-degree work in education.

* The writer is deputy director of education for Redcar and Cleveland, but is writing here ina personal capacity

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