Successful heads who have the answers are to share them with those who do not, write Ray Tarleton and Phil Rowbotham
A religious leader trying to illustrate the nature of wisdom asks his followers, "Do you know what I am about to say?" "No," they answer. "Then go away until you do," he replies. To the same question the following week, they try the answer "yes" and are again told to go away as their wise leader is therefore not needed. The third week, when asked the question, they cunningly reply that half of them know and half of them do not. His reply? "Let those who do, tell those who do not!"
The chief inspector of schools, David Bell, recently reported (TES, December 12, 2003) that in one in eight primary lessons, teaching was unsatisfactory and that half of all lessons were not good enough to help the most disadvantaged pupils. This failure to meet government targets marks the official end to the belief that the years of top-down strategies from wise men can transform our schools.
The chief inspector's report states that: "Clearly structured lessons derived from official frameworks" are not sufficient. Since the introduction of the literacy strategy, only eight out of 150 local education authorities have seen the proportion of pupils reaching the standard in English increase every year. Whilst there is much that is good in the strategies, they have reached the limits of their power to improve.
Prescription has reached saturation point. But the drive towards a world-class education system is unremitting. For the past 20 years, schools have either been locked in competitive isolation, discreetly protecting the secrets of their success, or more recently, swamped by materials in glossy folders.
It is time to release a new force, to allow the profession to reveal the secrets of success locked in schools and teachers' classrooms. In other words, for those who have solutions to share them with those who do not.
And that is exactly what the National College for School Leadership's leadership network is doing. The network's members are a group of headteachers who are willing to provide evidence of what works. They are looking beyond their own schools to make a contribution to the system nationally.
Significantly, the first major piece of work they have undertaken - and with full funding from the Government - could provide the very answers needed to reverse the chief inspector's gloomy forecast for primary teaching. Twenty-five heads from the network have volunteered to experiment with different approaches to reducing variation in performance between groups of children, teachers and, at secondary level, different departments within their individual schools.
These schools are already advanced in their thinking about reducing variation and have a track record of success, which has given an accelerated start to the work. What is more, their ideas are being subjected to the intense and rigorous scrutiny of other heads. There is no more critical audience on the planet.
Those engaged in the year-long research project speak of "slow burn, big bonfire" approaches which will have lasting impact. This is very different to the quick-fix style of forgotten recent initiatives which were fast burn and soon extinguished.
One of the most fascinating discoveries of the project to date is that those teachers or departments whose performance is lower than that of others in the same school are usually unaware of what others do differently. We have not been effective as a profession in capturing the best of what we do well and making sure that everyone understands it and uses it.
Primary colleagues in the project tell us that after years of imposed policies they are feeling liberated by the opportunity to look more deeply at what is taking place in their schools. At last their voice is being listened to. There is a real prospect of schools developing through relationships and knowledge created from within.
An example of this is a new form of classroom observation where teachers can learn from each other. The present system of observation through performance management usually involves an experienced team leader watching an entire lesson of a colleague in their team. It is a monitoring process, with formal feedback, written reports and targets. It is time-consuming and bureaucratic.
The network's proposal is for a system in which teachers would be invited to see short sections of colleagues' lessons, not to grade them but to develop their own practice. Such a process would encourage learning by teachers from teachers. This is just one of several emerging ideas.
NCSL regional co-ordinators, themselves practising heads in the leadership network, are visiting schools to help steer the research. By next July the schools will have developed focused strategies, subjected to rigorous peer review, to offer to others across the country.
At last there is the possibility of a national strategy based on research from schools themselves with collaboration as the catalyst. Those who know the answers may soon be sharing them with those who do not.
Ray Tarleton is national leadership network co-ordinator and principal of South Dartmoor community college.Phil Rowbotham is north-west co-ordinator and headteacher of Holmes Chapel primary school