Leaving winter behind

17th March 2006 at 00:00
Tim Brighouse assesses a series that explores approaches to turning schools around Improving Schools in Exceptionally Challenging Circumstances: tales from the frontline

By Alma Harris, Sue James, Judith Gunraj, Paul Clarke and Belinda Harris Continuum pound;19.99

School Improvement: an unofficial approach By Martin Thrupp Continuum Pounds 18.99

Improving Schools through External Intervention By Christopher Chapman Continuum pound;19.99

Her Majesty's inspector Tom Wylie started something when he wrote Access and Achievement in Urban Education in 1993. He fired the starter pistol on the quest for school improvement in challenging urban circumstances, but he did so with the memorable warning that such "schools on their own haven't the resources within themselves to enable them to succeed". That hasn't deterred people from trying to prove that it is possible to provide the help that will allow schools to create and sustain success. Indeed, as Tom Wylie remarked to me the other day, a new industry of "school improvers"

has been established. "Don't heads tire of the endless gratuitous advice poured over them?"

Nobody could accuse the researchers who have written these three books of falling into that trap. Academic education researchers are now more likely to be writing for respectability, points and position in the regular research rating exercise rather than addressing directly those doing the job. If school leaders assume these research-based books are not intended for them, however, they will miss some thoughtful accounts of schools trying to keep their heads above water.

The DfES-funded Octet project is the subject of the book by Alma Harris and colleagues. Eight secondary schools - Whitefield school in the London borough of Barnet; St Albans C of E school, Birmingham; the Ridings, Halifax; Phoenix high school, London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham; the Channel school, Folkestone; Campion RC high school, Liverpool; Havelock school, Grimsby; and Pennywell school, Sunderland - were identified by the DfES in 2001 as having outstanding leadership, but also obstinately low five-or-more higher-grade GCSE scores. All these schools are in inner cities or large outlying estates.

Largely ignoring the schools' LEAs, the DfES ploughed on, investing quite generously - pound;150,000 for each school for each of three years - and commissioned evaluation and research. The department gave Alma Harris permission to use this data and access to the Octet project's papers; Improving Schools in Exceptionally Challenging Circumstances is the result.

The book opens with an explanation of the background to the project, including the state of research, and its aims and context. It then draws on the eight heads' perceptions of the experience and their assessment of its impact on their schools, before concluding with an overview by the authors.

Although the book doesn't spell it out, it is clear that the project was a story of opportunities for further knowledge expensively missed, not least because so many other initiatives were taking place at the same time. What were the subtly different contexts of each school? What of the comparatively different outcomes - they were huge - in terms of five or more higher grades, attendance, behaviour, parental involvement and staff turnover? What was the impact of the different leadership styles of the eight heads? What was the comparative performance of pupils entitled to free school meals in each school?

If there are even tentative answers to these and a host of other questions, they haven't been passed on by the authors or the DfES.

It's enough to make you sympathetic to Martin Thrupp's critique of the Official School Improvement (OSI) movement created by Michael Barber in that far-off and headily optimistic year, 1997. Thrupp uses CS Lewis's world of Narnia as a metaphor, so the chapters are headed "Always winter and never Christmas", "Just one piece of Turkish Delight" and "Even the trees are on her side". His romanticism is tempered by irony, however, as he dissects the shortcomings of OSI. He pulls no punches and is right in his criticism of "one size fits all" approaches to school improvement, although he's less than fair to the Blair government, which did after all introduce education action zones and Excellence in Cities to address this very point. But most readers will go along with his criticism of the over-simplistic use of GCSE and Sats results as measures of school success.

Christopher Chapman's book tries to evaluate the impact of external interventions on the improvement of schools in challenging circumstances. His review of Ofsted evidence and various DfES initiatives including, of course, the Octet project is supplemented by his own research involving questionnaires and interviews of more than 250 teachers in 27 schools. He sought the answers to two questions: "How do teachers working in such schools perceive external interventions?" and "What forms of external intervention are most likely to generate school improvement in challenging circumstances?" His conclusions provide us with some helpful pointers.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser to the London Schools Challenge

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