Virginia Makins visited two comprehensives to see how schools might become more reliable.
I know an air traffic controller," says a teacher at Marlwood School with some emphasis. "He says his employers pay close attention to working conditions, limited working hours, health and stress..."
It isn't easy to work up great enthusiasm for a new project, with its associated target setting, data collection and progress chasing, at the end of the long autumn term. The reception Newcastle University Professor of Education David Reynolds got when he launched the Highly Reliable Schools project at an in-service day at Marlwood in mid-December was distinctly reserved. A lot of coughing and very few laughs. When David Reynolds made the comparison between the work of teachers and air traffic controllers, you could have cut the scepticism with a knife.
Marlwood is a successful 1,200-pupil comprehensive just north of Bristol, with a mostly middle-class intake. A recent Office for Standards in Education report was generally good, but pointed to a small minority of under-achieving and disaffected pupils who needed more attention - what HRS would describe as a "trailing edge".
According to the headteacher, Ken Williams, an expanded senior management team decided to have a go at the HRS project, along with eight neighbouring schools. The schools are used to working together: they co-operated in a late-phase Technical and Vocational Education Initiative consortium.
"The majority of teachers are reserving judgement, but accept that it is right to have a strategy to identify avoidable failure," says Mr Williams. "If it came to look very demanding in terms of classroom teachers I would think again."
The first practical action, in all eight schools, has been to test all Year 7 pupils in their first term with a reading test and the non-verbal reasoning section of a general IQ-type test. Originally, the project stipulated a maths test, but the schools could not agree on one. The schools are also using the systems developed at Newcastle University for measuring "value added" at the GCSE and A-level stages, known in the trade as ALIS and YELLIS. Marlwood started using them last year, and has already begun the tricky business of comparing the progress made by students in different subjects, or with different teachers.
The Year 7 testing is designed to give the eight schools a common baseline to measure students' progress, help later "benchmarking" against each other's results, and to identify, at the earliest possible stage, children who seem to be under-achieving.
The project has imposed two common targets for the eight schools: greatly improved exam results, and reduced levels of truancy. Each school also has to choose two measurable targets of its own.
By the end of their INSET day, the Marlwood staff hadn't finally chosen their targets. A project working party is now drawing up proposals based on discussions during the day. At least one novel idea came up - checks on whether pupils have the equipment they need for the day's work when they come to school. "People thought it might be a simple measure that indicated a lot about pupils' motivation and attitude to learning," says Ken Williams.
Another more complex indicator is "time on task": the time taken in transferring between lessons, settling down when they get there, and - hardest to measure - the time individual pupils spend really working in class.
At the INSET day, David Reynolds outlined recently-identified, key ingredients of effective schools - things like high expectations, good use of homework, a clear reward policy, consistency, and a good head who can lead from the front and promote change from the bottom-up. The next in-service session in the spring will focus on the ingredients of effective teaching.
After the opening session, the teachers met in smaller groups to discuss what they saw as characteristics of an effective school, and how well Marlwood matched up to them. The discussion ranged widely. Teachers mentioned pupils' (and teachers') happiness and confidence, a pleasant environment, and an atmosphere that challenges pupils with things they might find difficult, without causing them anxiety.
There was some discussion about whether focusing on what is measurable will distract from more worthwhile and subtle goals. There were suggestions for tackling complex issues to do with people and their feelings. Litter, vandalism and Marlwood's system of "yellow memos" for disciplinary matters were all put forward as indicators of pupils' motivation and commitment.
Charles Boney, a General National Vocational Qualification and business studies teacher, who had sounded pretty sceptical about the project in the initial session, liked the emphasis on "standard operating procedures". Teachers in the group seemed to agree that some Marlwood procedures, such as the rewards policy, were sometimes very patchily applied.
The most successful bit of the INSET day was a session when all those teaching one Year 7 class got together to look at the pupils' test scores and other evidence about their achievement, including teachers' marks and opinions. They discussed strategies for pupils who seemed to be under-achieving or having problems.
"A lot of the teachers found the discussion about Year 7 pupils very useful, " says Cathy Allsop, the special needs co-ordinator. She is pleased that the project will focus on the "trailing edge". But she is worried about how far a good INSET day would carry into changed attitudes and practical activity. "An understandable reaction after all the changes we've dealt with in recent years is: 'Is this just another thing that's being foisted on us'."
She is disappointed that a few colleagues were inclined to disregard the test results when they clashed with their own view of a pupil. "Teachers' judgements are very important, but there are other important viewpoints - the parents', the students', and test data," she says.
Angie Janes, the head of Year 7, was pleased that the project was targeting her year. But she was concerned about whose responsibility it will be to collect and analyse all the data, monitor agreed strategies and talk to pupils and parents. "The nitty gritty will have to be done," she points out. "If it's the tutors... their time is already stretched to the limit."
After the project launch, many teachers were still reserving judgement. There was a little muttering about timeshare-style salesmanship, but most seemed genuinely open-minded. "It's opened some doors - we'll see if they lead anywhere," was one typical reaction.
"No-one at the end of the day suggested that the project might not be worthwhile. The questions were about the workload it would cause, the back-up available, the business of baring all to your colleagues, and looking at individual teacher effectiveness," says Ken Williams.