No magic bullets, just better basics

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
You get out what you put in, as Kevin Harcombe discovers in his review of books on effective primary schools

How Very Effective Primary Schools Work

By Chris James, Michael Connolly, Gerald Dunning and Tony Elliott

Paul Chapman pound;19.99 pb

Classroom Karma: creating positive learning environments in primary schools

By David Wright

David Fulton pound;12.99

Here are two books very different in style but both concerned with improving learning in schools. The first is based on research into key approaches used by very effective but socio-economically disadvantaged schools. The second, written "by a teacher for teachers", provides strategies to enable professionals to establish a learning environment "where pupils feel valued, motivated and better able to achieve".

The authors of How Very Effective Primary Schools Work, importantly, make it clear that motivation and value is at the heart of their work too, and that a concentration on academic basics and a creative curriculum are not mutually exclusive goals.

Their research set out to establish how primary schools with moderate to high socio-economic disadvantage (based on free school meals take-up) achieve high pupil attainment. The successful schools they describe (all in Wales) used methods which their teachers saw as unremarkable; "established good practice". The teachers include regular recaps and reviews during lessons and use "advance organisers" (telling the pupils what is going to happen). The researchers found that a key characteristic of all 18 schools is what they term a "both-and mentality": having both high levels of attainment, and a rich, varied and stimulating curriculum. The schools were also characterised by a "high demand-high provision" way of working. A lot was asked of the teachers and children, but this was in the context of high provision: resources, support, positive feedback and appreciation.

None of the schools used socio-economic deprivation as an excuse. As one head put it, "When pupils leave school no one will be interested in whether their school had lots of pupils who had free school meals. So we've got to make sure they get as good qualifications as everyone else, if not better."

Tellingly, in this age of magic bullet solutions, the schools here all put an emphasis on "the basics", and many of them are described as having a "traditional feel". One headteacher explained, "We're not into things like accelerated learning. No fancy new methods here, the traditional ones work well for us."

If that sounds like a rallying cry for a back-to-basics approach, it isn't quite. The 18 schools had simply made sense of the plethora of changes and "implemented them in a way that best suited" them. They were never deflected from their "primary task" of doing the very best they can for all their pupils, and then doing even better. All the schools aimed for and regularly accomplished high attainment in national tests as well as high achievement by continually improving on previous best.

The influence of "fancy new" accelerated learning can be felt in Classroom Karma. The author also draws on Howard Gardner's notion of preferred learning styles and multiple intelligences, which has critics (John White of the London Institute) as well as supporters (Tim Brighouse, chief adviser for the London Schools Challenge). Indeed, Classroom Karma might be described by more cynical observers as educational snake oil, but is actually practical and grounded in useful case studies from classrooms.

David Wright begins entertainingly with an extended anecdote about an unassuming, mild-mannered geography teacher who turned out to be a superhero of motivation and learning, teaching the children about the tropics, compass points, contour lines all through the power of story.

Understanding and engaging children and enlivening their learning is at the centre of Wright's approach. He believes that we need to help children ask questions rather than simply give answers, and much of the book is concerned with getting the best behaviour out of potentially difficult children. He places types of poor behaviour in context and examines it from the perspective of the pupil, the family and the school. He offers explicit strategies to use, for example, for those with ADHD or Asperger's syndrome, or those simply disillusioned and demotivated.

The upbeat, "top tips" approach of Wright is one which many practitioners will like. He walks the talk and separates the learning into digestible chunks. It makes his book more user-friendly than How Very Effective Primary Schools Work, in which the drier, academic patois might discourage some readers. That would be a shame, because the research findings offer real insight into providing the best for children whatever their circumstances. Its concluding statement, too, is one which could equally well have appeared in Classroom Karma: "Very effective schools are what all children deserve."

Kevin Harcombe is headteacher of Redlands primary school, Fareham, Hampshire

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