Nurturing an air of learning;Briefing;School management

9th July 1999 at 01:00
What distinguishes successful schools is that staff and pupils alike work to achieve their potential. That is the message of the last TES-Keele seminar of 1999, writes Neil Levis.

Here's a double-edged research finding. A survey of Scottish primary schoolteachers found that most teachers thought their pupils could be successful. Depressingly, most of these same teachers did not believe their colleagues shared their optimistic outlook.

It is teachers' confidence in their ability to make a difference to their pupils that is crucial to schools becoming successful learning communities, the final TES-Keele seminar was told.

We take it as read that pupils are in school to learn. We have all become familiar with the notion that teachers must be learners too if schools are to succeed. Louise Stoll, who recently moved from the Institute of Education in London to take up the chair of education at Bath, introduced to the seminar audience the notion that schools themselves develop a separate identity and, if the school is to be successful, the identity must be that of a learning institution.

It's all to do with internal dynamics. To quote Professor Stoll: a school with a well-developed internal capacity is one that has "the power to engage in and sustain continuous learning of teachers and the school itself for the purpose of pupil learning."

It is the school's collectiveness that is important. Professor Stoll gave the example of the team of basketball stars who play as individuals and fail to realise their full potential compared with those of lesser talents who achieve great things by working well together.

Schools can even learn in adversity. There was a primary school - again, in Scotland - destroyed by fire, all its resources lost. Previously it had not been a happy place, but the experience made staff pull together. They had to be housed in the local secondary school, with which they had not enjoyed a good relationship. Proximity forged a new partnership; the local authority rallied round and became much more involved with the school. A new culture was born.

Professor Stoll drew as a model an amoeba changing shape to respond to the influences of the outside world with components within it (departments, say, or year groups) that interact with one another. Any infighting or battles over policy contribute to the culture of the school. The growing numbers of support staff, many of whom often live close to the school, can be a significant influence on a school.

For the purpose of the analogy, she said, the school has a membrane around it: there are times when managers should let the outside world in, but they must have the confidence and judgment to know when to shut it out and concentrate on internal issues.

Professor Stoll said schools' capacity for learning needs to be enhanced both from within and without. Headteachers and senior management teams need to provide an overarching vision about learning with high expectations for pupils and staff.

Schools must listen to the voice of their pupils, she said, and reported on recent findings from the Improving School Effectiveness project at Strathclyde University. Pupils were asked how far teachers helped them understand their work, believed in their ability to achieve, gave them progress reports, praised them and were generally friendly. Where the attitude from staff was positive, there was a significant correlation with greater pupil attainment.

Professor Stoll herself was one of those involved in the survey of Scottish schools mentioned above. She quoted three teachers from that survey. The first had a classroom strategy that did not climb above survival. The second was transfixed by the limitations of the pupils. But the third obviously found work a joy: "There are no limitations. You can come in the door and the world is your oyster . . . the children will be encouraged. Nothing is holding us back."

From outside the school, Professor Stoll believes managers help teachers best by respecting their professionalism, providing good regular training and encouraging them to be inquiry-minded.

She echoed the words of John Macbeath, director of the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University, to the "critical friends" of schools, those like herself working to help schools improve: they must always ask themselves in every interaction they have with the school and its staff whether what they are doing is helping the learning process to improve.

Finally, Professor Stoll gave her own litmus test for a good school: it is the place where you would become a better teacher just by being on the staff. We all know, either at first hand or vicariously, places like that.

THE NORMS OF IMPROVING SCHOOLS.

l Shared goals: "We know where we're going."

* Responsibility for success:"We can succeed."

* Collegiality:"We're in this together."

* Continuous improvement:"We can get better."

* Lifelong learning:"Learning is for everyone."

* Risk-taking:"We learn by trying something new."

* Support:"There is always someone there to help."

* Mutual respect:"Everyone has something to offer."

* Openness:"We can discuss our differences."

* Celebration and humour:"We feel good about ourselves."

From 'Changing Our Schools: Linking School Effectiveness and School Improvement' by Louise Stoll and Dean Fink (Open University, 1996)

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