31st March 2000 at 01:00

David Blunkett and Chris Woodhead share a certain tetchiness about educational research. Too much of it, they say, is narrowly academic; too little of it addresses either the Government's strategies for educational improvement or the practical concerns of teachers. Here are four titles for which those criticisms don't hold.

Educational Leadership and Learning by Sue Law and Derek Glover (Open University Press pound;16.99) is written for teachers who are thinking seriously about the next stage in their personal and professional development. Its subtitle is "Practice, Policy and Research". In three broad sections (leading and managing, changing and learning, tasks and responsibilities) it sets out both the theory and the everyday realities that lie behind the Government's 'improving leadership' agenda. Case histories and extracts from Ofsted reports illustrate the range of approaches; and at every stage readers are challenged to analyse their own experience and practice. The research message is that effective educational leadership starts with a deep understanding of how people learn.

Promoting Quality in Learning by Patricia Broadfoot, Marilyn Osborn, Claire Planel and Keith Sharpe (Cassell pound;16.99) is directed at policy-makers but is based on research that many teachers will find extremely interesting. It deals with international performance indicators - the sort of comparisons that are eagerly cited as evidence of the mediocrity of our schools. How, when the contexts are so different, can such comparisons be made?

To find the answer, bilingual researchers went to primary schools in England and France and administered two sets of literacy and numeracy tests: their own national tests, and those of their neighbouring country. England and France are not dissimilar countries, yet the cultures of their schools are worlds apart. Where else but in France would there be a National Dictation Championship? The tests showed that differences in the children's performance precisely reflected the different expectations of their teachers - the French children strong in mechanised and routine skills, the English strong in imagination an problem-solving.

The immediate issue, the authors say, is whether we properly understand the huge significance of context and background in learning. The longer-term one is whether we are in danger of losing, in our drive for comparison-led improvement, some of the genuine strengths of English education. This research has an element of the detective story about it, and it makes fascinating reading.

So do the latest titles in the excellent London Institute of Education series, Perspectives on Education Policy (pound;6.95 each, order on 0171 612 6050 or e-mail Again, these publications are not directed primarily at practitioners, but they focus with commendable directness and brevity on issues that are of considerable concern to teachers and parents.

Can Effective Schools be Inclusive Schools? by Ingrid Lunt and Brahm Norwich addresses not only the immediate implications for schools of the Government's policies on inclusion but also the huge uncertainties that lie behind the easy adjectives of its title. Are the schools we deem effective, effective with all their pupils or merely most of them? Does the subtext of "inclusive" mean that now there's no such thing as special need? And what do we make of the evidence that in practice it's very difficult for schools to be both "effective" and "inclusive"? There are major issues here that have to do not just with "outcomes" but also with priorities and values.

The same is true of The Grammar School Question by David Crook, Sally Power and Geoff Whitty in the same series. This is a topic on which, as the authors of this useful pamphlet easily demonstrate, there has consistently been more heat than light. The central chapter here lists a review of "research and other writings" on the topic and concludes that there is no evidence for the superiority of either selective or non-selective education. What is more to the point, they argue, is that we have never really achieved the latter. Given the degree of uncertainty and contention on the issue it is not surprising that the Government has ducked it. Whether it is wise or not remains to be seen.


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