From rhetoric to aneffective classroom

9th May 1997 at 01:00
The rhetoric of school effectiveness and quality management pervades the offices of headteachers across Europe. It is the stock-in-trade of politicians and the substance of extended comment by parents and the media. Moving beyond rhetoric to managing schools in the interests of achievement for all pupils is a central challenge not only for local authorities and politicians but for all who teach in schools.

The key to answering the challenge is the ethos of a school and the effectiveness of communication structures within it. The characteristics of what constitutes a "positive ethos" need little rehearsing. Extensive comment exists in literature such as Using Performance Indicators in School Self-evaluation and numerous other publications. It is, however, important to note that while indicators of positive ethos, such as a welcoming environment, quality of relationships between staff and pupils, high expectations and arrangements for partnership with parents and the community, are easily identified, they are not easily measured.

This understanding of the relationship between measurement and quality in education is central to arrangements for monitoring whole-school effectiveness. When measurement becomes an end in itself it is counter-productive and a potential barrier to communication. Take the 33 performance indicators in How Good Is Our School? They are undoubtedly a powerful tool supporting the monitoring of whole-school effectiveness if used appropriately.

It is appropriate that performance indicators serve as a means of "agenda-setting", giving structure and focus to an ongoing process of self-evaluation at an individual and whole-school level. It is not appropriate that they are used in a misguided attempt to generate "hard data" in the form of rank scores providing some form of summative assessment of the school. Engaging in such an activity only serves as a basis for rhetoric, not meaningful action.

The quality of communication among staff is the defining feature of success, or otherwise, of management within a school. The purpose of gathering information about all areas of school life is to enable staff to engage in a process of reflective self-evaluation. This process underpins a school's commitment to the highest standards of achievement for all pupils. It also provides the ability to ascertain the degree of success in implementing the current development plan and provides information upon which future development planning will be based.

In my 460-pupil primary, key elements of this process comprise timetabled visits to classes by assistant head, deputy head and headteacher. Visits focus on performance indicators found in How Good Is Our School? During such visits individual promoted staff play an active role in the work of the class.

A discussion takes place as soon as possible after the visit with a view to establishing consensus regarding any opinion stated by class teacher or promoted staff. Any disagreement would be the subject of a more extensive discussion involving an agreed range of staff, to which class teachers would be entitled to nominate representatives.

An annual discussion in late February or early March takes place between the headteacher and individual staff giving them an opportunity to comment on performance indicators relating to the school's development plan, standards of attainment, whole-school organisation, ethos, management and staff development. Arrangements for information gathering and consultation go hand in hand with weekly meetings of the "development team" comprising all promoted staff and a representative cross-section of class teachers. The development team is the central decision-making forum of the school.

The management of the school is very "flat" with a minimalist approach to committee structures designed to maximise participation in, and speed of, decision-making. In effect it recognises that the effective teacher can meet the most sophisticated managerial challenge, the classroom environment, and recognises that within any organisation the most important resource is the people within it.

If management in education is to facilitate effective schooling, rather than serve as a repository for rhetoric, effective communication and "flat" management systems are required.

Roddy McDowell is headteacher of Rothesay primary and co-ordinates an MEd course on the practice of educational management in schools and colleges for Glasgow University. The opinions expressed in this article are personal.

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