The school effectiveness mission has only just begun

20th February 1998 at 00:00
School effectiveness and school improvement research, and its researchers, now sit at the centre of educational discussion in many societies.

More than 600 researchers, policy-makers and practitioners from more than 70 countries took part last month in an International School Effectiveness and Improvement Congress in Manchester. Yet at the first meeting we organised in London only 10 years ago, barely 90 people turned up from half a dozen countries. More than this , the findings about what makes a good school and how we make schools good are now widely known and acted upon - internationally as well as in Britain.

The centrality of school effectiveness and improvement has not been achieved without heavy opposition, especially from education researchers within higher education. Status in British educational research has customarily been given to the most "use-less" research, not to the useful. Many have wanted to prolong our uniquely British love affair with the goals debate, rather than focus on means, as school effectiveness research tries to.

But the very centrality of the discipline now brings with it heavy obligations and duties. We need to ensure, first, that the discipline advances our knowledge in the next decade as rapidly as it did in the last. We need to keep it up-to-date - and urgently need more studies that are undertaken in contemporary schools, rather than relying on the findings of work that is, in some cases, more than 20 years old.

We need to explore the linkages between school effectiveness and teacher effectiveness, particularly since all the evidence suggests that the classroom level is a much more powerful determinant of children's achievements than the school level. Children learn directly from class teachers, not from the headteachers that current policy seems obsessed with.

We also need more work on the extent to which effective school factors are universal and apply across all contexts in a country, or may be context specific as some American research suggests. We must focus with greater seriousness on the results of international studies that look at the differences between countries - since discussion of education is already so internationalised that many practitioners are themselves picking and mixing from findings in different societies.

We need also to reorientate ourselves away from our past obsession with only the effective schools towards the study of the ineffective, or, to use a medical analogy, the sick schools as well. Our historical attempts to improve the sick schools by proposing that they pick up the characteristics of the well schools was always a superficial attempt to deal with school problems. We need to understand and combat the "ill health" itself, directly. To continue to run away from sickness and study the healthy was never sensible.

Our second set of disciplinary needs relates to making sure that the knowledge we do have about effectiveness and improvement is taken up by teachers. If there is a body of understanding about good practice, how can we make sure that everyone at the chalk face reliably possesses it? Simply throwing research findings at the professionals will not necessarily result in a high take-up; how exactly do we ensure ownership?

Many schools currently remind one of those villages that starved and died in medieval times rather than pick up and use the new technologies of agriculture that were bringing life to villages close by. Why do some schools and individuals pick up our technology of effectiveness and improvement as a foundation for practice, and others not?

Our third need is to prevent the knowledge base of our discipline from being abused as it is used by Government. School effectiveness has sung the policy-makers' tune in its emphasis upon how schools can make a difference - indeed we wrote their words. But we have allowed the continuation of simplistic remedies being proposed in complex situations - such as the lists of what makes schools effective or the enrolment of schools into universal improvement programmes - when we know that schools need different policies in different locations. At the most basic level, school effectiveness literature has been used to support the decentralisation of power to schools but has in fact only ever shown the value of decentralisation of power within schools.

To abuses of our work we have been largely silent, a silence perhaps born of the pleasure of having those of power and influence notice us. But each time that we allow simplification and distortion, by politicians and by policy-makers, of what we do and of what we have found, we alienate the very teachers who are of such central importance in raising standards.

Lastly, although no new discipline within education has ever made more rapid progress than school effectiveness and school improvement has, we need to recognise that the factors which allow a discipline to move forward in its early years may not be the factors that maintain momentum later. Our progress has been due to our agreement as to what the goals of education were, to our problem orientation and to the interaction between people who were focused on effectiveness, and those concentrating on improvement, across a number of countries. Precisely because we did not waste time on philosophical discussion or on values debates, we made rapid progress within these limits.

However, future progress may depend upon the extent to which we can broaden our remit, can interact with the other disciplines that have different beliefs, and can permit self-criticism - which thus has far been singularly lacking. Embracing a greater variety of research methods is also likely to help, as will giving scope for a wider variety of voices to be heard, including those of pupils.

If school effectiveness research can combine the certainties of its first phase with an acceptance of greater complexity in its next 10 years, what may be in prospect is not just one term of office for our movement but many more.

David Reynolds is professor of education at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and a past chair of the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement

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