In search of excellence;Briefing;Analysis 20

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Karen Thornton reports on how the Government group seeking to spread good teaching practice is getting on

A curious mixture of pragmatism and idealism characterises the work of the Government group charged with finding, disseminating and implementing good teaching practice.

Pragmatism, because the members want to produce practical and effective guidance for schools.

Idealism, because they see the key to the whole process in the more esoteric area of tapping teachers' own creativity, boosting professional confidence and status, and encouraging reflective practice.

The tensions thrown up by these two approaches - one top-down, the other bottom-up - look set to keep the nine-strong team of academics, teachers, heads and education administrators busy for some time to come.

They are also reflected in the work the group has been doing since December - at the request of Department for Education and Employment officials - on helping develop a "good practice" database, and even in the shape of the database itself.

What is emerging, alongside the DFEE documentation already on the Internet, is a database of "officially endorsed" examples of good practice that teachers will be able to search for information relevant to them.

Complementing it will be a less regulated interactive forum for teachers to discuss and share good practice and post their own experiences and ideas.

Group chairwoman Carol Adams feels getting the DFEE's standards and effectiveness unit's commitment to an interactive venue has been one of its key achievements so far. The group has also set up a teachers' user group to trial the emerging database, and drafted criteria for identifying good practice which include a focus on pupil achievement and independent evaluation.

"Documents always leave good teachers asking further questions," said Ms Adams, Shropshire's chief education officer.

"We feel, as well as the DFEE database loading down information, there needs to be an interactive opportunity for teachers to exchange good practice and go back and ask that fundamental question - how was the teaching done, what was effective?" The unofficial draft of the good practice database is being developed by subgroup member Professor Stephen Heppell at Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab. The interactive facility is expected to go public in September.

One of the outstanding questions is who will decide what goes onto the database. The SEU will hold editorial control of the good practice database itself - the "top-down," officially endorsed schemes and examples.

But while the subgroup wants to encourage interactive debate, it doesn't want the site swamped with anecdotal experiences. Ultralab's pilot database includes an experimental pro forma for teachers wanting to supply examples of good practice, which asks for evidence of their effectiveness and evaluation.

Professor Heppell says: "You convince somebody else. Those tough questions make the difference between a good idea you might exchange over coffee at a meeting and an idea that's robust enough to work in another institution."

Again, bringing the pragmatic and idealistic approaches together is seen as the key to getting the good practice train rolling on the Internet. "The DFEE is the gatekeeper in terms of what it is prepared to validate in line with government policy. It's how we handle the things that are not government policy but good ideas that people want to be able to exchange and talk about," says Professor John MacBeath, of Strathclyde University, Glasgow.

"It is essential that the collegial dialogue where people are exploring and thinking divergently about practice, and the more straight-down-the-middle evaluated and endorsed practice carrying the DFEE seal of approval are brought together."

Aside from the information technology practicalities of operating the database, the other issue to be resolved is whether individual schools that post up examples of good practice should be identified so that other teachers can contact them directly - or protected, in case of overload.

Carol Adams insists the database work has not sidelined the group from its main mission - after all, as colleague Dr David Winkley points out, the Government's commitment to getting all 32,000 schools on the Internet by 2002 will create "a new and potentially very powerful debating chamber which allows people to exchange ideas."

But the team is looking forward to getting back to focusing on good practice, and particularly to re-examining its proposed framework for a more structured way of identifying and disseminating it.

As science teacher Janet Major says: "If you know somebody who's doing something, you know about it - otherwise you don't. We are about trying to share the good practice we know exists and making it more accessible. At the moment, it can be piecemeal."

The group's proposals for tackling the issue at school, regional and national levels include setting up networking arrangements (involving parents and all classroom teachers at school level); public "celebrations of excellence" demonstrating the work of classroom teachers and how it leads to pupil achievement and agreeing quality criteria for assessing what works and should be disseminated further.

The academics in the group have already raised the point that the process of dissemination - and particularly the institutionalising of good practice - is not as easy as it sounds.

Professor David Hargreaves, head of education at Cambridge University, notes: "People often assume the notion of good practice and the notion of its dissemination are relatively straightforward. If it were very easy, we would have done it a long time ago."

Members are also keen to follow up some ideas brainstormed in earlier sessions - such as the development of regional resource centres of good practice; following up Scottish Office initiatives which have given schools the opportunity to organise conferences on teaching issues, rather than universities; using pupil responses; and drawing in contributions from other groups and networks.

Contradictions remain, though. "One of the notions behind disseminating good practice is you can save people time and trouble by telling them how others have done it. Clearly, there is an issue for some teachers feeling overburdened. An outcome of what we are doing might be to make life easier," said Carol Adams.

"But in reality, good practice is a continuous process, it's a continuous dialogue that happens in all good schools where professionals are constantly engaged in examining and reflecting on what they are doing, testing it against all sorts of measures and what other people are doing, and refining it. Good practice is always trying to improve what you are doing.

"It's a bit of a false notion that you can tell people exactly how someone else has done it. I would like to feel at the end of this work we have set up some ways of avoiding reinventing the wheel or doing things in a poor way and writing poor materials. But you can never produce something that dots the last 'i' for everybody."


Committee speak: the nine are members of the standards task force subgroup on good practice. The task force, chaired by Education Secretary David Blunkett, comes under the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit

Chairwoman Carol Adams is chief education officer of Shropshire. Started teaching in London in 1970, becoming a teacher-centre manager and then inspector for equal opportunities with the Inner London Education Authority. Following the ILEA's abolition, she became Haringey's assistant chief education officer, then director of education at Wolverhampton before moving to Shropshire in 1994.

Professor John MacBeath, director of the quality in education centre at Strathclyde University, Glasgow. OBE for services to education. Involved in Scottish Office, government, European Union and research groups and consultancies covering school standards and effectiveness, school self-evaluation, premier football club study centres, and teachers' professional development. Also a consultant to the Prince's Trust. Professor Stephen Heppell director of Ultralab, Anglia Polytechnic University's learning technology research centre. A member of the Stevenson Committee which produced the Information Technology in UK Schools report. Currently working on creating e-mail addresses for every pupil, advising on the school of the future in the Millennium Dome, and working with Tesco and Xemplar on the computers in school millennium project.

Dr David Winkley former head of Grove primary school, Birmingham, for 23 years. Graduated from Cambridge and gained doctorate at Oxford. Academic at Birmingham University's centre for contemporary cultural studies in 1960s. Helped set up National Primary Centre 10 years ago. Was member of the Stevenson committee on IT in schools, and currently on standards minister Stephen Byers' independent-state schools committee. Professor David Hargreaves, head of Cambridge University's school of education. Read theology then psychology at Cambridge. Taught for three years before returning to academia. Chaired committee on inner London schools which called for changes in curriculum and teaching style. Subsequently appointed ILEA's chief inspector in 1984. Research includes work on development planning in schools, investigating institutional cultures, and medical education.

Janet Major science teacher, Bungay high school, Suffolk. Has taught in Norfolk and the Inner London Education Authority. Previously involved in work with the Association for Science Education and SCAA, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's predecessor. Written a textbook for low attainers at key stage 3, and GCSE revision guidance. Chrissie Garrett, assistant principal, Banbury school, Oxfordshire. A member of the National Advisory Group for Special Educational Needs, and the steering group for research at the National Foundation for Educational Research. Also worked with Basic Skills Unit. Started teaching in 1972. Posts included spells at a pupil-referral unit, in a primary school, and teaching drama and English in secondary schools.

Sue Pearson head of Lache county infant school, Chester. Introduced a daily reading hour and formal teaching of phonics and word-sound associations in 1995, massively boosting reading standards. Famously shared David Blunkett's first platform as Education Secretary at the National Association of Head Teachers' conference last May, to talk of her school's successes.

Dr Nick Tate, chief executive of Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Former teacher and lecturer, became head of postgraduate secondary courses at Moray House College of Education, Edinburgh, in 1986. Moved to the National Curriculum Council, with particular responsibility for education-employers liaison, before joining the School Examinations and Assessment Council and then the QCA's predecessor, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

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