Slick moves from the Manchester dream team

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
Tim Brighouse applauds a group of educational tacticians who are at the top of their game

Improving Urban Schools: leadership and collaboration

Edited by Mel Ainscow and Mel West

Open University Press pound;19.99

The two Mels - Ainscow and West - have been around various parts of the UK education system for more years than they will care to remember, but teachers and schools are still hungry for their helpful insights into practice and theory. They are the Morecambe and Wise of educational thought, except that they perform with great distinction separately as well as together. As a pair, however, they are unrivalled.

Here they've turned the considerable power of their combined attention to address three of the principal weaknesses of studies of school improvement.

First, most such studies are so general that they fail to get to grips with the subtleties and diversities of individual schools. A second, related, problem is the tendency for most researchers and writers to accept uncritically the top-down, managerial way in which school success is measured especially by Ofsted: for example, the use of raw or even value-added pupil performance statistics from tests and exams.

Third, most school improvement studies take little or no account of the interplay between what happens behind and beyond the school gates. This book addresses all those issues.

Ainscow and West, who have been joined at Manchester University's school of education by Alan Dyson to strengthen even further their grasp of the urban context, have assembled 12 chapters, nine of which are co-written by one or other of the editors. Unlike most edited collections, the book is coherent, with helpful introductory and linking overviews of each chapter. The first chapter, by the editors themselves, provides an excellent summary of the history of urban education, of other relevant studies and of progress in cracking the issues of school improvement in both the UK and beyond.

The four chapters which follow look closely at what it feels like for teachers in challenging urban schools to receive adverse Ofsted judgments.

With commendable honesty, the researchers also describe an unsuccessful attempt on their part to help senior staff in a secondary school in such difficulties; there are also insights into successful intervention.

The next five chapters use case studies to analyse strategies which seem to work in different urban contexts, especially in the face of the imposition of sometimes unhelpful national initiatives. As Keith Mitchell, the recently retired director of education for Durham, said to me recently:

"The problem with the DfES is they keep supplying us with answers to problems we haven't got in the north-east but may exist in London."

There's a fascinating chapter by Helen Gunter - another proven addition to the Manchester University team - on risks and resilience and the hard-won successes of schools that have cracked the cycle of disadvantage for individual pupils.

This section concludes with a description of effective collaboration achieved by a local authority. And another chapter on how high-achieving schools can assist less successful neighbours should be studied closely by a government about to launch a national initiative - what else? - along the same lines.

As the authors explain, this is a promising avenue for overcoming school failure, but it does require a sensitivity of touch which has so far eluded the elephantine tendencies of Whitehall in managing - or, more accurately, mismanaging - health and education.

As you might expect from such a well-constructed book, Improving Urban Schools concludes with general and specific lessons for leadership and collaboration in practice together with a piece from Alan Dyson on life beyond the school gate and its implications.

This book, in the series Education in an Urbanised Society, deserves a wide audience. Unusually, it manages to strike a tone that is accessible to practitioners in schools as well as policy-makers and other researchers who will look admiringly at the strength of the team assembled in Manchester.

Perhaps this new team of academics, based just down the road from Old Trafford, will be equally influential in their own field, which is arguably more important than football or even cricket. On the evidence of this book, they deserve to be.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser for the London Schools Challenge

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