Some very peculiar practices

16th June 1995 at 01:00
The reasons schools fail are more complex than politicians realise and cure-all doses of school effectiveness "snake oil" will not help, says David Reynolds. From the policy pronouncements of the past few weeks one could be forgiven for assuming that we know what should be done with "failing", "struggling" or "ineffective" schools. I suspect though that the number of persons issuing soundbites about these schools greatly exceed the number who have spent any significant time in them.

In school effectiveness research, for example, the more ineffective schools and teachers often drop out of our studies. In school improvement research, the more ineffective schools often don't volunteer for our programmes. Indeed, the natural tendency is for academics and researchers to spend their time with schools that promise a practically and intellectually profitable experience, rather than with schools with multiple problems.

Probably because of our ignorance of such schools, the tendency is to propose simple, indeed simplistic, remedies, like the injection of school effectiveness factors or the quick fix of development planning and improvement programmes. But many of these factors are taken from studies of schools that are already effective and may be of little use in the very ineffective school. Some of the effectiveness factors may also be the result, not merely the cause, of being an effective school - as in the case of "high expectations" being produced by an effective school as well as producing one. Ineffective or failing schools need more than this knowledge.

What we have also done is to view the ineffective schools as not having factors that other schools have, although it may be that in turn ineffective schools have features rarely seen in the effective schools. They may indeed possess, as Kate Myers of the London Institute of Education notes, characteristics antithetical to effectiveness.

We have not studied failure as failure, then, but have only seen failure as being a lack of success. In my own experience, these schools often show a number of pathological characteristics: * they do not possess the basic competencies to do what it is that they need to do to improve; * their teachers may project their own inadequacies on to the children which enables the school to retain a perception of itself as normal and to blame the children for its failings; * they possess numerous fantasies, that change is someone else's job and that the school should carry on as it has been "because things have always been done that way"; * they fear failure and staff are reluctant to take the risks that successful change involves, fearing that failed attempts to change will damage them; * they do not know enough about alternative policies, how the school functions, the ways to change and the ways to relate to sources of outside help; * they fear the school's failures being exposed to public gaze, a fear which will be often hidden behind a "macho" facade of apparent security; * they have grossly dysfunctional sets of interpersonal relationships. Numerous personality clashes, feuds, personal agendas and cliques make rational decision-making very difficult. The tendency will be for staff to take stands on issues, even on vitally important ones, based upon reactive views of the personalities and groups putting forward proposals rather than on the intrinsic merits of the proposal.

However, these schools may also have: * groups of committed young staff, often ambitious and keen to be seen to have performed well in difficult circumstances; * a minority of staff for whom the desperate circumstances of being labelled as "failing" or "struggling" will be a spur; * some pockets of good practice - the range of difference between effective and ineffective teachers and between "good" and "bad" departments is likely to be greater in the ineffective school than in the effective because of the latter's organisational cultural tightness.

It is clear that not all "failing", "struggling" or "ineffective" schools will share all these characteristics. Some characteristics may of course be present in the ineffective departments of effective schools. However, if even only a half or two-thirds of the characteristics are common to ineffective schools, turning them around will be a more complex task than that suggested by the rather superficial sets of policy tinkering which characterised the Government's announcement of "help" for these schools two weeks ago.

So, what do these schools really need to help them improve?

We may need to direct them, to rid ourselves of the dangerous nonsense that they will somehow discover what's needed to succeed if we cane them through market pressures and public vilification. The building of any effective school requires foundations, which in the case of these schools means staff learning planning, management and pedagogic skills.

We may need to be brutally realistic and honest with them, since their staff may currently be behaving in a far from rational way. Fragmented professional cultures within the schools and their "sick" sets of interpersonal relationships will need therapeutic action.

We need to ensure that help to these schools does not merely generate even greater differences between staff. Action to eliminate the negative is as necessary as that to accentuate the positive.

The schools may need goals which are achievable in the short term, rather than a focus upon academic achievement, which is often the last "outcome" to improve. If successful change is likely to come from building a political coalition around the competent staff and progressively isolating and reducing the size of the "rump" of poor professionals, then giving schools short-term achievable goals (like improved attendance) may give any coalition the success it needs to grow and encompass a high proportion of staff.

The emphasis must initially be upon changing teachers' behaviour, not on their attitudes, since pupils respond to the former rather than the latter. Hostility towards change and defeatism may be so prevalent among the staff that it is only from pupils that more competent teachers may get their rewards for changed practice.

Debating the goals of change early on, as often suggested in improvement programmes, may be particularly ineffective in these types of schools since they are unlikely to possess the organisational qualities to have debates of this kind. The focus needs to be on the means of education, on the narrower picture rather than the broader, to build the competence and confidence to bring off more difficult discussions. Indeed, the most important thing in the ineffective school may be for the staff to do something, and think later about the broader picture.

People involved with school effectiveness and school improvement have grounds for considerable satisfaction that their knowledge is increasingly being used by governments and that the recent announcements of "help" for failing schools will directly involve them.

However, we need to avoid peddling simplistic school effectiveness snake oil as a cure-all. If I am right, these schools need more complex, more psychologically aware and above all more informed interventions than those that are currently on offer.

Professor David Reynolds is at the Department of Education, University of Newcastle upon Tyne

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