Stable schools can fail children too;Books;School Management

20th March 1998 at 00:00
NO QUICK FIXES: Perspectives on Schools in Difficulty. Edited by Louise Stoll and Kate Myers. Falmer Press. pound;14.95.

Here's an interesting question: did the Office for Standards in Education invent failing schools or did it simply put a name to them? It's not a question that this book sets out to answer, at least not directly, but it nags away at you insistently throughout this collection of timely and challenging essays on ineffective schools.

The question is not quite as dumb as it sounds. Ofsted certainly did not create under-achieving schools. Indeed, it must take a good deal of credit for raising expectations of both teachers and children. But the particular combination of low standards, high anxiety, defensiveness, suspicion and paralysis that seems to grip a "failing" school is something new.

It is captured very vividly in the four case studies under special measures that are included in the first three sections of this book. Particularly compelling are Christine Whatford's meticulous documentation of the events leading to the closure of Hammersmith School and its re-opening as The Phoenix School in 1995 and Steven Pugh's account of taking over Brookside Special School after it was put on special measure in 1993. Both are memorable for the honesty with which they chart the difficulties of making progress despite the urgency generated by an atmosphere of almost constant crisis.

In most walks of life the difference between success and failure is as much about confidence as ability. What is exceptional about the people who transform failing schools is their ability to be effective when everything is conspiring to sap their confidence and undermine their self-belief.

But even though all of these accounts of failing schools take it for granted that the judgment made by Ofsted was reliable, that question about the effect of public disclosure keeps nagging away. What, you wonder, if all the features of failing schools that make them so resistant to change are a consequence of being labelled, rather than a cause. Are relationships any more dysfunctional in failing schools than elsewhere, until the moment when staff are told that they aren't doing the job well enough? Is the leadership actually inadequate, until the headteacher has cracked under the glare of publicity?

Unfortunately, there isn't much in this book or elsewhere about schools "with serious weaknesses", but it could be interesting to know what happens post-inspection in schools which may have problems but where there is still something left to play for, where there is still an incentive to make it all work.

If No Quick Fixes can be said to provide an answer to that question, it is an ambivalent one. Preceding the case studies are two important chapters by Michael Barber and Michael Stark. Together they make a convincing case for the latest approach to school improvement. The nub of their argument is this. It is neither ethically nor economically acceptable for children to be failed by the education system; some schools have expected too little and achieved even less; poor schools lack the capacity for self renewal; public identification of failure ensures that recovery will happen and that it will happen fast. It is very difficult to disagree with this, even when you are aware of some of the rough justice that has been meted out by Ofsted.

The later sections of the book, however, leave you feeling that, without turning the clock back, we need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of how schools fail, and a more subtle approach to school improvement. Louise Stoll and Dean Fink in their chapter on The Cruising School: The Unidentified Ineffective School demonstrate convincingly that stable institutions can fail children just as comprehensively as those in crisis, while John MacBeath contributes a useful analysis of the "learning difficulties" that are experienced byorganisations.

In an essay on school improvement, Caroline Lodge draws attention to the problem associated with "the official view that it is enough to say that because some schools can succeed in difficult circumstances all schools can".

It is easy to see why this has become an article of faith; it has all the seductive charm of common sense. It is, nonetheless, a misconception. Ofsted seems to believe that schools are like each other, that there is a common spectrum of success and failure. The failure to distinguish differences carries with it dangers. It is almost as if the fierce light that is being shone on failing schools has diminished our night vision. That's a big problem when it comes to putting things right since that is when we need to be good at seeing in the dark.

Patrick Scott

* Patrick Scott is deputy director of education in Redcar and Cleveland, but is writing in a personal capacity.

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