Three tests to find the best
Remember the five blind men asked to describe an elephant? Each felt a different part - tusk, trunk, ear, tail, leg - and each came to an entirely different conclusion about the nature of the beast. It's the same with schools. Parents, employers, teachers, pupils, inspectors - each person's opinion is limited by individual perspective and conditioned by their experience of school. No two commentators see the same thing.
Attempts to eliminate this subjectivity, in the interests of defining the "good school", have been only partly successful. League tables are a start, and might mean much more if they dealt in added value rather than in absolutes. Ofsted reports are so stilted by strict process and stifled language that they deal, finally, in generalities. If, however, one seeks indicators of quality in the nature of a school's culture, then more meaningful answers emerge.
"Culture" grows from the ways in which attitudes and beliefs are enacted and maintained. In the case of a school, those attitudes and beliefs arise from several sources, all interacting and all constantly shifting. They form a web of tensions, defined by the demands of government, both central and local; the needs of higher or further education; examining bodies; parents; the wider community in which the school is set - governors, employers and local agencies; the pupils themselves; teachers; and, finally, by a leader, ideally the head teacher.
If the majority are pulling in similar directions, or if oppositions are creatively resolved, then the chances are that we shall find a "good school".
What are the attitudes and beliefs, and in particular those held by teachers, that make a school's culture positive and productive?
* The culture of a school matters, and, if it's healthy, it will have a beneficial effect on the quality of learning.
* It is possible to change a school's culture for the better. It's open to anyone to propose positive change.
* Changing a school's culture takes time, persistence, and leadership, but it's worth the effort.
* A positive culture to which the majority subscribe provides the most secure basis for adapting to new demands.
That sounds idealistic. There are schools where teachers feel that control has been taken out of their hands: their job is simply to deliver the curriculum. Some believe that every problem could be solved if only someone else would "tighten up on behaviour", or eliminate paperwork. Others are convinced that they are doing their job, so why can't everyone else? Where these attitudes prevail, even a good school won't survive for long.
The best schools communicate, internally and externally, by every possible means. I don't mean that diktats from the Fat Controller infallibly reach every part of the organisation and are implemented without question. It's far more to do with a free flow of information and comment, evaluation of the development of ideas in terms of the degree to which they support the achievement of a shared vision, and arrival at consensus.
Ursula le Guin writes of "the responsive web" - touch one part and all the elements react together - that's communication.
Bad schools are full of negative ideas, perhaps never fully articulated, but lurking below the surface. Ideas like "equality of opportunity" and "the pursuit of excellence" are incompatible goals. Or "What can you do with them? Their parents don't value education", or "Why do they need an education? They're only ever going to be shop assistants".
May I recommend, as a firm corrective to such notions, compulsory viewing of Channel 4's excellent series, Faking It, in which apparently unpromising, even untalented, individuals are given opportunity and intensive support to pursue a dream and usually achieve it, dropping their "mind-forg'd manacles" on the way.
If you don't believe in the power of education to change lives for the better, what are you doing in teaching? Jonathan Livingstone Seagull may have had a point.
What about students and their perception of the school's culture? Do they:
* Trust it to reward their best efforts?
* Accept its values, or reject them in favour of their own and those of their peers?
* Feel valued and respected?
* Feel they are treated fairly and with respect?
* Think it's worthwhile to rise to the school's expectations of them?
* Come to school for something more than social life?
* Feel that they have a genuine say in matters that directly affect their lives and learning?
How does the local community regard the school? Is it a focus of excellence and opportunity for them? Does it see in the school a simple reflection of its values, or a focal point where something to which they and their children might aspire is defined and offered? Are local employers keen to offer work experience, and do they value their visiting students? Does the PTA confine itself to fundraising, or is it involved in policy-making? Are its members invited to help interview new teachers?
High staff turnover is, perversely, either a good or a bad sign. It's hard to keep a culture going when active participants are leaving all the time - but are they going because they are in demand as good teachers, or because they are not up to the expectations of the school? Teachers will stay when they feel they have a personal stake in something successful.
What about the headteacher? In every good school I've visited, in every instance, the positive qualities of the head have been mentioned. In most cases, comments have suggested that the head "`knows where heshe wants the school to go", or is "tough but fair", or "knows exactly what goes on".
In other words, a good head, one who has a vision, who has articulated it and implemented it, who exemplifies high expectations, and who is in touch with the school's daily life, is a crucial factor - possibly the most important.
Enough theory. There are three acid tests of a good school, in my view.
1. When you visit, will a pupil approach you, and direct - perhaps even accompany - you to reception?
2. Can you walk down a corridor without being barged out of the way?
3. Are you warmly welcomed?
If the answer is Yes to all, you're probably in a good school.