Tinker - and transform your school

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Education Epidemic: transforming secondary schools through innovation networks. By David H Hargreaves. Demos pound;10

The New Strategic Direction and Development of the School. By Brent Davies and Linda Ellison. RoutledgeFalmer pound;65, paperback pound;19.99

"You don't put me at risk enoughI let's take some more this term." I've never forgotten the head's startling encouragement at the pre-term staff briefing. It was unusual even a dozen years ago, let alone since. Perhaps risk-taking is just beginning to be thinkable again. Read David Hargreaves's latest Education Epidemic book to fill your heart with courage and your pockets with confidence.

He's made a habit of writing "just in time", cogently argued books about schools. Here he paints an impressive motorway map to guide school leaders, arguing persuasively that in the best schools, leaders know how to promote and multiply what he describes as the school's "social and intellectual capital" and then, vitally, the know-how - "organisational capital" - to orchestrate and apply it.

Brent Davies and Linda Ellison are a little like highly skilled "organisational engineers". They provide a more detailed footpath guide for schools that are trying to link their longer-term strategies to day-to-day life. Their argument incorporates three case studies, drawn from primary and secondary schools and a local education authority which has adopted the DaviesEllison approach, which they advocated in their original and frequently reprinted edition of this book, first published in 1999. They draw on the case studies to "tinker" and adjust their practical guide to school strategic planning and short-term action plans.

"Tinkering" is a feature of David Hargreaves's work, too. He once wrote that tinkering was guaranteed to improve schools (along with a focus on being involved in initial teacher education, on school-based action research and developing heads of department). Tinkering encourages change and creates a culture in which innovation and risk-taking is possible - even legitimised.

Both these books rightly emphasise the future. It's so easy for schools to be held captive by the past and present. The curriculum is so often expressed as passing on the culture of past generations to the present. And the recipients of this transmission - the pupils - are often none too impressed by its relevance to their present preoccupations. And sadly, if their schools let them, the present-day crisis and complexity can dominate school life as the youngsters bring in the baggage of their often challenging lives.

So Hargreaves raises our sights to where the present trends are taking us.

He shows how best practice can be teacher-friendly and "high leverage" - that is, with teachers working smarter, not harder. Hargreaves has always had a keen eye for the best sorts of innovation - those developed by teachers in classrooms. There's a fascinating chapter on the implications of ICT as one of five essential keys to transformation. Buy the book to discover the others: it's no more than 100 pages long and very readable.

Brent Davies and Linda Ellison also explore various aspects of our future and its likely impact on schools. Their chapter on strategic analysis in schools provides an interesting way of collecting and matching data to priorities. Here you'll learn of "cash cows", "dogs", "stars", "problem children" and other intriguing ways of making collective reviews enjoyable.

Moreover, it has illustrations of how to make short-term action plans work rather than pile up on shelves as useless testimony to our mistrustful bureaucratic present. If you are a head, consider adding this to your "to buy" list.

Tim Brighouse is commissioner for London schools

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