United we stand to gain

4th August 2000 at 01:00
If schools could collaborate, rather than compete against each other, all pupils would benefit, says Kate Myers.

SCHOOLS can make a difference, research tells us. We know that pupils at the same starting point achieve differently in different schools.

We alo know that the value any school adds can vary with social or ethnic group: if you are a working-class white boy you will probably do better at school A; if you are a middle-class black girl you might have more success at school B.

Furthermore we know that teachers can perform differently at different schools: a headteacher may flourish at one school but struggle at another.

So how do schools influence the success of their pupils and, it seems, their teachers? Lists of the characteristics of "successful" schools abound, but an influential factor they often omit is the the "mix" of pupils and staff.

It is much easier to cope with disadvantaged and, more importantly, disaffected pupils if they are in the minority; once they become the majority the school's ethos changes. The potential of a school community composed predominantly of troubled pupils and their parents is limited compared to a school where the "social and cultural capital" are high.

The most common measure of disadvantage is the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals, but this can be misleading: many such pupils will come from families who perceive education as a route out of poverty.

However, others will come from areas where there is high local unemployment and where parents see no point in school or schooling. Members of these families may have had bad experiences themselves in school and may resent it and the authority it stands for.

Schools can make a difference for all pupils but they will find it harder with this second group.

Over the past few years, schools have been under pressure to improve and demonstrate these improvements publicly. Many have sought to do so through re organisation, staff development and focusing on their core purpose - teaching and learning.

But, in urban areas some schools have "improved" by simply changing their intake; often they have done this to the detriment of other, less popular schools, which have been left with a disproportionate number of disaffected children.

A depressing and icious circle has emerged: under-subscribed schools have to take on those officially and unofficially excluded from other schools and the ratio of pupils with disadvantage and difficulties thus becomes overwhelming.

Parents with aspirations see what is happening, and move their children away, thus leaving even more space to be filled by the disaffected. In fact in some areas schools have set up bus services to bring in these motivated children and improve their intakes.

Of course the school with disaffected pupils is more difficult to manage; teachers become more stressed and many of those who can move on.

Replacing teachers becomes increasingly difficult, especially as failing schools have recently been threatened with closure or redundancy if they don't improve in three years. Staff energy levels and morale plunge and the school drops down the league tables. Without improving its intake, there is not much a school in this position can do to improve.

This sorry situation highlights the problems of forcing schools to compete with one another for pupils. Allowing ambitious parents to switch from schools at the bottom of league tables has undoubtedly highlighted problems of under achievement and complacency but it has also created ghettos of troubled pupils.

Some recent Government initiatives have acknowledged that schools can help each other (for example Beacon schools). Achievement targets and Office for Standards in Education inspections for local education authorities acknowledge the impact of outside players on schools. However, LEAs have limited jurisdiction over schools that are doing well and there is little they can do other than support the schools that are in difficulties.

We should be asking: How are schools in the area as a whole serving the requirements of the community?

How are they working together to provide all pupils with a coherent and comprehensive service?

How do they ensure they will meet the needs of current and future pupils?

Many schools already work in clusters and support each other on a range of issues.

How can we develop this collaboration and shift the focus from individual to communal improvement? Any ideas?

Kate Myers is a professor of professional development in Keele University's education department

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