When praxis makes perfect
Patrick Scott reviews a book which bridges the gap between the theory and practice of improving school effectiveness. The great thing about the school effectiveness movement is that it enables the profession to reclaim its self respect. Despite the best efforts of the Department for Education and Employment to annex it for themselves by creating a School Effectiveness Grant and setting up their own unit, we all know that the thumbs-up from the politicians is just a belated attempt to hitch a lift. It's the university departments of education that are in the driving seat, and, even if you are not engaged in research yourself, that feels good.
Nonetheless, it can still sometimes seem pretty remote from the classroom. I can support the thesis that "Effective schools maximise learning by spending time wisely", but it's a long way from there to success with a Year 9 group for whom the main priority is minimising learning time. The quantitative methods used in much of the research about school effectiveness and improvement has the curious effect of making the researchers seem like social anthropologists who have strayed into unchartered territory where the natives are incapable of speaking for themselves or, if they do, need interpreters to be understood.
The chief delight of School Improvement in Practice - Schools Make a Difference Project edited by Kate Myers, is that it bridges the gap between theory and practice. Not only are the natives allowed to speak for themselves, they are wonderfully eloquent. The book describes a two year Schools Make a Difference project by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham in which the eight secondary schools in the area were given extra funds for capital and revenue initiatives designed to raise standards. Like all the best post-modernist texts, this one gives us multiple points of view. Chapters are contributed by the project co-ordinator, the borough's Director of Education, the Chief Inspector, a deputy head, one of the school co-ordinators, a headteacher and the project evaluator. They have been skillfully edited to make sure the story moves along at a cracking pace, while not losing the pleasure of comparing different perceptions of the same event.
Two points stand out. The first is that school improvement is as much about finding ways of removing chewing gum from carpets as it is about, say, developing open learning centres. As the head of St Mark's school points out: "Of all the changes wrought by SMAD, these two (carpeting classrooms and curtaining south facing windows) may well have had the most profound effect on raising staff and student morale, modifying student behaviour and ultimately raising standards".
The second important message is that it is possible to make progress even when everything seems to conspire against you. Kate Myers sums it up well: "School improvement projects do not exist in a vacuum. People have babies, breakdowns, operations, end relationships and suffer bereavements." Somehow that was missed out of the DFEE pamphlet on school effectiveness issued early last year. I hope it does not come as too much of a shock to them.
This review makes it sound as if the project was all about learning to live with diminished horizons. That is not the case. There isn't room here to list all the innovations that are recorded in the book. The point is that school improvement is incremental. It doesn't happen overnight. It isn't a station on the road to Damascus. It grows out of lots of small-scale initiatives which eventually cohere.