Why easy doesn't always do it

8th December 1995 at 00:00
Competence and Accountability in Education, Edited by Peter McKenzie, Philip Mitchell and Paul Oliver, Arena #163;25. - 1 85742279 1.

Good School, Bad School, By John Gray and Brian Wilcox, Open University Press #163;13.99 - 0 335 19489 3

What makes a "good school"? What characterises a "failing school"? Which performance indicators might be used to judge education? How might such indicators be used to ensure that schools are more accountable for their effectiveness? How might those schools identified as "ineffective" be improved?

Claims of "failing schools" and "failing teachers" have attracted close media attention, with teachers becoming a ready target for blame for children's under-achievement, poor behaviour and lack of moral and social development.

The issues involved, however, are complex and challenging. Both of these books aim, in quite different ways, to explore educational effectiveness and to show that the popular, easy answers to greater effectiveness do not provide the solutions that they initially promise.

McKenzie, Mitchell and Oliver's Competence and Accountability in Education addresses the increasing use of competences in defining the provision of education and training and the measuring of accountability. "Competences" may be defined as particular areas of knowledge and skill that teachers and pupils either have or need to acquire.

The book consists of 10 papers in all. David Brady begins with an interesting overview of the growth of competency approaches, tracing their development in the United States, their importation into vocational training in the UK, particularly with the establishment of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and, more recently, their broadening into general education and professional training.

Further chapters focus on the ways in which competences have crept into different areas of education and professional training, and illustrate how an emphasis on competence as educational objective has also become increasingly tied to instrumental measures of individual and institutional accountability.

Two common arguments throughout the book are that, first, competence provides a very narrow educational focus, leaving out of account important areas of knowledge and understanding, as well as the affective elements that are involved in many areas of practice. Second, the design of the curriculum around competence can lead to mechanistic teaching - teaching for the criterion-referenced test.

It is argued that this, in turn, may result in a demoralised teaching staff, and the loss of a professional culture. While such arguments are powerfully made, the final chapter attempts to redress the balance though its main argument in favour of competences is that they have helped to place vocational training under the spotlight at last.

In Good School, Bad School, Gray and Wilcox detail the growth of interest in the school effectiveness and school improvement movements, and analyse the evolving role of inspection in school development.

The book is presented in four parts. In the first, the authors describe the increasing concern with the quality of educational provision over the past two decades, resulting in a search for performance indicators that are both meaningful and manageable. The role of local education authorities in developing frameworks for monitoring schools is also outlined.

This is followed by a more detailed investigation of the methodological difficulties involved in using performance indicators, particularly school examination performance. The authors explore, for instance, the merits of assessing a school's exam results in different ways - in terms of comparisons with national or local averages, the proportions of students who passed, the school's performance over time, or comparison with other schools which have similar intakes - and the conflicting conclusions that can arise from the use of alternative measures.

The third part focuses on the contribution of inspection to school improvement, citing several case studies of inspections which have monitored the consequent reactions of teachers and inspectors. It indicates how judgments of schools, in order to be useful, often require discussion among teachers and inspectors so that the external evaluator becomes sensitised to the real contexts in which teachers are working.

The book concludes with a look to the future and considers the difficulties involved in moving from evidence about effectiveness to practical strategies for school improvement. The role of inspection is particularly stressed, the authors emphasising that this is only valuable when sufficient time is devoted to it to enable judgments to be contextualised and discussed meaningfully with the teachers concerned.

This is an important book which provides a clear overview of an area of research and development that is currently receiving much attention. It is well written, with clear explanations of technical matters, and several practical examples of monitoring school performance.

An underlying message behind both books is that judgments of educational effectiveness are complex and are bound to particular contexts, particular times, places, people and cultures. We cannot interpret performance indicators in any meaningful way without relying on professional judgment. While there will always be political and media demand for simple solutions that promise a quick response - league tables of exam results, or the publication of lists of "failing schools" - the improvement of the quality of teaching requires much greater sensitivity to the nature of teachers' work and a commitment to developing the practical support that can be offered to help teachers achieve their goals.

James Calderhead is professor of education at the University of Bath

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