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Warning: do not throw these books in the bin

EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP FOR SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT. By Alma Harris, Christopher Day, David Hopkins, Mark Hadfield, Andy Hargreaves and Christopher Chapman. RoutledgeFalmer pound;18.99.

IMPROVING LEARNING: professional practice in secondary schools. By Derek Glover and Sue Law. Open University pound;16.99.

"Not another school improvement programme!" says a headteacher quoted in Effective Leadership for School Improvement. "Put it in the bin."In context, the remark is less dismissive than it sounds. It describes the likely response of that head's hard-pressed colleagues.

For 20 years, researchers - these authors conspicuous among them - have been describing the leadership actions and approaches that make for better schools, and politicians have ever more insistently attempted to create and enforce them. Schools are widely perceived to be reeling under the barrage of prescription.

What is striking about this book is the way it moves the emphasis from the 1990s managerial and systems-led approach to leadership to what it calls "distributed leadership", a culture in which people work and learn together with shared values towards common goals.

Howard Gardner, Michael Fullan and many others have explored the concept that leadership is not something leaders do, but something they create.

What is different about the present volume is the focus on where it comes from and the nature of the audience it is addressing. Of its authors, David Hopkins is now director of the standards and effectiveness unit at the Department for Education and Skills; all the others bar Andy Hargreaves from Toronto are working with or for the National College of School Leadership. And that's significant.

Leadership, as the DfES has seen it, has been locked into top-down management, accountability and compliance; it's been about systems and performance. The message of this book, solidly based on case studies and research, is that it is often counter-productive, especially where improvement is most needed. It makes for defensive teaching, inhibits sharing and stifles creativity.

The most effective leaders look for challenge and encourage innovation.

Achievement is more important than performance, and a school's internal culture matters more than its external context. They are flexible and pragmatic, but grounded in their educational values. Above all, they are learners. That is very different from the DfES model, but there are signs that the tide is turning. Leadership is beginning to be shared: the national college has programmes for the development of mentors, subject leaders and in-school researchers as well as for present and potential heads. It is going to be a major force for teacher-mediated school improvement.

So this book is timely. As well as an overview of theoretical perspectives, it offers a convincing analysis of leadership capacity; drawing usefully on actual examples, it demonstrates how that capacity can be strengthened and developed. It is challenging, stimulating and refreshingly free of jargon.

An excellent introduction to the national college courses, and an optimistic pointer to real improvement. Not a book for the bin.

Improving Learning takes another approach in a down-to-earth text that newly qualified teachers in particular will find useful and reassuring. The authors, researchers with backgrounds in headship and teaching, are convinced that school students are excellent judges of what works best in teaching - if only we'd ask them. They've drawn up a "learning effectiveness audit" - a list of 30 statements reflecting what researchers and the current Ofsted framework rate as effective approaches to teaching and learning. Is this what happens, the questionnaire asks, in your own experience? Always, sometimes, or never?

It is an unthreatening approach, and it can be used in a variety of ways - in a single classroom, by a subject team, across a year group. The data throws up valid and important questions and the authors show how these questions can be used to focus whole-school attention on such issues as the learning environment, expectations and challenge, learning and teaching styles or gender.

Mostly, the implications of the questions reinforce the thrust of the Government's education strategies, and show how classroom teachers can best use them to secure improvement. Sometimes the implications are more problematic. Then, it's an issue for school leaders - how to demonstrate inside their schools, for example, that shared values and real respect can counterbalance the negative aspects of the standards agenda. Improving Learning addresses both dimensions in a thoughtful and eminently realistic way.

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