Education: A quest for maximum impact: A good school is one in which it's not only the bright pupils who progress. Donald MacLeod reports

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The Independent Online
A FORMULA for improving schools is the Holy Grail of education. The idea that schools make a real difference to their pupils, whatever their backgrounds, has been firmly reinstated, and this has prompted a prolonged search for the characteristics of the 'effective school': one where pupils progress further than might be expected from a look at its intake.

Plenty of formulae have emerged on both sides of the Atlantic but, in this country at least, voluminous academic research has not led to an agreed plan of action. What, in practical terms, are teachers and governors to do?

For those who subscribe to the American dream, a poor background is there to be overcome and success is within the grasp of all who strive for it. The school should provide the support and care - and the role models - that children are not getting at home; establishing trust and good relationships is the indispensable first step to improving a school.

The British school-effectiveness movement is more pessimistic (or realistic) about what can be achieved within a fixed social order and has tended to focus more on what can be changed in the school: not so much changing the world as fine-tuning the timetable.

However, its advocates have demonstrated that schools serving very disadvantaged populations can be effective, while those in well-off areas can fail to be effective in this sense and foster underachievement.

Yes, school matters, in the sense that an effective school can demonstrably improve its pupils' performance, but it will not enable working-class children to out-perform those from middle-class families, say the British group.

These contrasting visions form the backdrop to tomorrow's conference at the London Institute of Education, entitled Lessons from the United States and Canada. For ordinary teachers or school governors who have been buffeted by advice and rhetoric on improving standards, the three-day conference holds out the hope of identifying ideas that they can put into practice. Well, we shall see.

Professor Peter Mortimore of the London Institute of Education, one of the gurus of the effective schools movement, believes there are lessons to be learned if only because the Americans and the Canadians have been trying to put into practice what British educationalists have only talked about. He points out that despite all the research identifying the characteristics of effective schools, no large-scale improvement programmes based on these findings have been put into practice in England and Wales or Scotland.

In the United States, in contrast, James Comer's School Development Program has been operating since 1968 in New Haven, Connecticut, and the results have impressed the Rockefeller Foundation enough to unlock funding of dollars 3m a year to spread his ideas. And for the past six years in Canada, the Halton School Board near Toronto has been attempting to put into practice 12 indicators generated by school-effectiveness research, ranging from establishing clear goals and high expectations to promoting student involvement. Michael Fullan, who heads the Halton team, promises: 'We can tell you what worked, what didn't and why.'

Professor Comer is typical of American apostles of school effectiveness in concentrating on primary schooling. (In Britain most research has concentrated on secondary education.) He recounts how he started out at school in Chicago with three friends who later fell foul of alcoholism, crime and mental institutions and attributes his own survival and success to the encouragement and support of his family.

His School Development Program aims to create the right relationships to make improved teaching and learning possible, rather than aiming at academic improvements as such. This is a critical missing link in education reform, although it is not enough in itself, he says.

'Middle-income children from better-educated families gain what is necessary to succeed in school simply by growing up with their parents. We want to provide some of those experiences for inner-city children,' he has said.

He argues that children from low-income families under stress present themselves to schools in ways that the teachers see as indicating low academic potential. They respond with low expectations and punishments, souring the atmosphere between pupils and parents.

A child psychiatrist, Professor Comer includes a mental health or support team in his blueprint, looking not just at individual cases but at the general causes of problems in the school. This team is there to prevent problems rather than to mop up.

The Canadian approach has been to make schools responsible for their own self-evaluation, based on an 'Effective Schools' questionnaire produced by the Halton Board of Education. The process is designed to avoid comparisons between schools, according to Louise Stoll, one of the Halton team coming to the London conference.

She says that the more successful school principals have created frequent opportunities for staff to discuss and clarify their beliefs, allowing a feeling of shared purpose to develop. School improvement cannot be imposed from on high.

'The key to the success of any school improvement or effort lies in the involvement of and respect for the opinions of those who have the final responsibility to make it work, namely the teachers,' says Ms Stoll.

Although superficially the advocates of school effectiveness are in tune with the Conservative government's reforms - the insistence on measuring results, the message that schools do make a difference and can improve themselves - there are fundamental disagreements.

Their slogan 'All children can learn' contradicts a deep-seated view in Britain that schools, using examinations like A-level and GCSE are there to sort youth into those who will work with their heads and those who will toil with their hands.

School-effectiveness campaigners like Professor Comer argue, as do Secretaries of State for Education, that it is not necessary for a school to have excellent resources or pupils from comfortable backgrounds in order to be effective. But the campaigners measure outcomes in terms of the 'value added' to what the pupils bring to the school, not exam league tables. They also believe that success should be distributed across the school population: success for an academic few does not mean an effective school.

Professor Fullan of the Halton programme says education reform is 'complex, unpredictable, frequently arbitrary and always highly political. Educators in schools are badly in need of a new mind-set and lines of action that will enable them to survive and have a chance of progressing under these less-than-helpful conditions. There are no easy solutions. There are several ideas, however, that can help.'