SCHOOL EFFECTIVENESS: AN ELUSIVE CONCEPT
I should like to start by thanking the Conference Organizing Committee on two counts. In the first place I must thank them for having the wisdom and courage to organize a conference which seeks to pursue the theme of effective schools. Put simply, what can be more important for society than the quality of the places in which children spend so much of their time? Secondly, however, I am delighted to have the opportunity to revisit the country which I now regard as a home from home. When I was asked to contribute to the conference proceedings, I therefore had no hesitation in accepting the invitation and jumped at the chance to come back to this spectacular land.
The task I have been given is to share with you my thoughts on effective schools and to do this in the context of a gala dinner. This is no mean feat. The issue of effective schooling is a critically important subject which clamours for serious and scholarly treatment but on the other hand speaking at a dinner suggests the need for a somewhat lighter touch. Clearly the solution is to strike a balance between the serious and the less serious and I hope that I can manage to do this.
A friend of mine who was the Director of Education for an education authority in the highlands of Scotland, was visiting a small and remote rural school which had just been given a new building. The school community was very proud of its new building and in celebration of this had devised a new school crest containing the motto “The mind has no horizons”. The Director, as he usually did on such occasions, spoke with the pupils. Showing off his pedagogical skills, he referred to the school motto and asked the pupils what it meant. Predictably there was no response. He persevered with his enquiry and kept asking about the meaning of the motto “The mind has no horizons”. Eventually a little boy piped up and said “I know, it means that we don’t know where we are going”. The little boy’s thinking was muddled; he had not got to grips with the concept of “horizon”. I think that we are all a little muddled when we talk about school effectiveness. We are not always sure what we mean especially when initiatives to enhance school effectiveness are being planned.
Effectiveness in relation to schools is a complex and multi-factorial or multi-layered concept which is extremely hard to describe and define. It is elastic in the sense that it can be pulled and stretched in all directions. It means different things to different people, it means different things at different times, it means different things in different contexts and so on. It is also an elusive concept; it is ever-changing, it is difficult to pinpoint and it is difficult to get a hold of. And yet we continue to talk glibly about “effectiveness” in an educational context without really being clear what we mean. If we turn to the Oxford or Chambers Dictionaries, their definitions of “effective” are not of much help to us.
Against this background I should like to look at five groups who all have a distinct and distinctive stake in the quality of the education service, namely:
* Pupils or learners
* Parents or guardians
* Teachers or educators
Let is consider these groups with a view to seeing what an effective school looks like from their different perspectives. How do they for their part define an effective school? That too has its conceptual pitfalls because schools themselves are not homogeneous. They come in all shapes and sizes , nursery, primary, secondary, special, large, small, urban, rural, schools in leafy suburbs, schools in deprived areas, state-funded schools, independent schools and so on and so on. For the purpose of my address however we shall simply deem schools to be “places in which teachers teach and children learn”.
I would like to begin with the views of pupils or learners. What would pupils tell us if we asked them to describe or define an effective school? In the case of younger children we would doubtless have to provide additional guidance with the question but , make no mistake, children are shrewder than we think and know perfectly well what an effective or successful school looks like. My experience and observation of the education service over many years would lead me to believe that they would come up with the following characteristics of what they would consider to be an effective school:
They would expect the provision of an environment which is orderly and in which control and discipline are maintained in a firm but fair manner. An education writer recently pointed out that pupils often see schools as a security blanket and that, when they get to the point of leaving, they are quite terrified by the prospect of leaving school for the last time and having to build new relationships elsewhere. Perhaps we underestimate the importance to PUPILS of order, discipline, control and structure in the school environment. Pupils will accept strong discipline (for instance in regard to corridor behaviour) provided that it is fairly applied, but they will quickly rebel against a regime which they perceive as unfair. All of the research evidence is to the effect that fairness is of key importance to pupils. By that they mean that everybody should be treated the same, that is to say no favouritism, no teacher’s pet, boys and girls treated equally and so on. On the other hand, while pupils applaud firmness and fairness, they do not like teachers who dominate nor do they like teachers who are lax and teachers who do not have control of their classes. They like to feel that they belong to the school community, that their views are respected, that their opinions are listened to and that they are valued as individuals. Not surprisingly the quality of the toilet facilities is always mentioned in any survey of pupils because that has to do with respect and privacy. They like schools in which teachers genuinely care about their pupils, support their endeavours and help them to do the best they can. They like teachers who are at ease with their pupils, who have a lightness of touch in the classroom and who ensure not only that learning takes place but that there is a bit of fun and enjoyment associated with the learning process. They like teachers who are “good fun” and teachers who show that they are human. The central thread in all of this is that pupils would regard a school as effective or good or successful if it was an orderly place, had a clear policy of valuing its pupils, respecting their views, allowing them to contribute to the governance of the school and generally treating them as individuals rather than just as names or numbers. In this connection I noticed in the press the other day a comment from Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner which seemed to me to sum up one of the key messages, if not the key message, about the role of pupils in effective schools:
“Giving children a voice on matters affecting them and encouraging them to speak up, is a crucial factor in ensuring their rights are respected. While we know they vary in terms of influence, pupil councils are one way that children can learn to articulate their thoughts, opinions, judgements and feelings so that they are participants rather then pawns in the education system”.
What then would parents(guardians) have to say? What do they regard as the essential characteristics of the effective school? There is no doubt that they would regard an effective school as a school in which their child flourishes in all respects. They would certainly see academic success and attainment as important but not to the exclusion of other areas of development. While they will have justifiable aspirations for their child’s intellectual development, they will wish to be sure that other needs are also being met by the school. They will for example wish to assure themselves that their child is safe and in a secure environment. Parents will wish to be sure that the school is competently managed, that the teaching staff is well qualified and competent if not inspirational, that there are appropriate standards of pupil behaviour expected and enforced, that there is firm discipline, that there is no bullying, that there child is content to go to school and that he/she exhibits no symptoms of school refusal. Like their sons and daughters parents would like to think of the school not only as a place of learning but also as a place of enjoyment. They would wish the school management to be approachable, helpful when required and able to deal quickly and efficiently with any problems or complaints. The parents would expect the effective school to welcome their support, listen to their opinions, invite their input and actively encourage them to contribute to the growth and development of the school. An effective school would not be a school with a notice at the door which says “No parents beyond this point”. Parents have a lot to give both individually and collectively but experience suggests that they have no desire to manage schools and are happy to leave that to the professionals. What they do want is to have a voice and to be involved. The UK Conservative Party is misreading the plot when it invites all schools in England to “opt out” of local authority control and become locally managed “academies”. I suspect that this decision has less to do with educational considerations and more to do with the politics of breaking the power of the local authorities. While parents are of course interested in the academic success of their child, the wise and good parents see a somewhat broader canvas. For the parents an effective school has a good feel about it, a good ethos, an agreed value system, a rich and diverse range of extra-curricular activities and it shows evidence of sound relationships throughout the school community. “An effective school is a happy school” may not be an unreasonable mantra. It is significant to note that none of this figures in the league tables of pupil performance so beloved by governments.
Remembering that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers” (Mckinsey and Co 2007), acknowledging that the same can be said of the quality or effectiveness of a school and accepting that the teachers are the key ingredient, we move now to the views of teachers. How do they perceive the effective school? Not surprisingly there is much in common with pupils since of course pupils and teachers are both part of the same immediate school community. For teachers the effective school is a school which knows the worth of its teaching staff, which appreciates their worth and which demonstrates this both in the day-to-day life of the school and in the way in which the school is managed. Teachers, like pupils, need to feel valued and respected. They like to think that their opinions are listened to and that, in terms of participative management, they are making a positive contribution to the running of the school. If these conditions are present, teachers tend to be committed and motivated. They also like to be thanked for their efforts from time to time. It is no accident that schools in Finland are held up as models of good practice as far as pupil attainment is concerned. Finland invests heavily in continuing professional development for its teaching force and in consequence teachers there enjoy high social status despite the fact that they do not have especially high salaries. In other words their worth is recognized, they are valued and respected and their commitment is thereby maintained. They in turn are highly motivated and this shows in their classroom practice and ultimately in the learning of their pupils. It is simple enough psychology and yet how often is this basic premise neglected by management in schools and elsewhere. Teachers will give of their best when the conditions in which they work are conducive, collegial and motivating. Teachers like a school with a sense of order, a school with a clear policy on discipline which is understood by all and consistently applied. They wish to be sure that they can rely on the support of management when the going gets tough, especially in relation to difficult, malicious and abusive pupils. They would expect management to accept that teaching staff are entitled to an appropriate work-life balance, particularly where dual career families are concerned. Beginning teachers (surprisingly or maybe not) seem to have no desire to be extended professionals. Predictably teachers like pupils who want to learn and parents who not only agree with the school but who also support the school without interfering. I suspect that, if you asked teachers at large what was the first requisite of the effective school, it would be strong and supportive leadership. By the same token I fear that a school has little chance of being effective if its leadership is weak and/ or inept.
What about employers? What do they think? I suspect that their view of the effective school will be somewhat restricted and narrow and that they are not overly interested in the big picture. Their concept of the effective school is more likely to be closely related to their needs as employers and therefore to issues of a more vocational nature. Like other groups of stake-holders they will favour the creation of an orderly environment which fosters a strong work ethic in the pupils. They would like schools to produce pupils (and therefore potential future employees) who know about the importance of punctuality, who have a responsible attitude to absence from work, who have respect for authority, who accept advice, who can take and act upon orders and who can listen and carry out instructions. They like to think that their future employees will be willing to learn, ready to show creativity and imagination, resilient, adaptable, honest, enthusiastic and loyal; they should also be able to demonstrate commitment and stickability. Naturally employers will expect school leavers to have satisfactory literacy and numeracy skills together with IT proficiency including keyboard skills. Employers are likely to have a very functional concept of the effective school. They would like schools to produce leavers who have the basic skills and the right attitudes and who can then be trained to the employer’s requirements. In a sense it is a very selfish and limited view of what schooling is all about. Employers frequently complain about the schools and about the pupils they produce which of course underlines the need for good liaison between schools and the world of commerce/industry. My experience in this suggests that schools and authorities are reasonably willing to enter into a helpful dialogue with employers but, sadly, they often seem unable or unwilling to respond. It is clear that schools and the world of work are quite far apart in respect of their views of the nature and purpose of schooling. The interface between the two is not unlike primary-secondary liaison at its worst. What is certain is that there needs to be more dialogue between the two sides so that they understand each other’s standpoint and in so doing achieve a greater degree of rapprochement. The world of work’s concept of effective schooling , it would appear, is different from that of the other interest groups and quite idiosyncratic.
Finally, we have national governments. What do they consider to be an effective school? My impression is that they have by and large a disappointingly myopic or perhaps lop-sided view of school effectiveness, especially in relation to secondary schools. They appear to take the view that an effective school is one which makes a good showing in national and international league tables of attainment and that by the same token a “failing” school (which presumably is the opposite of an “effective” school) is a school which makes a poor showing in terms of examination results. Such a view of effectiveness pigeon-holes schools in relation to other schools, local authorities in relation to other local authorities and eventually countries in relation to other countries. It is all about comparison and competition. A system like that does not see a school as an entity in its own right, or in relation to the progress which it has made since the previous year, or in relation to its catchment area, or in relation to the community which it serves. I was struck by a recent article in “The Times” of 7 June 2010 which quotes the new Education Secretary in England as saying that “schools deemed “failing” and placed on special measures by OFSTED, the inspectorate, would have twelve months to climb out of that status before the heads were sacked and the schools handed over to “organizations with a track record of educational excellence”. For me that says it all. Governments, especially right-wing governments, have a simplistic view of what schools are about and place a total reliance on raw and uncontextualized examination scores. To be fair, the Scottish Government has produced and revised several times a document entitled “How Good is our School” which invites schools to have regard to a broad range of quality indicators, but at the end of the day it would still see the success of its system in terms of easily measurable outcomes such as performance in national examinations. Sadly, it is perhaps inevitable that it should be so but it is nonetheless disappointing that the effectiveness, quality, success of a school should be reduced to such limited considerations.
Where have we got to with all of this? We have suggested how pupils might view an effective school; that is an important matter for consideration given that we do well to remember that schools are first and foremost about pupils, their needs, welfare and progress. In this connection I would point out that taking account of pupil voice is becoming more and more a manifestation of modern, progressive and practical citizenship education. We have also looked at the views of parents and I am bound to say that wise and good parents take a fairly balanced view of what constitutes an effective school. It seems to me that parental views are by and large sensible, practicable, unexceptionable and in no way extreme or outrageous. They do not want to take over the management of the schools as the new Education Secretary for England seems to imagine; they have more sense. What about the teaching staff? I would submit that there are two main strands to their position. For them the effective school values, respects and protects its teachers and their professionalism; at the same time the effective school values and respects its pupils and in so doing helps them to be all they can be. There is of course a bit of professional protectionism and self-interest in the teachers’ views but that is not surprising and quite understandable. Employers and government both take a narrow view of effective schooling but in different ways. Employers would like schools more or less to prepare pupils for the world of work but that is neither the sole nor the main purpose of schools. Perhaps it was in the Victorian era but no longer. Government is interested in educational excellence and by that they mean examination success. For them an effective school would be a high-scoring school which makes a valuable contribution to the country’s place in the international league tables. In their view an ineffective school is a failing school which may be doing extremely well in its own terms but not in the narrow terms of government.
I should like to sum up by making three points:
1. As I have sought to demonstrate, school effectiveness is without doubt an elusive and elastic concept. It clearly means different things to different people. I worry when I read about the development of programmes to improve or enhance school effectiveness. What is it that is to be improved or enhanced? For my money there continues to be a lack of clarity and definition.
2. The views of the different inter-groups are not totally at odds with each other. Naturally there will be areas of overlap and agreement at the core although equally there will be areas of dissonance and disagreement beyond the core. The views of teachers and employers for instance would be in large measure ideologically at variance.
3. Pupils and parents are pretty shrewd judges of the totality in their perception of the quality of schools, and it may be that, taken together, their views provide us with a not inaccurate and workable picture of the effective school.
Just before I left Scotland, I was reading the annual report of the only secondary school in my small town in the Scottish Borders. The headteacher mentioned a brand-new Scottish Government report which concluded that a successful or effective school should do three things:
• build a school culture that welcomes change
• facilitate and support teacher professionalism (echoes of Finland)
• innovate to meet the needs of all pupils.
This is an interesting definition which we should perhaps try to unpick but not today. In the meantime however I leave you with my firmly held conviction hat we need to be less vague and more precise in our thinking about effective schools. Conceptual analysis of more rigour is required if we are to make progress.
Dr Ivor Sutherland