Schools of Hope: a new agenda for school improvement

Author(s) Wrigley, T.
Publisher Stoke on Trent: Trentham
Published 2003
ISBN 185856302X
Reviewed by Paul Adams
Newman College of Higher Education, Birmingham
Review published 1 December 2004

The drive for school improvement is one that has certainly gathered increased speed since New Labour's rise to power in 1997. It should come as no surprise to anyone associated with education in England that success is determined in very precise and quantifiable ways: SATs results; GCSE, AS and A' Level Scores; and, OFSTED inspections to name but a few. Indeed, Wrigley asserts that 'England suffers particularly from a dominant version of School Improvement which has been grafted on to the statistically-based school effectiveness paradigm' (ibid: 3). It is against this backdrop that he presents his book. As someone heavily involved in school improvement analysis through the editorship of the journal Improving Schools, the author is someone who commands a wide and deep insight into the processes that shape school improvement processes. This is obvious throughout the text.

The book divides its 10 chapters into five, non-equal sections: Critiques, which questions current orthodoxy in educational policy; Dilemmas, which considers school culture and structure; Learning, which examines pedagogically related issues that Wrigley asserts have been missing from school improvement literature; Communities, which highlights how schools and their environments are engaged in complex relationships; and, finally, Futures, a chapter that highlights new ways forward. This structure seems to make sense as a way through the issues involved in school improvement and certainly, Wrigley makes a compelling case for this orientation and the inclusion of each topic in his introduction to the book. This structure is admirably supported in chapter one by a sound deconstruction and critique of present school improvement literature and Wrigley's assertion that it is methodologically, contextually, historically and morally reductionist. In so doing, the author contrasts real (my italics) school improvement with the aforementioned school effectiveness programme so often touted as the panacea for raising standards. Wrigley supports this by using examples from practices throughout Europe and research he has undertaken and published in previous books and articles. Whilst these provide a nice fillip for the concepts and issues identified, at times the lack of substantive detail could leave the reader with little way of seeing how such cases are truly supportive of the messages the author is attempting to address. Additionally, the location of these and some quotations in grey-scale boxes that sit within the main body of the text but outside the natural flow of reading was not helpful and at times distracting.

What follows chapter one is a series of explorations into areas of school improvement that have either been misrepresented (research into change processes), subjected to obfuscation (management as a tool for accountability rather than freeing up individual creativity), ignored (the privatisation of education), neglected (conceptions of intelligence, curriculum and pedagogy) or subjected to contradictory guidance and policy making (citizenship and the role of communities). All of these are important areas for consideration and are worthy of inclusion in such as text. I was particularly interested in chapters one (School effectiveness: the problem of reductionism), three (commitment or surveillance: the ecology of change), four (whose improvement? Whose schools?), and eight (schools for citizens). These chapters had a sense of coherence about them in that they offered insights into the issues whilst promoting reflection on the part of the reader. Their level of engagement with the issues was about right for a book of this length and depth.

Conversely, chapters five and six left me somewhat unfulfilled. Both contained some useful information and once again provided a good starting point for discussion, however both seemed rather over-ambitious and disconnected from the rest of the book despite references in later chapters. To attempt to discuss intelligence or curriculum is itself problematic, but to attempt to do so as a means to re-engage teachers with theoretical issues that, it seems to me so fundamentally challenge the professional value base upon which so much of our educational practice is based is too tall an order for two, albeit dedicated chapters.

Overall, Wrigley offers a very interesting, if not always comfortable discussion and critique of interpretations about education: its values, means and ends. This is a very worthwhile book to read and would be an excellent addition to any reading list concerned with educational policy or improvement at both undergraduate and masters level. Whilst it offers no 'solutions' and certainly no 'toolkit' or series of 'hints and tips' (in itself something to be applauded), what it does offer is a well-written, easily accessible and thought provoking read.