Schools on the Edge: Responding to Challenging Cirmumstances

Author(s) John MacBeath, John M. Gray, Jane Cullen, David Frost, Sue Swaffield, Susan Steward
Publisher Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd
Published 2006
Pages 176
Price £19.99
ISBN 1412929717
Reviewed by Mrs Jackie Barbera
Liverpool Hope University
Review published 27 March 2007

‘Schools on The Edge’ is written by a team of authors from the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University who were involved in a Dfes funded project ‘Schools Facing Exceptionally Challenging Circumstances’. This project (2001-2005) focused on an octet of schools, all in disadvantaged areas, which were constantly seen to be on the brink of success or failure, and which had a senior management team committed to school improvement. The book takes an overarching review of policy and theory linked to disadvantaged children, their communities and their schooling and then reflects back on this in the analysis of the case studies. School improvement is explored from the dimension of the needs of young people on the edge of the social mainstream, something, which the authors argue, is too often omitted by politicians, policy-makers and school improvement teams. It is the tensions, as the authors state, between ‘the force field of turbulent communities’ and ‘uncompromising government policy’ that provides the central theme for the book. As such it is a book which will be of interest to many involved in education and policy making, particularly those in involved in studies such as inclusive education, school improvement, and   school leadership and management. It will fit nicely into a number of undergraduate and postgraduate education courses, indeed an ideal text for challenging the thinking of those studying for NPQH or as an example of writing up a research project.

From the outset the discussion is widely referenced by a range of supporting research, data and texts. The book is divided into two halves. The first half exploring and challenging theory and policy and the second half using the eight schools to explore the reality of the situation and questioning whether sustained improvement is possible in the difficult circumstances that these schools face.

Chapter 1 is written from a ‘worm’s eye view’ of children and young people and explores how far schools really have been able to provide opportunities for all to succeed. Although referring to the explicit acknowledgement of Every Child Matters that schools cannot meet the needs of all children, the authors also use the question: Does Every Child Matter? to challenge thinking about how schools can and do make a difference for individuals living in challenging circumstances. The text looks at research into school improvement from a tactical, strategic, and capacity building approach. It briefly touches on awareness of issues such as pupil attendance, mental health, parent/school links, curriculum design and delivery, as key factors in pupil achievement and school success but presents us with no answers. At this stage the reader is merely challenged to think. Chapter 2 goes on to review government education policies and some initiatives from the introduction of the comprehensive system in 1965 to the recent Every Child Matters. The limits of the success of such policies are questioned, particularly for those schools in challenging circumstances, and key factors addressed in the discussion of how school improvement can be made and sustained. The writers suggest that for a large number of schools no significant sustained school improvement has been achieved by any such policies or initiatives. Chapter 3 develops school improvement issues from the perspective of the community and the influences of social capital. Chapter 4 is then the case studies of the octet of schools with chapter 5 discussing the project and chapter 6 data interpretation and evaluation.

The case studies and analysis of improvement data proved to be interesting and raise questions about what we measure and how. No concrete conclusions could be drawn except to accept that improvement is as ever very difficult to measure and is as usual measured in a way which is biased towards government needed statistics. The conclusion by the authors suggests nine major points to consider if improvement for schools in extremely challenging circumstances is to happen and be sustained. These ’nine lesson for policy makers’ are very frank and pertinent points, let’s hope at least some of our policy makers read them!

The book proved to be an enjoyable read and I was pleased that throughout the authors’ approach was to challenge the reader’s thinking about how school improvement could be achieved and what society should really be doing to support equal opportunities for education for all. Indeed the experience of the writing team was reflected in their confidence to question and challenge government policy and thinking. However the reality check of the reminder of the complicated nature of school management and the sometimes needlessness of adhering to government policy rather than meeting the needs of individual pupils was rather depressing! At the end of the book I was left feeling yet again that government initiatives just do not really focus on the community aspect of school improvement. Until this happens and the basic structure of schooling and the curriculum really acknowledge what some of today’s young people need then we will not make real progress in achieving sustained improvement and success for schools such as these in challenging circumstances. One is left questioning whether we are pinning too much hope on Every Child Matters for such schools and their pupils.