Wednesday, 22 July 2009

What it takes to run a good school

Some English schools that had, for whatever reason, experienced disastrous decline in performance have been taken over from their local education authorities and handed to other bodies to be given a fresh start and run as ‘academies’. These academies seem quite diverse, as do the outfits that run them. In some, perhaps most, business has the dominant say: a firm or group of businesses, for instance, might form a trust, provide some of the finance, appoint the head and determine the general character and strategy of the school.

The headteacher is likely to be chosen for being the sort of good manager or leader that businesses respect: one who motivates staff, gives all concerned a sense of having a stake, keeps standards high. In schools that were formerly run down, dispirited and out of control, this sort of new management, when it works, must bring huge relief and hope. In academies that set out to improve the education of children in the poorest and most disadvantaged areas, the importance of that transformation can’t be underestimated. Whether it really takes removal from local democratic control to achieve such change is a contentious issue but not the one that’s concerning me here.

Some academies seem to be doing well under that type of headteacher. In the end, though, that business model of leadership, motivation, purposefulness, determination and so on surely can’t be enough. Schools are about forming persons, and specifically their minds – what they know, how they think, their command of the public discourses of learning. They effect this formation by managing the students' encounters and interactions with knowledge, with the developed intellectual culture of the society and a wide range of its products. Learners have to be induced to move into difficult, strenuous engagement with the academic and arts disciplines; the scope of their knowledge, thinking and response has to be expanded out of all recognition and way beyond what would come about through ordinary exposure to life, television and the internet. School students need to develop along routes that can potentially lead to their being educated and cultured, to use the latter word in the unembarrassed way that, say, Russians do: the resources of intellectual culture – its habits and its knowledge – have to get internalised.

This must mean that besides a generically ‘motivating’ management, schools need intellectual leadership. I don’t know if the head himself or herself has to fill that role, but key teachers if not all teachers need to be philosophers. They need to have thought deeply about the purposes of education and what it is to acquire ease and familiarity within the main arts, science, social science and mathematical disciplines, what’s involved in the transition from being a kid on the street to someone who begins to be a mathematician or classical musician or historian, or at least who reads widely by choice and habitually has recourse to writing as a diverse means of expression, thought, discovery and invention.

Schools won’t get there simply by having some sort of generic ‘high standards’ for behaviour, attitude and assiduity, or even just an unspecified belief in the children (‘Yes, you can’) -- and then, for ‘content’, simply trusting to the government-provided programmes of studying and testing; they need to know what they’re doing in a deeper sense and to engage seriously with the nature of academic knowledge. The teachers need to be educated and cultured people with a desire to induct the young into the worlds in which they lead their own intellectual lives.

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