It should be easy to identify the features of good schools. There is research in abundance and the evidence is readily available. We’ve all been to a school, so we also nurture our pet beliefs about what is good and bad in school-land.
We certainly have a variety of schools claiming to cater for diverse beliefs about what is and isn’t important, fuelling an endless debate about which schools are best and which should apparently be avoided. In the middle of all this are parents of school-age children: what do they seek in a school and how can they be assured about school quality?
Parents are concerned, and will articulate their concerns, about the levels of student achievement in their chosen range of schools. But they also want to know about the social profile of the students already enrolled at each school. Our concern about schools is often about who our kids will sit next to in class.
We also discuss the schools we like and the ones we reject. We all create narratives to reinforce our choices; our school conversations are about reputation, teaching, results, student care, appearance and discipline. We also adopt and recycle common labels: from top or high-performing schools, to the ordinary, to the under-performing or failing.
In the process we equate the achievement of students with the achievement of their school. Yet over two-thirds of “school” achievement is created, not by the school but in the homes and neighbourhoods of the enrolled students. The schools which snare the most engaged and advantaged students can bathe in the reflected glory that their results create – for the school.
This means that finding out the real difference which is actually made by the school is a much harder task: small wonder that many parents play it safe by opting for a school with an established reputation', regardless of how, or even if, it is earned.
The alternative for those with a choice of school is to sift and sort through the multitude of claims made about, and by, particular schools. Is the My School website really much help? Are there reviews of schools we can access? Do the glossy school publications, school annual reports and even the open days tell it all? Can we trust the views of the people in and around schools? After all, just about everyone has an agenda as well as an opinion.
When all factors are taken into account there is a surprising lack of any significant relationship between different school types and levels of student achievement. Fortunately, this means that any school can be a good school, one in which effective teaching and authentic learning is nurtured and constantly developed to help students achieve. The challenge for parents is to discover the real depth of student engagement and learning – and the quality of teaching.
But the notion of a good school goes further. Schools serve a variety of purposes and are called on to serve widening and changing expectations. And is their priority to serve students, parents or the nation – and in what mix between the three? What is most important: their private purpose for individual gain or their public and democratic purpose? Or should national and economic priorities have the greatest influence on the direction taken by schools?
In What Makes a Good School (out now from NewSouth) Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro set out to challenge and question as much as to inform.