Transforming schools : art, science or illusion?
This ethnographic case study of Hillside School's two years in special measures investigates a number of theoretical perspectives derived from a substantial review of the literature on effectiveness, improvement and leadership. The claim that appropriately trained heads can motivate teachers and students to achieve ever more challenging targets, and transform the education and prospects of the next generation, is tested against the experience of two headteachers in the field. Repeated participant interviews, a contemporary diary and extensive documentation are used to examine how the heads built the school's capacity and raised its effectiveness in terms of OFSTED inspection criteria. Using authoritative and coaching styles appropriately, the new leaders enhanced the performance of their colleagues and created a resilient culture for continued improvement, despite adverse circumstances that included social disadvantage, the school's proposed closure and an ineffective local authority. But closer enquiry reveals that governors, parents, teachers and students were also motivated by beliefs, values, perceptions of interest and micro-political concerns that are inadequately explained by recommended models of school effectiveness and improvement. At Hillside, the heads mobilised all the available sources of moral, political and professional authority to resolve conflicts and dilemmas at micro, meso and macro levels. There are no neat, transferable lessons because variations in the combination of context, leaders and followers seem more significant than the common elements emphasised in popular models. Although high levels of effectiveness were achieved, examination and test results appeared unchanged, suggesting that student intake mix may have shaped performance more than the organizational characteristics influenced by the headteachers. As few schools achieve a step change in performance, the policy conclusion is drawn that new, qualitative measures of improvement are required as a framework for understanding change. A modified theoretical viewpoint is developed that acknowledges and explains the 'messy reality' of school life.