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Can all schools be successful?
An exploration of the determinants of school ‘success’.

Sharon Gewirtz

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference

(September 11-14 1997: University of York)

Faculty of Social Sciences
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes


This paper aims to shed light on some of the issues raised in the often polarised debate around effective schooling by exploring the complexities involved in trying to uncover the determinants of the differential ‘success’ of schools. In doing so, the paper challenges the oversimplification which characterises many of the arguments around school improvement by demonstrating that it is not a question of either management and teaching or the social context of schooling determining the success or otherwise of schools. Drawing on in-depth qualitative research, the paper demonstrates the intricate and intimate connections between what school managers and teachers do and the socio-economic and discursive environments within which they operate.


One of the assumptions underpinning current government thinking on education in the UK is that so-called failing schools are largely the product of poor leadership and teaching and that, through the ‘cascading of best practice’, all schools can be a success. A contrasting view is that good leadership and teaching can only ever have a fairly minimal effect on school performance and that in trying to locate the source of underperformance, there is a need to focus on factors which are beyond the control of schools, namely social inequality and poverty.

It is from this perspective that Peter Robinson (1997: 17) has concluded that ‘Over the long run the most powerful educational policy is arguably one which tackles child poverty, rather than any modest interventions in schooling’.

This kind of argument is often derided by those in the school improvement camp. For instance, in his book The Learning Game (1996) Michael Barber - head of the Department for Education and Employment’s (DFEE) Standards and Effectiveness Unit - caricatures concerns about the relationship between education, policy and the economy, suggesting that arguments about the structural causes of educational failure divert attention from where much of the responsibility for educational failure lies - the schools, their managers and their teachers. ‘Whereas under the old order’ Barber writes, ‘there was a tendency to blame the system, society, the class structure - anyone other than the schools themselves - for underperformance. Now there is no escape’ (Barber 1996: 131).

However, other school improvement researchers are careful to emphasise that while schools can and do make a difference, what they can achieve is ‘partial and limited, because schools are also part of the wider society, subject to its norms, rules, and influences’ (Mortimore 1997: 483). Reynolds and Packer (1992) concluded from their review of school effectiveness research that schools have an independent effect of only 8-15 per cent on student outcomes. And a more recent study by Thomas and Mortimore of the value-added results from one local authority concluded that ‘Once background factors have been accounted for, the variation in pupil’s total examination scores attributable to schools is 10 per cent’ (Thomas and Mortimore 1996: 26).

It is presumably this kind of finding which has led Peter Mortimore, an eminent figure in the school improvement community, to join forces with the sociologist Geoff Whitty to challenge current New Labour thinking on education. In a paper urging the government to ‘make a fresh start’ in combating educational disadvantage, Mortimore and Whitty (1997: 8) have criticised school improvement work for tending ‘to exaggerate the extent to which individual schools can challenge ... structural inequalities’. Whilst the authors recognise that ‘committed and talented heads and teachers can improve schools even if such schools contain a proportion of disadvantaged pupils’, they go on to warn ‘of the dangers of basing a national strategy for change on the efforts of outstanding individuals working in exceptional circumstances’ (1997: 6):

Whilst some schools can succeed against the odds, the possibility of them doing so, year in and year out, still appears remote given that the long-term patterning of educational inequality has been strikingly consistent throughout the history of public education in most countries (1997: 8-9).

These kind of arguments are relatively commonplace within the sociology of education literature (for example, Angus 1993, Elliot 1996, Hatcher 1998), but it is rare for such arch scepticism about the transformative potential of school improvement strategies to emanate from within the school improvement research community itself. As Martin Thrupp (1998) has argued, while policy makers and school improvers ‘may be aware of the influence of social class on student outcomes’ there is nevertheless a tendency for them to ‘place faith in formal school management, curricula and assessment reforms to bring about changes to student performance’. Thrupp’s research indicates that such faith may well be misplaced. He argues that the social mix of schools (what he refers to as the student mix) strongly influences ‘school organisational and management processes so as to drag down the academic effectiveness of schools in low SES [socio-economic status] settings and boost it in middle class settings’, and concludes that ‘schools with differing SES intake compositions will, in fact, not be able to carry out similarly effective school polices and practices even with similar levels of resourcing and after taking account of individual student backgrounds’ (Thrupp 1998, in press).

This paper will attempt to shed light on the issues raised in this often polarised debate around effective schooling by exploring some of the complexities involved in trying to uncover the determinants of the differential ‘success’ of schools. In doing so, the paper challenges the oversimplification which characterises many of the arguments around school improvement by demonstrating that it is not a question of either management and teaching or society determining the success or otherwise of schools. Drawing on in-depth qualitative research, the paper demonstrates the intricate and intimate connections between what school managers and teachers do and the socio-economic and discursive contexts within which they operate.

The paper focuses on two inner-London secondary schools, John Ruskin and Beatrice Webb. Both schools are co-educational comprehensive schools but they are very different. John Ruskin is highly-regarded within the local community, heavily over-subscribed and performs well in the national league tables of examination results. Beatrice Webb, located within a mile of Ruskin, has a poor reputation, is very under-subscribed and is positioned near to the bottom of the examination league tables. The schools were studied as part of an ESRC-funded project investigating the impact of educational reform on the culture and values of schooling. 1

I want to begin by briefly introducing the two schools. Then I will explore some of the differences between them in terms of management and teaching, before going on to consider some of the implications of the schools’ social, material and discursive environments for the way in which they operate.

The schools

Ruskin is extremely popular, so much so that students have to live within three-quarters of a mile of the school to gain a place. The intake reflects the social mix of the local area, with approximately a quarter of the children coming from middle-class homes and just over 20 per cent qualifying for free school meals. The intake is mainly white with significant minorities of African-Caribbean, Chinese, Bangladeshi and Indian students. Although 14 per cent come from homes where English is not the first language, the majority of students were born in Britain and only a handful need extra language support. 15 per cent of the students are on the school’s register of special educational needs. As is the case with many popular schools, parents have been known to lie about their addresses in order to secure a place for their children at the school. In 1991 Ruskin expanded its Year 7 intake by 20 per cent in order to accommodate growing demand and maximise income. Ruskin’s examination results are above the national average. In 1995, 53 per cent of students got five or more GCSE grades A*-C compared to a national average of 41 per cent. The Ofsted team which inspected Ruskin in Spring 1996, whilst not uncritical of some aspects of the school, was on the whole highly complimentary, describing it as follows:

The school aims to provide an environment in which its members can contribute and achieve. It is concerned for the development of the whole person, with learning through personal interest and commitment, with social development through collaboration and shared activity, with exercising choice and self-determination, and with acknowledging rights balanced with responsibilities. Raising achievement is a key objective for which there are planned developments and targets in curriculum planning, managing behaviour and assessment and monitoring. Increased popularity has brought about the opportunity for building development.

Thus, measured against the key public indicators - market performance, examination results and Ofsted Report - Ruskin is an unqualified success.

Beatrice Webb, less than a mile away, is markedly under-subscribed and has a poor local reputation. Very few students choose to go there, the vast majority ending up at the school by default rather than choice. There is a proliferation of short-term accommodation in the area (the chair of governors referred to it as ‘bedsit land’) and many children enter the school mid-year because their families have been temporarily ‘housed’ in the area. The school also accepts a significant number of children who have been excluded from other schools. Approximately 30 per cent of the students are refugees, two-thirds are bilingual and 73 per cent are eligible for free school meals. 30 per cent of the students are registered as having special educational needs. In 1996 Beatrice Webb had 520 students on roll, although the school is deemed to have a potential capacity of 900 pupils. It consistently performs poorly in the examination league tables, with 10 per cent of students attaining five or more A*-C grades at GCSE in 1996.

During the course of our research there was a change of headship at Beatrice Webb. Ofsted inspected the school in the spring term of 1996 after the new head had been in post for just a year. They concluded that it was a school ‘with major weaknesses’ and that, although the new head was beginning to tackle these, a lot of work still needed to be done:

The headteacher was appointed in September 1995 and faced major problems, which, though diminished, still exist. The school was overstaffed, there were grave financial difficulties, standards were low, and the school was heavily undersubscribed. Since his appointment, many beneficial changes have taken place. Although there are still major problems, the school, though it has a long way to go, is slowly improving.

Whilst the inspectors were complimentary about some aspects of the school, they were highly critical of many, pointing in particular to low standards of attainment, poor rates of attendance and punctuality and a failure of some staff to rigorously ‘implement the measures recently undertaken by the school to remedy these deficiencies’.

How do we explain why one of these schools is judged a success and one is considered to be seriously underperforming and in need of being ‘turned around’? Clearly questions need to be asked about the criteria against which success and failure are measured. Success and failure are discursively constructed and we cannot simply take these public discourses at face value. I will return to this issue below, but for the moment I want to focus on management and teaching in the schools. As I noted above, it is the current political fashion to praise or blame school managers and teachers for the success or failure of schools. This tendency gains its legitimacy in part from academic discourses provided by the school effectiveness and improvement lobby. In the following section I want to begin to examine the validity of such arguments by comparing teaching and management in Ruskin and Beatrice Webb.

Management and teaching in the two schools

In a review of the school effectiveness literature, Peter Mortimore identifies two research approaches. Some researchers have been concerned to isolate the determinants of successful schools. Thus for example, Maden and Hillman (NCE 1995):

emphasize the importance of a cluster of behaviours: a leadership stance which builds on and develops a team approach; a vision of success which includes a view of how the school can improve and which, once it has improved, is replaced by a pride in its achievement; school policies and practices which encourage the planning and setting up of targets; the improvement of the physical environment; common expectations about pupil behaviour and success; and an investment in good relations with parents and the community (Mortimore 1997: 481)

The other approach is to identify the causes of school failure. For instance, Stoll (1995):

has drawn our attention to lack of vision, unfocused leadership, dysfunctional staff relationships, and ineffective classroom practices as mechanisms through which the effectiveness of schools can deteriorate (Mortimore 1997: 481).

So to what extent are any of these features apparent in Ruskin and Beatrice Webb and to what extent can such features be said to explain the differential performance of schools?


Ruskin certainly appears to possess all the features that Maden and Hillman (NCE 1995) associate with successful schools and none of those which Stoll (1995) associates with ineffective schools.

Our study did not set out to evaluate the teaching in the schools, so for the purposes of reporting on the ‘effectiveness’ of classroom practice in the schools, I will cite Ofsted’s judgements (although these do need to be treated with caution). Ofsted’s opinion of teaching at Ruskin was formulated on the basis of observing 225 lessons. The Ofsted team were on the whole positive about the teaching in the school, reporting that

Teachers work hard to create harmonious relationships in lessons and to provide lessons which contain an interesting variety of activities which largely sustain the interests of students. A good feature of teaching is the way in which subject teachers work with other professionals, parents and outside speakers to provide an interesting and relevant curriculum ... Lessons are well planned with clear objectives ... Clear explanations by teachers leave students in no doubt about what they have to do. Teachers are skilful in ascertaining and developing students’ understanding through skilful questioning and reformulating their responses.

There were criticisms too, for example, that ‘Too often teachers over-direct the thinking of the students’ and that ‘Occasionally teachers dominate lessons by talking too much’. But, of the teaching time they observed, they concluded that 90 per cent of lessons were satisfactory, very good or better.

As regards leadership at Ruskin, a number of teachers we interviewed were critical of the head, viewing him as autocratic and sometimes bullying. However, at the same time there is a general feeling amongst staff that they are consulted and listened to, even though they are not always happy with the decisions that are made. Whilst the key decisions are made by the senior management team, there are strong lines of communication between management and staff and a significant degree of what appears to be constructive debate. Complaints and grievances amongst staff do well up, but these tend to reach a point at which they are recognised by senior management and dealt with through discussion and compromise. One of the senior management team (SMT), in particular, seems to have adopted an informal role as conduit between staff and management. He spends more time in the staffroom than the other senior managers and picks up on concerns which are then relayed back to the rest of the SMT, discussed and responded to. Staff meetings are organised by an elected committee of staff and in such a way as to enable teachers to debate issues in the absence of senior management. Staff are also given the opportunity in these meetings to debate with senior management and a minority of teachers are not afraid to challenge publicly the decisions of the SMT. A committee of staff meet regularly with senior management to represent staff concerns and discuss key decisions and policies within the school. Whilst the head clearly sees this group as a useful device for ensuring that management decisions gain legitimacy amongst staff, the members of the group themselves see it as a means of influencing management decisions in the interests of staff. And from what I observed, the group appear to be able to use it quite effectively in this way. I observed a number of occasions in which senior management revised decisions in the light of staff protest. Although the school is not run along democratic lines, it appears to have enough democratic-like features to ensure that staff morale is kept at relatively healthy levels.

As regards ‘vision’, the head and senior management team have a very clear view of what the school stands for. Whilst, there are political differences and a range of emphases within the staff, there is a generally agreed commitment to offering students a broad and balanced humanistic curriculum within a relatively relaxed and collaborative atmosphere where children are encouraged to be academically achieving, independent, critical and caring. Target setting and performance monitoring are now firmly entrenched practices within the school, although many staff are opposed to these and critical of their effects on their pedagogical practice (Gewirtz 1997).

Beatrice Webb

Whilst Ruskin appears to possess the characteristics that are supposed to produce effective schools, Beatrice Webb, seems to have a number of characteristics which are meant to lead to ineffectiveness, although according to Ofsted, the school is showing signs of ‘improvement’.

Ofsted concluded that the bulk of teaching at Beatrice Webb was ‘satisfactory or better’ and a quarter of ‘the teaching was good or very good’. However, they also reported, on the basis of the 141 lessons they inspected, that a quarter of the teaching they observed was of poor quality:

Too many teachers ... have expectations for the pupils that are too low and weak techniques of assessment. In some subjects ... the teaching is flawed by poor subject knowledge, the use of unsuitable methods, and the lack of clear aims for lessons,

There is a significant proportion of teachers who have been in the school a long time, are on relatively high salaries and of whom senior managers were critical in terms of their management and, in some cases, teaching skills. One of the younger teachers described this group as the ‘old brigade, middle management, who have been here and are established ... maybe thirteen, fourteen years [and who are] maybe not willing to change their strategies or ideas and costing the school a great deal of money’ (‘young’ teacher, 1.2.96). He compared these teachers to recent appointees who were more open to change. Our interviews revealed many of the staff to be preoccupied with problems of discipline and management, rather than curriculum-related issues.

Webb’s leadership changed over the period of the fieldwork, with the appointment of a new head in September 1995. Relationships between the old head, Susanna English and the staff were extremely strained. Using Stoll’s (1995) terminology, they could well be described as ‘dysfunctional’. Any change the head tried to implement was blocked by a staff which appeared to be dominated by the ‘old brigade’ of mainly male ‘middle managers’. Discussions between staff and management were confrontational and never appeared to contribute to changes in school policies or practices. Many of the staff saw Ms English as a poor manager, and they particularly criticised her for regularly ‘taking the side’ of children whilst, often publicly, undermining teachers, and for not excluding students for serious misdemeanours, like assaulting a teacher. In contrast, at least for a honeymoon period, many believed the new head, Brian Jones, to be a good manager, who was variously described as more honest, open and willing to listen than the previous head. Teachers interviewed in his first term in post argued that he was improving the culture of the school by appearing more appreciative of teachers and imposing a more disciplined regime on students who previously would

go running straight to the head and have a shoulder to cry on, whereas now ..., hopefully the head won’t give them a shoulder to cry on [and] if they’ve done something serious they’ll be booted out for a couple of days ... If a child needs dealing with, there are now the procedures where you feel comfortable or confident that they will be dealt with in the correct way (‘young’ teacher, 1.2.96).

Certainly, the exclusion rate increased significantly in Brian Jones first term of office. The general feeling amongst staff was that the new head was boosting morale:

he seems to be able to praise people, boost their confidence a bit more, which is much better. I’ve had more praise in the past year than I’ve had in the previous thirteen years, he actually notices where good work is going on, good practice, so he seems to have his finger on the pulse much better. (Head of Department, 29.1.96).

However, by his second term in office, the new head had begun to implement redundancies and morale once again began to decline. But the Ofsted team, who inspected Beatrice Webb in 1996, was complimentary about the head, presenting him as someone who had begun to ‘turn the school around’, by tackling such problems as ‘overstaffing’ and the budget deficit and by replacing the old, rather vague, one-page development plan with a new one detailing 90 points for action.

Both heads at Beatrice Webb had what Maden and Hillman (NCE 1995) describe as ‘a vision of success’ although there were important aspects of these visions which were very different. Ms English wanted the school to focus on the needs of its current constituency, on refugees and students with emotional and behavioural difficulties. She was concerned to improve exam results but she also wanted Beatrice Webb to be a school which involved students in decision making and celebrated difference. Her stance is captured in her vehement opposition to the introduction of school uniform which she saw as a means of controlling children, by

taking away a whole area of choice from kids ... The variety of clothing that you observe when you go there is quite amazing and I think quite delightful, it’s part of that general ... sense of difference ... and variety that goes on there (26.9.95).

Brian Jones’ vision, which was more popular with the majority of staff, was to make the school into an institution that would attract a different (more middle-class) constituency and make it a success in market terms. His vision was couched in the language of improvement, and emphasised achievement and discipline whilst downplaying the school’s work with refugees. Significantly, his position on uniform is in stark contrast to Ms English’s. Whilst she had delighted in the students’ varied and expressive responses to the school’s liberal dresscode, Mr Jones was highly critical. He felt that the lack of uniform contributed to what he described as a holiday camp atmosphere which was simply not appropriate for an institution which needed to establish itself as a place of learning.

One conclusion that could be drawn from much of the preceding description of teaching and management at the two schools is that the school effectiveness researchers are accurate in their analysis of the determinants of school success and failure. After all, Ruskin could well be described as having

a leadership stance which builds on and develops a team approach; a vision of success which includes a view of how the school can improve ...; school policies and practices which encourage the planning and setting up of targets; the improvement of the physical environment; common expectations about pupil behaviour and success; and an investment in good relations with parents and the community (Mortimore 1997: 481)

And all of these things might be said to account for why Ruskin performs so well according to public indicators. Equally, Beatrice Webb’s ‘underperformance’ could be attributed to a number of past failures, in particular: the absence of a team approach to school management; a failure to develop a vision of success couched in the language of improvement; a neglect of planning and target-setting practices; a neglect of the physical environment; ‘dysfunctional’ staff relationships and a lack of agreement between staff and management around expectations of pupil behaviour; and ineffective classroom practices. If we are to accept Ofsted’s assessment, then we might predict that the new head’s attempts to try and rectify some of the weaknesses will lead to improved performance at Beatrice Webb.

However, whilst there may well be a correlation between particular features of management and teaching and degrees of school success, we need to be a little wary of concluding that the relationship is causal or, at least, we should not assume that it is causal in the direction that school effectiveness researchers claim it is. In the next section, I want to delve a little deeper and explore some of the features of the social environments of the two schools which might account for the differences between them in terms of management and teaching.

The impact of ‘social environment’

Drawing upon an ethnographic study of four New Zealand schools, Martin Thrupp (1998, in press) very convincingly demonstrates the ‘stubborn constraints on organisational and management processes in low SES schools compared to their middle-class counterparts’. In particular he identifies ‘intense pressures on teachers and school leaders generated by students in low SES schools’. As a result of these pressures, he concludes, ‘time and energy required to consider and implement demands from central agencies will be scarce in low SES schools’. In addition, he argues that ‘teachers and principals at (low SES) declining schools are so overwhelmed with pastoral and learning problems that they will be unable to deliver similar academic programmes as middle class schools’.

An analysis of the impact of student demands on management and teaching processes at Ruskin and Beatrice Webb would appear to support Thrupp’s conclusions about the importance of social mix in determining the ‘success’ of schools. There are a number of features of Beatrice Webb’s intake which create particular demands for the staff. Over 30 per cent of the students are refugees, 73 per cent are eligible for free school meals, two-thirds of the students are bilingual and 38 different languages are spoken. Some of the second language speakers come to the school with poor levels of literacy in their own language, and 30 per cent of the children in the school are categorised as having special needs. As well as the challenge of having to learn a new language, many of the refugee students have emotional difficulties linked to experiences of war in their countries of origin, moving to a strange country and living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, or arriving without parents and having to settle into local authority care.

In addition, Beatrice Webb has a highly mobile population with an average turn over of approximately ten children per week. Many of the students who enter the school in Year 7 are on waiting lists for their first choice schools. When a vacancy in one of those schools comes up, the student will leave, and such departures can occur even when a student has reached Year 10. The head of Year 7 at Beatrice Webb noted that many of the students who are offered places at other schools are higher attaining students who would have enhanced the school’s league table performance, had they remained in the school until Year 11. At the same time, there are students, across the age spectrum, who join the school regularly throughout the school year, either because they have been excluded from other schools or because they have been moved into short-term housing of which there is a considerable quantity in the vicinity of the school. One of the younger teachers in the school defines the problem and the difficulties it creates in the following way:

because we are so skint, we need money and we tend to accept anybody who comes along. So ... we lose our best kids to the other schools, because waiting lists are freed up and they’ve got spare places ... and in exchange we get kids who have been excluded from those schools who often are the rather unfriendly ones who are aggressive and have been excluded for bad reasons. And we then have to deal with them. So throughout the year ... there is literally a twenty per cent change in pupils in each year. And only about twenty per cent actually manage to make it through the first year to the fifth year. So you’ve got different faces all the time. Even in Year Eleven you are getting different faces, which makes it very difficult to teach and later in the year you get the worst pupils. We start off with some very nice ones but then lose them to other schools, because nobody picks Beatrice Webb as a first choice, which is a shame. (‘young’ teacher, 1.2.96)

The highly mobile population creates a number of quite difficult challenges for teachers. Teachers are having to establish relationships with new students on a weekly basis. They have to settle these students into their classes, induct them into their particular teaching styles, assess the students’ abilities, learning styles, language skills and what if anything they have already covered in the curriculum. In addition, the composition of classes is constantly changing, which in itself can be disruptive, as one Head of Department explained:

it makes it very difficult, not just for teaching, as in trying to cover all the work that these children should have done in the past, because they arrive with no records, especially if they’re refugees, but also in terms of [the] socio dynamics of the group, in that a group can be quite settled and get a new student every fortnight, and it will just disrupt the whole group dynamic ... and a group that would have been settled and working well, can become then a very difficult group to teach, because of shifting pressures within the group. (Steve Davis, head of department, 29.1.96)

And finally, many of the new arrivals, having been excluded from other schools, exhibit challenging forms of behaviour. According to one of the teachers we interviewed, many of the children excluded from other schools succeed at Beatrice Webb and he puts this down to the school ethos:

it’s not a regimented strongly disciplinarian place ... there’s an atmosphere which is about groups, about caring for each other ... it’s a very good atmosphere (Language support teacher, 29.1.96)

It is interesting that the Ofsted team made a similar observation about the quality of relationships between staff and students in the school:

Most pupils and teachers like and respect each other. Pupils come from widely differing backgrounds and nationalities, and are tolerant towards each other. No direct evidence of bullying was found ... Many pupils show concern for other newly arrived pupils or for those whose English is limited. There are many instances of pupils helping others in lessons.

However, it is the general consensus in the school that a small minority of students who have been excluded from at least one other school are an extremely disruptive influence, taking up a disproportionate quantity of teacher and management time. The headteacher has to deal on a daily basis with violent episodes involving these few students. Incidents occurring in the school during a typical two months of the fieldwork period included students attacking each other with a police baton, bottles, a baseball bat and an airgun. One of these episodes was connected to a drug-related dispute. Dealing with these incidents is immensely time-consuming involving liaising variously with teachers, students, parents (of both perpetrators and victims) the police and social workers. If the head wants to exclude the culprits, then he needs to be meticulous in his collection of evidence by interviewing student witnesses and in recording that evidence.

Ruskin is not free of violence and student conflict, but there is not nearly as much of it. Because Ruskin is full, it does not need to accept any excluded students. When it has a vacancy, it can take a student from its long waiting list. These students tend to be the ones that Beatrice Webb and other local schools would like to retain. Harvey Smith, a head of year at Ruskin, commented that the students the school accepted when there was a vacancy tended to be very motivated high achievers:

I could name probably nine or ten kids, we’ve taken them from Winbrook [nearby school] and every one of them’s been a diamond, you know. They’ve all been really good ... and they’ve been academic, hardworking kids. We haven’t taken any bad kids from Winbrook ... they’re all cracking kids ... And there’s probably ten who’ve come into Year 10, you know, since they’ve come in perhaps in Year 7 or 8, 9, 10. We take them from other schools as well ... But we don’t take bad kids ... And we are doing well at the expense of other schools. (Head of Year, Ruskin, 23.11.95, my emphasis)

Focusing on the impact of student mix, should not be seen as an exercise in pathologising the students in low SES schools or of blaming them for the schools’ weaknesses, but school populations have different needs and create different demands which need to be acknowledged. Teachers in schools like Beatrice Webb need very special skills to deal with the challenges thrown up by their intakes, and at Beatrice Webb, there are simply not enough specialists. For example, the school has a total of three and a half specialist language support teachers. These are allocated to different faculties: English is the most ‘generously’ resourced with 1.5 teachers, science has a full-time teacher and geography and technology share a support teacher. This leaves ‘history uncovered ... [and] maths gets a raw deal’ (language support teacher, 29.1.96). One of the science teachers we interviewed did not have any language support teachers in any of the classes he taught. A language support teacher explained the difficulties involved in teaching classes with a high proportion of stage one learners:

there are subjects which have no support at all, and [it is] very difficult [for one teacher] to organise a classroom when there are perhaps four or five who can’t read at all, very difficult, and then all the difficulties of ... if the text is very complicated, how does everyone understand them, how do you access the understanding ... so part of that is to introduce ways of doing that, perhaps providing lists of words, glossaries, cutting up the text into more manageable sections, but ... it takes so long to actually devise stuff, you can’t, as a normal mainstream teacher, you can’t be expected to do that. I think you are expected, but in terms of time, you don’t have time (29.1.96).

However, it is not just a question of time for curriculum planning and the production of learning support materials. There is also considerable skill involved in making the curriculum accessible to a diverse range of stage one learners. Many of the teachers who have not had specialist training in fact do very well. To take a crude indicator, GCSE results in art and drama were well above the national average for comprehensive schools. However, it is noticeable that the staff and departments which perform particularly well in external examinations, are from those subjects in which students are less dependent on literacy skills for success. This is not to detract from the talent of the teachers in these departments, but it may well be that these subjects are more accessible to students not yet fluent in English.

The pressures generated by the student mix at Beatrice Webb also mean it is much harder for teachers to channel energy into extra curricular activities. And take up of extra curricular opportunities is much lower at Beatrice Webb than at Ruskin, possibly because students have greater domestic responsibilities, for example caring for younger siblings, or helping their parents, for instance as interpreters, in ways which Ruskin students do not have to. Ofsted noted that ‘school concerts, performances and musical activities are rare’ at Beatrice Webb.

Ofsted were generally positive about the teaching of refugee students and those with special needs at Beatrice Webb, leading them to conclude that:

Given the very mixed nature of the school’s intake, satisfactory progress is being made by about 70% of the pupils. The school has a good and justified reputation for providing well for non-indigenous and refugee children, who generally make satisfactory progress. Such progress is also made by pupils with special educational needs, who are well catered for throughout the school.

They also noted that in three subject areas there was good practice in marking, record keeping and assessment, and they noted ‘several examples of first rate team teaching ... with the support and the class teacher each sharing the lead and making full use of their skills.’

But it is unsurprising that a significant minority of teachers at Beatrice Webb cannot cope with the pressures exerted upon them and cannot adequately perform all of the tasks now expected of teachers. A trained observer might well view these teachers as less than competent but it is possible that if these same teachers were teaching in schools with a less challenging student mix, they would be judged satisfactory. Charlene Fraser, a languages teacher at Ruskin, had previously taught at another local school, Applegate, which was very similar to Beatrice Webb in terms of its intake. She commented that there were many staff at Ruskin ‘who would not be able to teach at Applegate, and they recognise that and that’s why they wouldn’t be at that sort of school’. She also described the sheer physicality and emotionality of teaching in a school like Applegate, where behavioural concerns tend to overshadow curricular ones:

you are not as physically tired at the end of the day working in this sort of school [Ruskin], because ... your classroom doesn’t have to be managed in quite such [a] physical way, and the children don’t demand as much of you in this sort of school ... because the children there [at Applegate] have so little - a lot of the children don’t have much input from parents ... They’re very, very demanding. (6.11.95)

Charlene goes on to argue that at Ruskin, the lack of physicality involved in the work and the fact that the children are less demanding, means that more emphasis can be placed on reflecting upon and refining the curriculum:

the emphasis on the curriculum here [at Ruskin] is paramount, because behaviour problems don’t get in the way in the same way that they do at Applegate ... And the importance at Applegate is really to create an atmosphere in which work can be done and in which the children feel safe and secure ... with the curriculum obviously running alongside. And that’s what ... makes it very difficult at that school. Whereas here the curriculum is really what ... we’re always changing and pushing forward ... We’re really looking at the curriculum all the time. [We] spend very little time, really, worrying about disciplining classes. (6.11.95)

Charlene also describes how a less demanding intake makes the management of a school and the development of constructive and collaborative relationships easier:

it’s easier to make something work, like an ideal plan of management, a structure, if you don’t have a lot of other issues that really get in the way and hijack agendas ... I feel that at Applegate what happened was that there would be issues which would hijack agendas constantly ... And because ... there was conflict in the community so therefore there was a certain amount of conflict within how we thought it should be managed ... [Whereas at Ruskin] where things are seen to work pretty well, although we have our gripes and things, there isn’t a lot of conflict between management and us really (6.11.95).

Charlene makes some important and astute points here and her analysis of the way in which agendas are hijacked at Applegate and of the conflict generated by the social environment of the school applies equally to Beatrice Webb. The head at Ruskin has time to devote himself to strategic issues and the budget. Much of the day-to-day running of the school is delegated to the deputies, senior teachers and heads of department and year. On occasion, the head has to deal with student disciplinary matters and complaining parents but rarely is a whole day taken up with dealing with a crisis caused by say an episode of student violence. And, as Charlene argues, because things are seen to work well at Ruskin, morale is relatively healthy and serious conflict between staff and management does not arise.

At Beatrice Webb, Brian Jones probably needs more time for strategic planning than the head of Ruskin because the problems the school faces are so much more profound - severe under-recruitment, a poor local reputation, the huge budget deficit, the underfunding of departments, poor relations between management and staff and a highly demanding student population. But in fact he has much less time for planning than the head of Ruskin. Both Ms English and Mr Jones invested an enormous amount of energy and time into dealing with violent and/or disruptive students, and, unlike the head of Ruskin, they found it difficult to free themselves from the day-to-day running of the school to focus on strategic planning and to develop initiatives which might improve recruitment. For example, one of Mr Jones’ first initiatives when he joined the school in 1995 was a club for 10-12 year olds, which was designed to try and get more primary age students into the school and cultivate them as potential recruits. But by 1997 this had still not got off the ground, simply because the SMT’s time was taken up with more pressing day-to-day activities. In addition, because the work of teaching is so much more demanding at Beatrice Webb, because of the intractability of many of the problems the school faces, and because of the budget deficit and the fear of redundancy, morale is extremely low. This undoubtedly creates tension in the school and must exacerbate, if not produce, the bitterly conflictual relationships which exist between managers and staff in the school.

Furthermore, the relatively harmonious relationships at Ruskin, and the latitude that teachers have to focus on the curriculum and to practice relatively progressive pedagogies, contribute to its reputation as a good school to work in. It is also a growing school and as a result of these things, it is able to attract talented, dynamic and committed teachers. By contrast, Beatrice Webb is a school which is making redundancies, and although it does have its share of highly skilled and imaginative staff, there is, according to some of the more recent recruits, a significant minority of disillusioned and cynical teachers who have lost the energy to be creative. It is much harder to attract ‘good’ teachers to a school which is conflict-ridden, under-resourced and with low morale.

Another feature of the social environment which makes managing a more middle-class school easier is the higher levels of parental involvement and the fact that parents are more accessible in more middle-class schools. Ruskin has an active Parents’ Association and the annual governors meeting for parents is well-attended. The SMT do not need to invest a lot of energy into developing relationships with parents. If anything, they have the opposite problem - many parents who want to be involved with the nitty gritty of classroom practice, for example, the finer points of teaching grammar in French lessons. In addition, Ruskin has a highly skilled and involved governing body with high levels of cultural capital. For example, one of the parent governors is a very senior civil servant and another the principal of an FE college.

At Beatrice Webb, attempts were made to develop relations with parents through the appointment, under Ms English, of a deputy head responsible for community relations, but promoting parental and community involvement proved difficult. There is no parents' association at Beatrice Webb, very few parents ever attend the governing body’s annual report meeting for parents (only the parent governors attended in 1994, and in 1995, only one parent who was not a governor turned up - and the Chair of Governors commented that this parent only ‘came along ... to have something to do, if even to get out of the bloody horrible hotel’). Only five parents attended the pre-inspection meeting held by the Ofsted Registered Inspector and just seven (1.4%) of the 500 questionnaires for parents that Ofsted sent out were returned. (This compared to a response rate of 29% at Ruskin.) Furthermore, the governors at Beatrice Webb are not skilled at reading and scrutinising budgets like those at Ruskin, and they do not contribute the same levels of support, for example by visiting departments within the school, although strenuous efforts have been made to involve them more.

The material environment

It is not just the social mix but the material environment at Beatrice Webb which makes it a more difficult place than Ruskin to work in. In fact, Beatrice Webb spends more per student, than does Ruskin (£3400 was spent at Beatrice Webb per student in 1995/6 compared with £2500 at Ruskin.) However, this is probably mainly because the overheads at Beatrice Webb (i.e. heating, maintenance and ensuring adequate curriculum coverage) constitute a higher proportion of expenditure than at Ruskin because the school has an intake of less than half the size. Yet far more resources are needed for a population of the kind which characterises Beatrice Webb. The school needs more in-class support and more materials to support second language learners and students with special needs. In the 1995-6 school year the language support department at Beatrice Webb spent all of its photocopying budget for the year by Christmas and were forced to resort to getting the old Gestetner machine working again. During the same school year, the science department had a budget of £4.46 per student for the whole year, which was £3.50 less than any other school in the authority. The department has to choose between photocopying differentiated materials, buying chemicals or buying paper or exercise books. There is little scope for eliciting funds from parents, the majority of whom are on income support, and one of the teachers we interviewed told us that he often subsidises school trips and other activities ‘out of my pocket, rather than the school funds, and I suspect I’m not the only teacher in the school that does this’ (Steve Davis, Head of Department, 29.1.96).

One could argue that the insufficiency of resources is the result of a failure of management to bring in more money into the school, and there is some truth to this. Language support money is not part of the LMS (Local Management of Schools) budget and is subject to a separate bidding system within the local authority. One of the support teachers noted that the previous school he worked in, which was in the same authority, had twice as many support teachers although not as many stage one learners. He suggested that the reason for this was that the senior managers at his previous school exhibited more skill in the bidding process. But even then, is a bidding system the fairest and most rational way to allocate resources for language support?

Beatrice Webb is technically overstaffed because it has a higher teacher-student ratio than is deemed appropriate (with 13 students per qualified teacher compared to 15 at Ruskin) and as a result redundancies are being made. At the same time it has larger class sizes, with an average teaching group size of 24, compared with 22 at Ruskin. Now again the larger classes in a school with more teachers could be attributed to poor management of resources. But, not only does Beatrice Webb need to ensure that it covers the same subject areas as Ruskin, but the teachers also need more planning time - for subject teachers to liaise with language and learning support teachers about how best to meet the curriculum needs of the students and because of pastoral demands.

The physical condition of the school, also makes a difference in terms of teaching and learning. Whilst Ruskin is not lavishly decorated and furnished, and more improvements are needed, the internal and external environment is pleasant and has been recently subjected to a programme of development. At Beatrice Webb, the situation is very different. Ofsted noted the poor physical condition of the school, commenting (accurately) that:

While the accommodation is adequate overall, much of it is poorly maintained and in need of refurbishment. Classrooms are in need of decoration and much of the furniture, though adequate, is of poor quality. The classroom environment is often uninviting and unconducive to the production of high quality work. Classrooms for English have poor blackboard surfaces, from which it is difficult to read, and the rooms would benefit greatly by the provision of whiteboards. Science laboratories have no blinds, which prevent certain experiments being carried out. Changing rooms for physical education are inadequate and the gyms are often dirty, corridors are in need of decoration and, where carpets are provided, they are often badly stained.

The importance of material resources for school ‘success’ is highlighted by a recently published set of case-studies by the DFEE (1997) which describe some of the ways improvement was achieved by schools which had failed their Ofsted inspections. Mortimore and Whitty (1997: 6) conclude from these studies that, ‘In contrast to much of the rhetoric about resources not mattering, what stands out is the impact of the extra resources invested by the LEAs in their efforts to turn the schools round’. Mortimore and Whitty also cite the work of Barbara MacGilchrist (1997) who concludes from a review of research on the links between disadvantage and achievement that considerable financial investment is needed if interventions to raise reading attainment of students from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds are to be successful.

Performativity and market discourses

A third environmental factor are the discourses of performativity and markets which now surround and permeate education provision. It is these discourses which construct Beatrice Webb as a failure and Ruskin as a success. Ruskin is a success because its students are seen to perform well in national tests and examinations, because it is popular with parents and because Ofsted said it was good. Beatrice Webb, on the other hand, is a failure because its students are not considered to perform well in tests, it is undersubscribed and Ofsted found major weaknesses.

These discourses and the criteria of success/failure embedded within them are internalised within the schools. For example, at Beatrice Webb, some of the governors were critical of the school because of the low percentage of students getting five or more A-C grades at GCSE. And at both schools, teaching is increasingly focused upon raising levels of performance in GCSEs and SATs, and in particular on those students likely to get C grades and above (Gewirtz 1997). But the discourses are also challenged in both schools, and particularly at Beatrice Webb where they are viewed as highly inappropriate. For example, one of the science teachers at Beatrice Webb commented:

I know there are some students that I teach in year 11 who are not going to get graded. It’s not because they are not nice kids, it’s not because they don’t come to school, it’s just because their language isn’t up to it at present. (Jack Taylor, science teacher, 26.1.96)

And one of the language support teachers argued:

in the press it’s always, the criteria is A to C and therefore the league tables are weighted against schools which are actually achieving, but is not being recognised as an achievement ... [for] example, someone who comes from Ethiopia in Year 11, say in October, will not have the projects from the first year of the GCSE course and therefore will have to work twice as hard to catch up and also get through the current coursework and then through the exam and learning English at the same time, will have to work so hard to just get, what, an E in the GCSE ... In geography we’re actually thinking that a couple of girls from Ethiopia will get E, maybe even D/Cs ... It’s because they work so hard, they’re in local authority homes and therefore for them school is so important, it’s the one place which is like secure, where they know people and people are working, helping them. (Language support teacher, 29.1.96)

This teacher is making two important points here. One is that in terms of exam performance, Beatrice Webb actually does well for its students, but in a way that is not acknowledged by the public indicators which focus on higher attaining students. Given that students come in with low levels of prior attainment, and also given that many of the higher attaining students leave before Year 11, 10 per cent of students getting five or more A-Cs may well be very good on a value-added calculation. In fact, the statistics indicate that students who have been at the school from Y7 to Y11 tend to do well in their GCSEs. But also, simply getting a student who has just come to the country with no prior knowledge of the English language through a GCSE is a major achievement. The language support teacher is also drawing our attention to other aspects of what the school has to offer which are not valued by the discourses of the market and performativity - the provision of a secure and supportive environment for children who are uprooted from their families and countries of origin and living in an unfamiliar country in difficult circumstances.


In conclusion, I want to highlight some key issues which have emerged from my discussion of the cases of Beatrice Webb and John Ruskin. The first set of issues relates to the discursively constructed nature of effectiveness. I have argued that the discourses of performativity and markets construct schools like Beatrice Webb as failures even though they may be offering very positive experiences, intellectually and socially, for many of their students. What also needs to be emphasised is that hegemonic constructions of effectiveness affect life in schools in quite deep-seated ways. For example, schools constructed as failing suffer poor morale as a consequence. In addition, they are pressed into introducing changes, for example the use of more didactic teaching methods, which may not be in the best interests of the majority of students attending the schools (Gewirtz 1997).

The second related set of issues revolve around the complexity of the relationship between school ‘effectiveness’, management and teaching in schools and the social and material contexts of schooling . The analysis presented in this paper would seem to suggest that poor performance of schools in exams and Ofsted inspections and undersubscription correlates with the kinds of features which the school improvement literature associates with failing schools, and that, conversely school ‘success’ correlates with ‘good’ management and ‘good’ teaching. But the paper has also indicated that one cannot reasonably conclude from this that ‘good’ management and teaching are responsible for school ‘success’. In fact, if the evidence presented here is representative (and obviously more studies of this kind are needed) then it would appear to suggest that the opposite is true: that school ‘success’ contributes to ‘good’ management and teaching and school ‘failure’ contributes to less ‘effective’ management and teaching. This is because schools deemed to be successful are likely to have a significant proportion - what Thrupp (1998, in press) refers to as a critical mass - of high attaining and undemanding pupils, they are adequately resourced and can attract talented teachers. As a result of these things morale is relatively high and teachers can focus their attention on developing imaginative curricula. In failing schools, teachers and managers find that, in the words of one of our informants, the agenda tends to get hijacked by behavioural and resource-related issues. In addition, the students demand more of teachers physically, emotionally and intellectually. And as a result morale is likely to be low, relationships conflictual and teachers are left with little energy and insufficient resources to develop appropriate and imaginative schemes of work, classroom materials and pedagogical practices.

All of this is not to say that good management and teaching do not make a difference, or that it is catchment areas alone which determine the effectiveness of schools. Rather, what I have tried to illustrate is how the various factors which are normally viewed as contributing to effective schools are bound up with each other in complex ways, and that what managers and teachers do in schools is necessarily heavily influenced by the socio-economic and discursive environments within which they are located. In short, 'internal', school-based determinants of ‘success’, do not operate independently of 'external', context-based determinants - and any analysis of ‘effective’ schooling which does not recognise this must be regarded as deeply flawed.

Given the importance of 'external' factors, a logical response for managers of 'unsuccessful' schools is to try and alter the social and material conditions within which they operate. In the current system of funding in the UK, to bring in more resources, schools need to bring in more students. Research (for example, Gewirtz et al 1995) and the experience of Beatrice Webb indicate that one of the major criteria for parental choice of schools is class based; that is parents choose on the basis of student mix. Beatrice Webb is unlikely ever to be popular with its reputation for violence (because of a tiny minority of violent students) and its current intake of mainly working-class students, refugees and bilingual speakers. Local primary heads have told the teacher responsible for primary liaison, that some parents reject the school because of its ‘very good reputation for being welcoming and helping all sorts of refugee kids’. The primary liaison teacher comments that this ‘became the overwhelming view of us and some parents thought the kids might suffer’. The general consensus in the school is that for Beatrice Webb to improve

what we’ve got to do is attract some middle-class kids and improve the exam results and improve the image of the school and then through that it’s a circle that will attract more. It’s getting that first kick start, I think. (Paul McIntosh, Head of Department, 29.1.96)

Whilst the head is redistributing resources within the school and targeting them on the needs of the bilingual students, for example by establishing a reading room and a weekly reading hour for students, he is also channelling energy into trying to change the social mix of the school. In contrast to his predecessor who celebrated and gave a high profile to the school’s refugee work, the new head has made a conscious decision to play down the work of the school in supporting refugees and he has introduced uniform as one strategy for persuading middle-class parents to choose the school. Evidence that his efforts were meeting with some success was a letter circulated by a local group of middle class parents of Year 6 (primary) students appealing to other parents to support and work to improve Beatrice Webb, their local secondary school, by sending their children there.

In the long run, this strategy might be successful, transforming the social mix of the school by introducing more middle-class, mono-lingual students, until it is over-subscribed, enabling it to ‘improve’ according to official indicators so that it is deemed publicly to be a successful school. But in becoming oversubscribed it will no longer have space for casual entrants - refugees, who had in the past, according to a number of observers, including Ofsted, been so well-served by the school, and students with behavioural difficulties who had been excluded from other schools. It will also be attracting middle-class students who would have attended other local schools, possibly creating vacancies in those schools to be filled by the casual entrants who would previously have gone to Beatrice Webb. There is a possibility, therefore, that whilst the fortunes of Beatrice Webb may go up, another school may embark on a downward spiral of market failure and reputational decline, and excluded students will continue to be shunted from school to school.

It would, therefore, appear that within the current educational regime governed by the discourses and technologies of the market and performativity, ‘good management’ is in large part defined as the ability to transform the socio-economic and linguistic make up of a school. Thus within the context of the market and a performance-oriented educational system, management, I would suggest, is severely limited because what it is effectively doing is producing a redistribution of students amongst schools. It cannot address the root causes of educational underachievement.


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1 ESRC project no. R000235544. I am very grateful to Stephen Ball who co-directed the project with me, to Diane Reay who carried out some of the interviews on which this paper is based and to Chiz Dube and Helen Worger for their excellent transcribing work. Throughout the paper pseudonyms are used to protect the anonymity of schools and teachers.

This document was added to the Education-line database 03 April 1998