Routledge Education is delighted to announce that Mel Ainscow, author of Towards Self-Improving School Systems, is our April 2015 Author of the Month.
Mel Ainscow is Professor of Education and Co-director of the Centre for Equity in Education at the University of Manchester, UK. He is also Adjunct Professor at Queensland University of Technology, Australia. In the Queen’s 2012 New Year Honours list he was made a CBE for services to education.
Mel’s new book, Towards Self-Improving School Systems: Lessons from a City Challenge, was published by Routledge in April.
Mel Ainscow is Professor of Education and Co-director of the Centre for Equity in Education at the University of Manchester, UK. He is also Adjunct Professor at Queensland University of Technology, Australia. Previously a head teacher, local education authority inspector and lecturer at the University of Cambridge, his work focuses on ways of making school systems effective for all children and young people. Currently he is leading Schools Challenge Cymru, the Welsh Government’s multi-million pound flagship programme to accelerate the rate of improvement across the country’s schools.
In the Queen’s 2012 New Year Honours list Mel was made a CBE for services to education. Mel’s new book, Towards Self-Improving School Systems: Lessons from a city challenge, is published by Routledge this month. Another book, Struggles for Equity in Education: The selected works of Mel Ainscow, will be published in the Routledge World Library of Educationalists Series in July 2015.
This important new book draws lessons from a large-scale initiative to bring about the improvement of an urban education system. Written from an insider perspective by an internationally recognized researcher, it presents a new way of thinking about system change. This builds on the idea that there are untapped resources within schools and the communities they serve that can be mobilized in order to transform schools from places that do well for some children so that they can do well for many more.
Towards Self-improving School Systems presents a strategic framework that can help to foster new, more fruitful working relationships: between national and local government; within and between schools; and between schools and their local communities. What is distinctive in the approach is that this is mainly led from within schools, with senior staff having a central role as system leaders.
The book will be relevant to a wide range of readers throughout the world who are concerned with the strengthening of their national educational systems, including teachers, school leaders, policy makers and researchers. The argument it presents is particularly important for the growing number of countries where increased emphasis on school autonomy, competition and choice is leading to fragmentation within education provision.
Why did you decide to write Towards Self-Improving School Systems?
The book is built around the work I did between 2007 and 2011, when I was the Chief Adviser for the Greater Manchester Challenge. This was a 50 million pound initiative to improve the quality of education provided for children and young people in over 1,100 schools, across ten English local authorities. This gave me an unprecedented opportunity to put into practice on a grand scale ideas and strategies that had emerged from research I had carried out with colleagues over many years.
I first began drafting the book in early 2011, as the Challenge was drawing to a close. The fact that I was so closely involved in the initiative explains, at least in part, why it took it took so long to complete. Simply put, I found it difficult to step back from what had been such a consuming experience in order to tell the story and draw out the lessons.
What's the one thing you hope readers take away from your book?
At the start of the book I quote from Coriolanus: "What is the city but the people?" This sums up my central argument, which is that the most important way of bringing about system level reform is through collective effort.
The approach I recommend starts from an assumption that schools have the capacity to improve themselves, particularly if they do that together. With this in mind, the strategies developed in Greater Manchester helped to foster new, more fruitful working relationships: within and between schools; between schools and their local communities; and between national and local government.
As I explain, a useful theoretical interpretation that can be made of these strategies is that, together, they helped to strengthen social capital within the city region. In other words, they facilitated relationships across different levels of the system that established many new pathways through which energy, expertise and lessons from innovations could spread. At the same time, the greater awareness of what was happening elsewhere often challenged expectations as to what is possible, particularly amongst students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Is there anything you'd like to highlight about this topic or your book in particular?
It is increasingly evident that, around the world, national education policies are encouraging more schools to become autonomous; for example, in Australia, the independent public schools; the academies in England; charter schools in the USA; concertado schools in Spain; and free schools in Sweden. Such developments have the potential to open up possibilities to inject new energy into the improvement of education systems. On the other hand, they can lead to a dangerous fragmentation that will, I fear, further disadvantage learners from poorer backgrounds. Recent developments in England’s second city, Birmingham, have also illustrated the potential dangers of so-called independent state schools being taken over by extremist elements within a community. All of which suggests that "educational market places" need some form of checks and balances.
The approach presented in Towards Self-Improving School Systems provides a new way of thinking about how this can be achieved. This requires that the "checks and balances" come from mutual accountability amongst all of the stakeholders. In his brilliant foreword for the book, Andy Hargreaves suggests that this approach involves "working with the community, not against it; investing in professional and community capital; reviving rather than removing local community and democracy; collaborating with competitors; and being pragmatic about means in the pursuit of ideologically unshakeable ends."
What's a common misconception about this topic that you'd like to clear up?
There has been considerable publicity given to the impact of the City Challenge programme, particularly in London where it was established over a much greater number of years. The evidence from the independent evaluation is that it did have a significant impact. As a result, the search is on for the magical formula that can be transferred to other contexts.
There is a formula, however it is not a simple one. Certainly, it does not involve transferring ready-made solutions from place to place. Rather, it requires a detailed analysis of particular contexts in order to develop approaches that are relevant to particular circumstances. It also requires teachers, especially those in senior positions, to see themselves as having a wider responsibility for all children and young people, not just those that attend their own schools; it means that what schools do must be aligned in a coherent strategy with the efforts of other local players – employers, community groups, universities, public services and so on; and it involves those who administer district school systems in adjusting their priorities and ways of working in response to improvement efforts that are led from within schools.
Click here to order a copy of Towards Self-Improving School Systems today!
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