What Makes a Good School Good?
Extract from Choosing a School by Deirdre Raftery & Catherine Kilbride
School Types and Environments
Research indicates that many factors are involved in the ‘delivery’ of good examination results, but that school type is not one of them. It is unlikely that a parent, in a particular geographical location, will be presented with a choice between all school types: secondary, vocational and community or comprehensive. However, the programmes and examinations offered in second-level schools are broadly similar across all school types.
Nevertheless, our research revealed a perception among parents that one school type might be in a position to ‘deliver’ better examination results than another and they were keen to choose the school which would give their children the best chance of achieving their full potential. However, from her analysis of Junior Certificate results, Emer Smyth could conclude that ‘school type … tells us little about differences between schools in average examination results'
. Instead, a number of schooling factors influence the outcomes and these factors are examined below.
A school is an extremely complex organisation. In Chapter Six we will refer to the values and ethos statements, found in school literature, which indicate how the schools will play a role in the lives of their pupils. The sheer range of goals expressed there is an indication of the scale of the task which schools have set themselves in order to provide the best possible learning environment for their pupils.
Factors identified in international research as influencing pupil outcomes include: social context; school management and staffing; school organisation and class allocation; school climate; teacher effectiveness. Emer Smyth’s study takes this multidimensional view of school effectiveness and tests it in the Irish context. Her study focuses ‘not only on academic outcomes but also on absenteeism and drop-out [rates] and on aspects of personal/social development among pupils.'
For the purposes of this book and its aim to help you choose a school which will be the best school for your child, Smyth’s research is useful in that it shows the influence of schooling factors on outcomes – social, developmental and academic – for the pupils. The second part of her research, involving a case study of six schools: two ‘academically more effective’; two ‘academically less effective’ and two ‘average’ schools, gives a more detailed report of these, including interviews with principals, vice-principals and staff. It is interesting to note that ‘Improved academic and non-academic outcomes are closely associated with certain aspects of school practice'.
We shall look at some of those aspects of school practice now.
There is quite wide variation between schools in the way in which they are managed. Theoretically, the management structure is the same in all schools: all have a principal, one or more deputy principals and additional members of staff in posts of responsibility. And yet, how they interact, the frequency of formal meetings, the quality of informal contact, the style of communication of decisions to staff and students, the extent to which they form a real management ‘team’ and perform the management role, is far from uniform across schools:
Less academically effective schools appear to be characterised by less staff involvement in decision-making in the school, less emphasis on formal staff meetings, less positive relations between management and staff and less supportive relations among colleagues. There are certain statutory obligations that apply to all principals. However, the way in which the principal works with the management team, the teachers, the parents, the students and the ancillary staff, differs between schools. An important factor here is school size. The principal in a school of a few hundred pupils and twenty to thirty staff will clearly have a different daily experience of the management role from a principal in a school of over a thousand pupils and seventy to eighty staff.
Reproduced with permission of Mercier Press