Teachers are not the only people deciding how state education proceeds or whether it is working well or badly. But the extent to which teachers can or cannot deal with ‘out of school factors’ mediating their success (especially with ‘social’ issues of disadvantage and poverty) is a judgement anyone trying to prescribe good practice has to make. This chapter looks at where we are with questions about how far schools and teachers can make a difference to pupils, regardless of the background or social attitudes of pupils themselves. It returns finally to considering how far a modern, partnership approach to education might, in practical terms, improve on those odds which seem forever stacked against the most ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘difficult’ schools.
Research on school effectiveness and on school improvement has expanded enormously over past years, becoming, in the words of one commentator, a ‘major international industry’ (Willmott 1999). School effectiveness research has had a major effect on policies at national, local and school levels (Barber and White 1997:1), suiting policy-makers’ ambitions to justify curricular innovations across schools. Such ambitions are understandable. Early in the twentieth century, educational thinking and policy became acutely deterministic, with early and middle decades turning towards policies of selection under influence from ‘weak’ theories of equality. Pupils seemed well served by an education suited to their supposedly fixed abilities. They were routed along educational pathways (and sometimes along career pathways) via selection tests meant to plumb their fixed intellectual potential as well as their developing talents.
At the same time, the 1960s and 1970s saw some partial justification for such policies in pessimistic theories that schools could not ‘compensate’ for the effects of social class. Educators and policy-makers alike became