Book title: Much Promise: Successful schools in England
Author: Barnaby Lenon
Publication date: 2017
1. What is your overall impression of the book?
There is a lot of information in Much Promise: Successful Schools in England and lots to think about. The recently-retired Barnaby Lenon reflects on his experiences in the state and independent sectors, including 12 years as the Headmaster at Harrow, to explore what makes schools successful.
Lenon draws extensively on research from regional, national and international studies, and on his visits to 11 case study schools undertaken during 2016. Described as 'interesting schools in England – especially those that achieve outstanding results with disadvantaged pupils' (p. 7), each school has a dedicated chapter that charts its recent history and defining characteristics. Several of the schools are familiar names – including Michaela Community School and London Academy of Excellence – and Lenon identifies success as a blend of academic achievement and co-curricular participation for all children.
Reference is made to the case study schools in the earlier chapters of the book. These chapters focus on specific stakeholders: schools; teachers; pupils? (the question mark is Lenon’s); subjects; parents; examinations; and governors. Each chapter includes an analysis of relevant research about the role of these stakeholders in creating a successful school. The first two chapters are particularly meaty: there is a great deal to absorb, and it felt like the book took a while to ‘get going’.
Lenon’s purpose does not seem to be the presentation of a cohesive, linear story so much as a collection of perspectives and resources around successful schooling. Indeed, at times I was reminded of that type of headteacher’s assembly that blends personal experience with national news and a question to ponder.
During the earlier chapters, I was occasionally frustrated by Lenon’s apparent disinterest in positioning education issues within wider societal contexts. In chapter 19 (‘the social mobility conundrum’) however, he suggests that this is a conscious decision. Indeed, my main criticism of the book is its order: had the material from this penultimate chapter been presented in the introduction, followed by the short case study chapters as a way to illustrate links between schooling and wider social issues, I may have found it easier to follow the development of ideas in the longer, data-based chapters. Instead, the structure of the book is a brief introduction, followed by the ‘stakeholder’ chapters, with the case study chapters and social mobility chapter prefacing the concluding chapter.
2. Who do you think would benefit most from reading the book? What will they learn?
The nature of this book makes it useful for lay readers and educators, and I will be recommending it to colleagues and friends who wish to better understand its issues. In particular, the introduction and index offer a quick ‘who’s who’ of stakeholders in the UK education system.
Whereas many books focus on a specific phase or aspect of education policy, Lenon offers a comprehensive account of present-day English schooling. This makes it useful for teachers who want a reminder of ‘big picture’ influences and issues, and for parents seeking to understand how different systems and policies fit together. Indeed, by collating such a wide range of research and policy information, Lenon draws our attention to just how many variables affect your experience of the education system.
But while Lenon explores education as a whole, some readers might feel that many voices are left unheard. Regarding ‘the disadvantaged’, some readers may feel frustrated and, while Lenon seeks to discuss a wide range of educational contexts, his target audience sometimes seems to be middle-class parents. Although some reference is made to FE colleges, EYFS settings and universities, most of the book is focused on mainstream primary and secondary education in the state and independent sectors. PRUs and special schools are not mentioned at all, and the case study schools, although varied, are largely drawn from London and the South East. Perhaps it is unfair to criticise Lenon for this, however, given that it his own experience is not in these areas.
3. What did you think about the quality of the writing? Please consider the tone, structure and ideas. Does it suit the audience?
The book is well-written: acronyms and terminology are explained, and the tone is neither patronising nor assuming. Given the extent to which it draws on academic research, it is also remarkably accessible.
That said, it is often difficult to keep track of the different types of schools, qualifications, funding sources, and so on. At times, the reader strains to hear Lenon’s voice amongst the different sources that he acknowledges, and it is difficult to discern a clear argument. In some ways, this seems rather symbolic of his apparent thesis: there is much to celebrate about English schooling, but it is an overwhelming and overwhelmed field in which success is inconsistent.
Despite the unbalanced structure of the book which I discussed earlier, the chapters themselves include an introduction and conclusion section, which remind readers of key themes and ideas. For many readers, it may be of more value to dip into individual chapters and use the index to structure one’s reading, rather than working from front to back.
4. Please discuss the research used to underpin the ideas. What evidence does the author use? Is it robust and up-to-date?
This book is not a ‘how-to’ guide so much as an introduction to UK educational policy. Although the author does occasionally share anecdotes about his own experiences, most sections of the text prioritise discussion of ‘big’ data studies. Much of this is recent: for example, Progress 8 and T-levels are both discussed, as is Brexit.
Lenon draws on a great deal of research, from a wide variety of sources and educational contexts. He explains the context and political use of sources, such as the PISA test results: I appreciated the opportunity to read about these, and many other data sources, in more detail than is generally provided in the mainstream media.
I was also grateful for the inclusion of contrasting research findings and case study schools. Where conflicts emerge between different sources, Lenon maintains a rational tone. This is refreshing as you are not swept along in a justification of the author’s personal beliefs. Rather, the clear referencing – within the text and bibliography – prompts readers to seek more information about the original sources and the contexts in which information was reported.
There are times, however, when Lenon appears to state his own opinions about ‘what works’ without providing explicit evidence or contextual information. For readers whose own settings do not resonate with the examples on which he draws, this can be off-putting. For example, the suggestion that positive school ethos would increase with ‘compulsory performance in a great choral work like Verdi’s Requiem … – even if you do have to hire a few musicians’ (p. 45) produced cynical laughter from several colleagues who teach music in small, rural schools without a sixth form. Given that Lenon draws so effectively on research generally, advice such as this would be more convincing if it acknowledged relevant data alongside his own opinions.
5. What did you learn from reading the book? What ideas/approaches/practice will you change or adopt as a result of reading this book?
A real strength of this book is its reference to specific research studies and government policies. Throughout the text, sources are clearly identified and generally accounted for in more detail than is common in books such as this. The danger of such a comprehensive text, however, is that readers may be sufficiently satisfied with Lenon’s accounts of various large-scale research projects and his own case studies and I wonder if some readers will exuberantly announce that ‘Barnaby Lenon says X, so we’re going to do it here at School Y’ – without taking the time to become familiar with the full context and implications of the research that Lenon cites.
In terms of my own practice, I had heard a lot about the concept of mastery but didn’t really understand its purpose and process in some school assessment policies. Lenon’s detailed description of mastery taught me a lot more about it and, although I don’t feel sufficiently informed to introduce mastery into my own teaching, Lenon has prompted me to search out more detailed information.
6. Could you share a quote from the book that particularly resonated with you?
Lenon’s description of the EEF Toolkit research embodies two themes that recur throughout the book. Firstly, '[w]hat is true of many schools on average may not be true of any one school – so the toolkit should be treated as an aid to thinking about your school, not a directive.' (p. 63) He then writes that: '[t]he figures above change over time as new evidence comes in.' (p. 65) Throughout the book, I was reminded about the value of research – and the importance of acknowledging how its value changes over time, and according to context.