Review by Laura McInerney

28 May 2017, 5:00

Much promise: Successful schools in England

Most former headteachers, by the time they leave the profession, have at least one book in them. Barnaby Lenon, a veteran school leader, clearly had more than one – and he’s decided to write them all at once.

If this sounds like the book would be awful, it’s not. While there is much be said for a book that’s like a small museum – pointed and well-curated – there is also a lot going for Lenon’s approach, which is more like buying a warehouse and packing it full of the bizarre, the beautiful, and the extremely well thought-out.

Each of the first seven chapters focuses on success in one thing: schools, teachers, pupils, subjects, parents, exams and governors. Each is large enough to run a gamut of topics, but not so unwieldy that one loses the thread.

Lenon also manages to gobbetise complex issues in a way that neither loses their nuance nor bores the reader with unnecessary detail. He blends history (from 1940s to modern day) with research (there are punchy article summaries), case studies and anecdote. The blend isn’t annoying in a Malcolm Gladwell “here comes the story so you can stomach the science” sort of way. It’s brilliant, in a “here’s the stuff you need to know with a story that shows how real people relate to it”.

When keen new reporters start at Schools Week from now on, this will be in their welcome pack

That Lenon has taught across a range of schools – from Eton to Holland Park comprehensive – helps with the breadth of examples in the book. At one point he reveals the entire handout given to Eton teachers when they turn up at the school, which includes the amazing caveat: “It is not possible to like all boys equally.” This is true of course, but it’s not often one sees it put so bluntly.

The same chapter then pivots from the handout to a summary of a meta-review of successful teaching by the Sutton Trust – and to eight further research pieces, including John Hattie and the Education Endowment Foundation. It summaries Matt Hood’s piece, “Beyond the Plateau”, which led to the Institute for Teaching. It bangs through the case for textbooks, project learning, drilling and differentiation. At one point Lenon gets so animated about the benefits of children being motivated by a subject that HE STARTS TO WRITE IN CAPITALS!

Two of the most interesting chapters are on successful subjects and successful examinations – topics which are not commonly written about well. As someone who regularly writes about both, I know how hard it is to explain difficult concepts, such as comparable outcomes, in a way that is interesting and accurate. Again, Lenon manages it. He made my heart skip by labelling the English Baccalaureate subjects as “so-called facilitating subjects”. This “so-called” is important: there’s no evidence they really do facilitate university entrance. It’s a nuance, imperceptible to most readers, but it belies a deep awareness of the topic. And this happens over and again: the correct use of names for tutorial time in various independent schools, an incisive explainer of gaming and grade inflation, insight into the curriculum review process which explains why so much content is now in GCSEs – and why that isn’t helpful.

If there’s a weakness, it’s the chapter on governors. Falling back on guidance from the Department for Education and his own experiences, it’s a shame Lenon didn’t draw on the academic research around governance. There isn’t much of it, but some does exist, and there’s a growing field being driven, in good measure, by the hard work of Andrew Wilkins at the University of East London.

But this a marginal complaint that barely marks what feels like a magnum opus for Lenon.

If I were still in school I would seriously consider buying this book for every senior manager, every governor and – at the very least – photocopying a few of the research articles to keep on hand for CPD, particularly for new teachers and department leads. Certainly, when keen new reporters start at Schools Week from now on, this will be in their welcome pack.

Recommended. And then some.

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