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What makes a ‘good’ school?

| June 24, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Lebogang Montjane

Even though it was in my late teenage years when I discovered that education could be studied as a subject, I remember the two books that introduced me to the concept of education as a scholarly discipline.

The first was The Good High School – Portraits of Character and Culture by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot1 and the second was by Henry Rosovsky, The University: An Owner’s Manual.2 In relation to the first book, what intrigued me about it was its title. As a child, my parents often reminded us children that they were sacrificing to send us to good schools. Through this book, I then had an opportunity to explore what goodness actually means. In this article, I write to you about Lawrence- Lightfoot’s seminal work. Even though it was first published in 1983, this book remains in print and her findings still resonate in the present.

‘Good’ does not mean perfect

In this book, Lawrence-Lightfoot documented her visits to six divergent types of schools to explore what makes a good school. Of the six schools, two were independent: Milton Academy, a school for day and boarding scholars close to Boston in Massachusetts, and St. Paul’s School, a full boarding school in a bucolic New Hampshire setting. But Lawrence- Lightfoot found goodness in all her case studies, taking care to caution at the onset to reject any notion of goodness being equated with perfection. She wrote,

“The search for ‘good’ schools is elusive and disappointing if by goodness we mean something close to perfection… In fact, one could argue that a consciousness about imperfections, and the willingness to admit them and search for their origins and solutions is one of the important ingredients of goodness in schools.”3

Essential to ‘good schools’ then are those that are not complacent about their failings and are not naively utopian about the educational enterprise. As a head of an ISASA member school told me, it is not whether there will be problems at school, it is how they are dealt with that determines a school’s quality.

A good school fulfils its mission

When returning to this book as the new executive director of ISASA, it is uncanny how Lawrence-Lightfoot’s postulations of what constitutes a ‘good school’ mirrors ISASA’s guiding principles of quality and values. Also, by implication of her case studies in which all six schools were different, the third pillar of ISASA’s vision, diversity, is addressed in the sense that goodness in schools is not uniformity, but can be achieved through pursuing divergent missions. Lawrence-Lightfoot underscores that even though her subject schools meet the standards of goodness, this does not denote that they are equally good or that the objective of quality can be equivalent. “It is clear that these six schools are not equally good; neither do they judge themselves by the same standards,”4 she declares. The barometer of how good a school is depends on how well it is fulfilling its mission. This is the characteristic strength of ISASA’s membership, that our schools pursue their distinct missions that serve their particular communities.

Good schools have ideological clarity

In order to successfully fulfil their missions, says Lawrence- Lightfoot, schools, although within the world, need to demarcate themselves from the broader society through clarity of vision. She elucidates thus: “The protection and solace good schools offer may come from the precious abundance of land, wealth, and history, but they may also be partly approached through ideological clarity and a clear vision of institutional values.”5 These values are generally lived out through the practices, rules and expectations good schools set for themselves, defined by Lawrence-Lightfoot as: “… A strong sense of authority… reinforced by an explicit ideological vision, a clear articulation of the purposes and goals of education.”6 Indifferent educational values weakens the ability of a school to deliver a sound education.

Leading from the front, but not alone

As should be expected of any examination of schools, Lawrence-Lightfoot looked at the human component of schools, being management, teachers and pupils. Like many others, she too acknowledged the centrality of leadership to a school’s success, saying: “The literature on effective schools tends to agree on at least one point – that an essential ingredient of good schools is strong, consistent, and inspired leadership.”7 At each school she visited, Lawrence-Lightfoot interrogated the leadership style of each principal. She found that each one fashioned their leadership style around their own personality. Each head embodied their school, its history, present and its future aims. Leadership styles ranged from more authoritative to participative decision making. However, a common thread was the recognition by all the heads that they needed support if they were to be successful in their roles.

“Rather than standing alone, it appears that these principals and headmasters recognise the need for intimacy and support as essential ingredients of effective leadership. They seem to need an intimate colleague, one whom they trust implicitly, whom they turn to for advice and counsel, and from whom they welcome criticism.”8

It is clear that a head cannot succeed if they are isolated.

Good schools employ exceptional teachers

According to Lawrence-Lightfoot, teachers in good schools are “thinkers”, “intellects”, “pedagogues” and “academics”. The strength of a school is dependent on its ability to draw a large number of teachers who exhibit these characteristics.

“[T]hese schools have visible, charismatic teachers – ‘stars’, ‘grande dames’, ‘menches’ – who act as important catalysis for their peers and who serve as critical symbols of excellence. There is a chemistry of proportions – a few ‘duds’, many able teachers, and a few stars. In order to achieve goodness, therefore, schools must collect mostly good teachers and treat them like chosen people.”9

A school’s success is highly dependent on attracting the most able and intellectually engaged pedagogues and treating them with high professional regard. Lawrence-Lightfoot is of the view that in order for teachers to be effective, they must be treated as mature skilled practitioners.

However, in good schools, respect cannot be confined only to a high-performing teaching corps.

Good schools focus on quality relationships

The measure of the strength of a good school, opines Lawrence-Lightfoot, is centred on the quality of the relationships between teachers and students. In good schools, regard is not limited to teachers but is also extended to pupils. Teachers in good schools are able to identify and respond to the needs of their learners from the perspective of the child. She explains: “The empathetic stance is a crucial ingredient of successful interactions between teachers and students. Empathy is not adversarial; it does not accentuate distinctions of power; and it seems to be an expression of fearlessness.”10

Since the central mission of schools is the education of the youth, good teachers have a humane stance towards their wards. On this point Lawrence-Lightfoot is firm: “Good schools are places where students are seen as people worthy of respect.”11 I would add that you can see a dedicated educator when you observe the great fascination they have with their work in developing young minds. They revere the educative process and the young people they serve.

In a recent interview in which Lawrence-Lightfoot recalled her groundbreaking book three decades later, she encourages us to seek and record schools that use good practices which can be shared with those that need to improve.

“I would make the argument more than a quarter of a century later, that in seeking to transform and improve schools we need to find and document those places that are doing sustained and good work, and we need to find those principles of practice that might be transplanted to other setting.”12

Considering the excellence we possess within ISASA school membership, we must find ways to continue sharing principles of good practice within membership. The other distinctive characteristic of many ISASA member schools is that they are national resources and their community initiatives extend beyond their immediate pupils.

ISASA attracts good member schools

Since encountering Sara Lawrence Lawrence-Lightfoot through this book, I have admired her work and the way she reveals the world through her remarkable skill of portraiture. Viewing ISASA’s membership in light of this book has been revelatory and affirming. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s characterisations of good schools are similar to the criteria ISASA uses when considering new member schools. ISASA prides itself in having as its members ‘quality’ schools or as Lawrence-Lightfoot would say, “good schools”.

1. Lightfoot, S.R. (1983) The Good High School – Portraits of Character and Culture. New York: Basic Books.
2. Rosovsky, H. (1991) The University: An Owner’s Manual, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
3-11. Lightfoot, S.R. (1983) op. cit.
12. Walsh, C. (2014) “‘I have always been temperamentally wired to carry on’ – Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s lessons in resilience.” Available at:

Category: Winter 2014

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