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Back to basics

Comment 6th July 2010

Ask the majority of parents what they expect from a school and they will usually agree on three things:

Pupils learn English, Maths, Science to a good standard.

Pupils behave and show respect

Pupils are happy and prepared for life

Ask the majority of parents how they expect the school to achieve these goals and the majority would tell you that it is the school's job to decide this; this is because the majority of parents support the school and are busy enough in their own lives. They expect teachers to be the experts because that is what teachers are paid to be.

A brief trawl through the newspapers or even the entries on this website show how misguided parents have become about a modern school; schools are perceived as unruly wastelands, recruiting stations for religious extremism or the last chance motel for disillusioned teachers squandering the nation's young talent through an insistence on perpetual low standards.

The vast majority of schools are orderly, happy places where young people are nurtured and cared for, often against overwhelming odds, by a profession constantly vilified by successive governments who think the answer lies in a perpetual flow of heavy handed interference.

Let's apply some common sense; before the introduction of league tables any estate agent could have told a parent where to find the good schools. Twenty years later, the same estate agent could tell you the same information, but he would be richer and the catchment area would be even smaller, allowing him to be more accurate.

Let's apply some more common sense; before the establishment of the country's most expensive Quango OfSted, Britain was well down in the league tables of numeracy and literacy when compared with other European countries. It still is. Have we named and shamed the poor schools and replaced them with centres of excellence? Look at the academic record of academy schools. Have we replaced all the poor teachers? Yes! With an influx of teachers from the commonwealth – some of whom have literacy issues of their own.

What about standards? Surely they've risen. Of course they have – the statistics show it. Because, when pupils were originally meant to leave KS2 with a level 3 they are now expected to achieve a level 5 – the previous expected standard for the end of KS3. Wow-our children are doing amazingly well. Or are we experiencing the spectre of grade inflation because schools and the dept for families schools and children are terrified to admit that generally, pupils year on year progress evenly, alongside their physical and emotional development. We cannot accelerate learning, nor would the effects be desirable. Imagine the horror if anyone suggested we accelerate the physical development of some pupils so that they all achieved the expected 'standard' by age eleven.

So what am I suggesting? Like I said earlier, common sense. Let's apply some basic skills ourselves here.

We all know, and our experience of grammar schools taught us this lesson, pupils from stable, encouraging homes with books and effective parents do better. Fact. So my first suggestion is to shift the emphasis on teachers over to parents. Poor parents need to know what they are doing wrong and how to do better. I know each parent is a voter and it is easier and safer to blame teachers, but I have struggled to compensate too long, with the children of neglectful and abusive parents. These pupils are disadvantaged from the outset and no end of targets and ticking boxes will remedy the profound need they have for care and a sense of belonging.

We all agree that teachers should be paid to teach. So why insist they spend so much of their time dealing with data and managing statistics which tell them little and end up being manipulated anyway for fear that OfSted will punish them. I am happy to 'out' my own headteacher here, who, two days before and OfSted inspection, asked me to 'find' 30 or so more pupils in year nine and re-evaluate their achievement. Sorry, I meant cook the books. I am an English teacher and you certainly would not expect me to teach maths, so why expect me to be a statistician- this gives me less time to spend on my curriculum and the staff and children in my care.

Be brave about the importance of local schools with mixed intake. For years parents have been spun a myth that they have choice of schools when they don't. Pampering to the vocal middle classes is proving pointless and depriving the majority of pupils equal concern in terms of policy and basic self-respect. Draw catchment area lines, stick to them and be proud of it. If a parent then complains tell them to get active in the school or leave the state system. What they must not be allowed to do is to bully local politicians into misappropriating tax money so they get more privilege.

What else?  Don't give teachers more money, they do it for the holidays, but do give inner city allowances for working in challenging schools. And insist teachers in these schools teach fewer lessons, because they don't take breaks, they invest serious emotional energy in our most troubled and needy youngsters who the media and politicians are happy to throw on the scrapheap.

Reverse your beacon schools policy or scrap it, because the best teachers often work in the toughest schools and this needs to be acknowledged.

Build better schools. The government know very well it was Tory legislation that caused the bidding process to be so astronomically expensive and inefficient only to create the same closed shops and monopolies it was intended to outlaw. Cheaper schools are not better schools either. Schools built to last pepper the country, some built over a hundred years ago. Get Prince Charles involved and he'll insist they are all built like Eton. Wouldn't that be nice Mr Cameron.

Well I doubt a single word of what I am writing will get further than some poorly paid clerk's dustbin anyway, so good luck and thanks for listening?

Why does this matter?

The reason my idea is important is because it is achievable and radical. It is radical because the government will have to abandon some axioms of the previous government and it is achievable because it involves cuts not burdensome additions. It's a dream come true really.


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