The good school and the statistics

If you plot the GCSE results against the level of deprivation/affluence in this country (Financial Times 22nd Feb) you end up with a graph that hasn’t really changed over the years and tells an uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. A school’s performance is inextricably linked to the nature of the catchment area, which will be by far the greatest influence on childrens’ progress. Alas, in general, schools make little difference to this although, of course, an individual teacher can have a positive influence on an individual child.

With this information one can begin to shoot foxes; the rapidly improved, headline grabbing schools may simply have achieved this by managing to change their intake,poor performance cannot be laid at the door of Local Authorities,the targets culture, Free Schools, Academies, EBAC and OFSTED regimes are never going to make the difference.

The schools that seem to buck this trend and do well despite the relative ‘disadvantage’ of their catchment area (and there are a few notable exceptions) are often schools where parents, for cultural or ethnic reasons, support and encourage their offspring. Here lies the uncomfortable truth. To raise educational achievement (and social mobility), governments must find a way of engaging with parents. They must also find a way of convincing parents that education can actually make a positive difference to a family’s future, i.e. that there are genuine opportunities. A huge task and one that any Government should be supported to address. Alas, all we get is the cosmetic and the deceit of uninformed, gallery pleasing headlines.

We need to begin with the current school population. If we can ensure that their experience of education is positive and rewarding, where every child is taught how to support learning for themselves and for others, then there is a chance that they will pass this on to their own children. This also means a curriculum that excites and where jobs follow. We can at least make a start on the curriculum, now about those diplomas…..

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Teacher Workload

Politicians seem to ignore or are never briefed about certain inherent reasons as to why publicly flogging teachers and schools ‘to do better’ is doomed to failure. In fact, their policies often contribute greatly to large numbers of teachers leaving the profession within 5 years of qualifying. There are many issues I could raise (not least the policy that allows militant parents to set up free schools in defiance to counties which have democratically decided to phase out Middle Schools) but one stands out – the increasing demands on the profession caused by social and cultural upheaval.

I read today of the rising number of children arriving at school without being ‘toilet trained’. Without going into the reasons (more numerous of course at the current time) why children often appear to arrive at the school gates with so many disadvantages (emotional and health problems, poor literacy etc) it is clear that they are confronted by a system of schooling based largely on out dated middle class values and toyed with by ambitious politicians who seem not to consider or care about the full implications of their edicts.

A member of our family is a Primary NQT who works practically a 12 hour day and some of the week -end. Is this really the best use of highly trained and skilled professionals? Why do we not allow the new generation of teachers to say how the system should be run? Who else knows better? Another problem that goes unnoticed is not having the necessary 350,000 or so good teachers in place to run the system. Even if we could ensure this quota existed we can not ensure that they are all in the right place at the right time.

It may be that we need to rethink the model. Instead of having a front line army who deliver most of the teaching and a range of managers who compensate by doing the things that this front line group do not have the time to do, perhaps we need to increase the number of classroom staff by properly elevating the role of the para professional. I know the Unions would be concerned but perhaps we might begin with some carefully monitored and evaluated  test cases.

We are unlikely to achieve improvements in performance by either children or teachers  unless we recognise that teachers are having to do at least 2 jobs at once and sometimes 3. There is the job of being an educator, the job of being in loco parentis and the job of coping with the latest vote winning initiative from Whitehall. It is amazing that schools do as well as the majority are.

A vision for schools and society: Chord Centres

I think we need to reinforce and extend the bold vision for child welfare and education (expressed before in various intervention programmes, in this country and abroad) to counter the current market and laissez faire approach to schools, with its inherent risk of ‘the devil take the hindmost’.

 The Chord vision entails a degree of ‘all through schooling’  – we certainly need to remove the transition risks, particularly between early years, primary and secondary schooling. Parents would need to begin contact with the Chord Centre during pregnancy. The school should be the location for the Chord Centre and source for advice and teaching on health care and early development – in particular, on how to establish guidelines for behaviour, a balanced diet and the stimulation of  language development and cognitive skills. It would offer Integrated Services/Multi Agency access as well as contact with Voluntary and Community support groups. 

Pragmatically, there would need to be some linkage between receipt of benefits or tax breaks and attendance at the school centre, or some field work capacity for parents who cannot get to the school. All parents would be offered advice on parenting and the consequences for all parties of either failing to support the child or of creating too much  pressure on the child (and pressures on parents themselves). The aim would be to develop a lifelong, supportive relationship between the family and centre/school. Another focus would be on early intervention strategies. 

Idealistic? Yes.  Achievable?  Possibly, and given the high stakes involved, where the consequences of failure and the fruits of success have such a huge economic  and social impact, vital to try. Costs?  Not necessarily huge in finance terms but large in terms of a political investment. Discrimminatory, Big Brother?  Potentially so, but this is why it would need to involve every parent (as all of us can learn) and why it would need to be a system that integrates both the independent and state school sectors. We need to make the argument, that the fate of this country rests on this form of collective effort – probably best to avoid the war time comparisons but when you look at the risks and challenges we face…

Schools are currently judged and managed by a performance data approach that concentrates on the input and output of the school. This is surely an unhelpful convenience, as the more significant and difficult educational parameters relate to and involve family and community. We need to see the whole process of schooling as  a shared endeavour and make it work, so that the damaging processes of  judgement, competition and political interference can be suspended. As the African proverb has it: ‘It takes a village to raise a child’.