Thursday, August 27, 2015

Educating Cardiff: good intentions are no substitute for effectiveness

If you're aged eleven to 16, have a penchant for energy drinks and enjoy the odd puff on a ciggy, Willows High is certainly the school for you.

Surprisingly though - and despite all the trainers, dog-ends and hoodies - Ms Ballard's relatively recent appointment as headteacher has seen the school's results drastically improve from just 14 per cent in 2011 to 50 per cent last year. Even I cannot argue with this incredible achievement.

Neither can I criticise Ms Ballard's warm, kind-hearted approach and infectious enthusiasm. She is indeed a lovely lady with the best interests of her pupils at heart. Similarly, as head of house and undoubted hero of this opening episode, Mr Hennessy is tireless and unrelenting in his dealings with the school's most challenging pupils.

The kids are equally likeable. Leah may be every teacher's worst nightmare, but, like many of her nicotine-stained ilk, and in between the days she takes off in an effort, I'm sure, to recuperate from her regular run-ins with Mr Hennessy, she offers a spark of potential which could grow, with a little effort, into a raging blaze of glory. If only she'd turn up to school.

Jessicca, at the opposite end of the spectrum, is academically gifted but, according to Ms Ballard - in a judgement I don't entirely agree with - socially awkward. With the help of Ms Bubbins though, she becomes editor of the new school newspaper. It was a real pleasure to see this delightful young lady's confidence grow as she reveled, thanks to the aforementioned Ms Bubbins, in her newly acquired responsibilities. If I were to choose one vignette to highlight the power a teacher has to influence and change the lives of his or her pupils, this would be it. Needless to say, Jessicca ended the year with a multitude of excellent GCSE grades.

Leah, too, after being exhaustively harangued and cajoled by Mr H throughout the episode, successfully completed her final year. So what's the problem, I hear you ask? Aren't the selfless teachers at Willows clearly doing an excellent job? 

Well, in answer to the latter, no, they aren't. Good intention is no substitute for effectiveness. As alluded to in my opening paragraph, behaviour at the school remains appalling. Pupils walk around wearing trainers, hoodies and headphones, drink potent, mood-altering energy drinks in full view of the head, smoke cigarettes and casually talk on mobile phones.

In the case of Leah, she has spent most of her school life truanting with impunity. During one instance, she was filmed running around the playground with several of her friends when they should have been in lessons. Her punishment? A phone call home, a brief chat with Mr H and a day in isolation. I wonder how many times she's experienced that... In other words, she's been doing it for several years with no real escalation in consequences, I wager because of her underprivileged background.

And you can bet your life on it: she's not the only one. The result: anarchy.

Meanwhile the indefatigable Mr H works like a Trojan. He harangues, pleads, phones and, all in all, spends an inordinate amount of time on pupils like Leah. But what about the others - the grey, unexceptional kids that do nothing wrong? Mr Hennessy's time is finite, after all. They are ignored. Some, as a result, become naughty in an effort to be noticed; others simply lose the will to learn. Jessicca herself neatly articulated how frustrated she becomes when her lessons are disrupted by Leah, and she's an exceptional pupil who can clearly cope. What about the unexceptional or, worse still, the struggling but keen? How can they possibly cope with their lessons being regularly disrupted? Who protects them? In short, their needs are being sacrificed for the perceived needs of kids like Leah.

Mr Hennessy means well but he's letting down the majority. One could almost argue that he's working too hard. He needs to give some responsibility back to the pupils and let a good, clear behaviour policy do the lion's share. Whether he likes it or not: some kids need to conform or go.

But what about the results? Don't these make a mockery of my argument? In a word, no. Fifty per cent A*-C grades including English and maths are, I agree, a big improvement. But they're still mediocre. Just imagine what they could be...

Having worked in a similar environment, moreover, I can't help but speculate that these improvements are being made through the inhumane flogging of the teaching staff at Willows. By working teachers to death on the educational equivalent of the Burmese railway, of course improvements will be made, but these will be nothing more than superficial and, in the long term, unsustainable. 

It was very sad to see some truly wonderful, caring teachers make such fundamental errors. Clear rules consistently applied lead to a calm, orderly environment which ultimately results in meaningful learning. 

Unfortunately, moreover, Willows High is not an exception; it is entirely representative of schools up and down the country. How sad...

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Chinese school triumphs over British system in four weeks

During my last blog, I predicted that - as a consequence of only having four weeks with pupils resistant to unfamiliar teachers, longer days and alien methods - the Chinese taught pupils' end-of-experiment results would lag behind their more progressive, British taught peers.

How wrong I was. This week's episode of Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School showed the conclusion of a four week - albeit deeply flawed - experiment which pitted Chinese traditionalism against British progressivism.

Despite being dealt a pretty miserable hand of cards, handicapped by the sheer unfamiliarity of their personalities and strategies, and the short timescale they had to cross the divide, the Chinese teachers triumphed. According to every measure, their pupils outperformed their British taught peers.

Of course the experiment was, as already pointed out, deeply flawed. But let's not kid ourselves: it was deeply flawed in favour of the child-centred approach. When one considers this simple fact, one cannot help but be astonished by the findings and draw some obvious conclusions. First, traditional methods are so manifestly effective that they were able to overcome the disadvantages besetting the Chinese teachers from the beginning. Secondly, and just as significantly, progressive methods are so ineffective that, in spite of the enormous advantages enjoyed by the British teachers, their pupils still failed to match their Chinese taught counterparts.

Are we concentrating too much on fun at the expense of learning and hard work perhaps? Not according to Bohunt's headmaster, Mr Strowger. He went from decrying Chinese methods as ineffective at the beginning of the experiment to, after begrudgingly conceding their superiority, berating them as inhumane at the end. The goalposts had shamelessly been moved, and, after apparently entering the endeavour with an open mind, he proceeded to ignore the experiment's findings. He had clearly learned nothing.

At this juncture, it is important to stress that I am not advocating the wholesale adoption of the Chinese approach. But we should be, and Mr Strowger in particular should be, seriously considering the implementation of many aspects, including a return to not showering teachers with opprobrium for the purported crime of talking too much. We need to expect more of our children and hand them back some responsibility. 


Alas, Mr Strowger, I suspect, after hearing his last comments and his undisguised dislike of teacher-talk, intends to change very little. He will no doubt continue to insist upon teachers delivering 'fun' lessons in an effort to 'engage' their pupils. It really is incredibly frustrating. More to the point, our children deserve better.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Inadequate headteachers are damaging our children

Some years ago, my colleagues and I were forced to endure a professional development session entitled, ‘Are your lessons worth behaving for?’ Forget the ungrammatical construction of the sentence for one moment, ending as it does with a preposition. Every time this memory resurfaces and, with it, the implicit message that if our students misbehave it must always be our fault, I find myself seeking solace in a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in an often unsuccessful attempt to stave off the inevitable enraged response. Come to think of it, perhaps alcohol isn’t the best answer…
Anyway, leaving that to one side, on Tuesday evening this traumatic experience was again evoked as I, perhaps injudiciously, began to watch Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School on BBC Two. Masquerading as an experiment which pitted Chinese didactic teaching methods against the more progressive approach favoured in British schools, it was clearly, first and foremost, made to entertain. And entertain it did. Watching teachers used to students culturally imbued with obedience, respect for authority, ambition and motivation attempt to teach our children, even in an ostensibly successful school like Bohunt, was indeed great television.
But are we going to be able to draw any new conclusions about the merits of the respective teaching methods after four weeks, even if the kids exposed to Chinese traditionalism are tested against their British taught peers at the end? Of course not. First, the Chinese teachers do not know their new students and only have four weeks to teach them. Any teacher will tell you: it takes between three and six months to gain the trust of one’s students in this country. Secondly, and most importantly, there is an enormous cultural gulf between the Chinese teachers and their young English charges – a gulf which, I suspect, cannot be overcome in just one month, if ever. And thirdly, in order to be successful, every teacher needs the support of his or her Head and, in this instance, that is clearly not the case. The Head is desperate for them to fail.
At the end of the four weeks, when, I predict, the British taught kids perform better than their Chinese taught counterparts for the reasons outlined above, the smirking Headteacher will conclude, against all of the international evidence to the contrary, that progressive teaching methods are more successful than those of a more traditional bent.
So as a practical experiment, the methodology and stated concept are deeply flawed. There are simply too many variables outside the realm of pedagogy which will determine outcomes. Yet we can still draw some useful conclusions. For example, the behaviour of many of the children at Bohunt is not conducive to learning. It is disruptive and, in the case of Sophie in particular, downright rude. Indeed, if I were the Head I would be mortified by their treatment of five visitors attempting to broaden their horizons.
And here we come to the crux of the problem. Mr Strowger, the Bohunt Headteacher, blames the behaviour of the kids on the Chinese teachers. Instead of reading them the Riot Act, appalled by their treatment of overseas visitors, he points the figure of blame at the teachers’ traditional, didactic methods. So, too, did the Head of Maths. In fact, he appeared to revel in the misery being inflicted by the children, deluding himself that it proves the superiority of child-centred progressivism.
All it really proved was his own inadequacies and unfitness for the position of teacher, let alone Headteacher. The children at Bohunt are great: quirky, intelligent and full of potential. Their Headteacher, though, is letting them down. In blaming the teachers for their poor behaviour, when he should be instilling the attitude that you treat everyone with equal respect, even if you find them difficult to understand, or even boring, he is encouraging the children to misbehave, be rude and then search for excuses. It’s extremely sad.
Unfortunately, Mr Strowger is not unrepresentative of other Headteachers around the country either. They are intensely damaging to our children. Forget academies, Secretary of State, do something about these numpties. Everybody’s lessons are worth behaving for.
If this one conclusion is drawn, and something done about it, the programme’s impact will be much more profound than a simple piece of cheap, Tuesday-night entertainment often begets. I very much doubt it, though.

First published on www.conservativehome.com on 6th August 2015