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...

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