June 01, 2011 : 'Decide your principles first'

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In a shorter, late-night discussion, five teachers share their ideas on what education should be like and discuss the reforms they would like to see introduced.

Sue Kortlandt is a retired French and German teacher in Havering.

Graham White is an economics and business studies teacher in Suffolk.

Ken Cridland is a physics teacher in Lancashire.

‘Anon’ works in ethnic minority achievements, with bilingual pupils within schools.

Ivan Wels is a retired head of an art and design faculty in a secondary school in Nottinghamshire.

Let's talk about what you want to happen. How would a school function, what would teaching be like, if the education system was genuinely reformed? Blue-sky thinking, as they say in Micahel Gove's office.

IW: I would have self-regulation, which, in a funny way, would happen because you're already regulated by kids being there, and you're committed to the kids. And it should be a cooperative thing between the professionals there.

SK: Shouldn't kids have a say as well?

IW: I think that's part of it.

SK: I think in an awful lot of this: we just ignore the children. And I think children are actually full of creative ideas about what would be good for them. Even in primary schools, you can have really good school councils that come up with good ideas. I just think we should treat children as part of society and they should be involved. My grandchildren know perfectly well what they want and they can be responsible.

Anon: You can see that with international new arrivals. If you ask them how they felt when they first started at school, what assisted them, what they found difficult, what barriers they felt they were, the ideas that they put forward can assist you in your own work, in improving things in the future. And they might come to you with things that you would never think of as that important. Similarly with school councils, when you ask them how they would improve the conditions of the school, they're full of ideas.

IW: In Nottinghamshire - to their credit - they started a thing called 'Pupil Voice', which we were completely in favour of. I thought it was a brilliant idea, and it was open-ended as well, which is very important because you get school councils now but they're just closed things. The head picks a body that meets once a term or something, and discusses not very much, or its remit is so small that it's not really worth anything to the kids and they don't bother turning up, or don't volunteer for it. So it has to be something real.

One of the things - and I was opposed to this, shamefully- was [pupils being involved in]] taking on new teachers. I was interviewed by these kids who had been, not primed beforehand, but they'd been encouraged to formulate these questions, that they then asked me. It was absolutely amazing. The intelligence they came out with. Not self-seeking stuff; it was proper 'what makes a good school?' type of thing. So it can be done, not in a tokenistic way. So definitely, pupil voice is good. It's just that people hijack that pupil voice, and then use it against the teachers.

KC: And it can actually be quite useful in an individual classroom to start talking to kids and saying, 'What do you think about the way the lesson's conducted? Did we get the amount of group work right? Should we have had more discussion as a class? Is anybody dominating the discussion?' Then they'll say, 'Yes, you!' You have to be brave to do it but it can be quite illuminating.

IW: I think the thing there is if you can get the kids talking amongst themselves and formulating it themselves. I think it's better than you standing up at the front because - I'm talking about teenagers, because I've only taught teenagers – quite often you get, 'This is crap, it's boring.' Whereas when you get them amongst themselves without the sense of fear or competition, they can formulate really sensible stuff. I think it's absolutely crucial to try and get that, but you do need a climate of no fear - that's the thing. In schools now, it's fear driving everything.

SK: In an ideal world, I think children should kind of contract in. I do think if children were asked to – well, maybe not for ... well no, even for English and Maths, because they'd want to do English and Maths; they'd understand how important it was - if you got the children and said, 'You can do all these subjects but we want you to sign on the dotted line; and if you sign, we expect you to come along to do your work and behave.' I just think the children would actually take that responsibility. Might take a bit of prodding, but they want to learn.

Anon: Thinking of things as regards my role, ethnic minority achievement, I've been a specialist teacher of EAL [English as an additional language] for years and years, but we've always got insecure funding. We have three years here, two years there. We've got very dedicated staff but there's constantly insecurity. I would want more security, but also fully funded central services that can actually support schools develop; help to develop staff within those schools, support these children. Not just new arrivals but advanced, bilingual learners; kids who were born and brought up here in the UK. To be able to have some consistency; to be able to fully develop things, working with schools, without having a great big axe hanging over your head.

Thinking about the people that I've known over the years in different authorities and different services, you just see, year on year, services dwindle and dwindle so that there are some areas now with just one and a half or two people. And once you lost that expertise, although there's very good practice in different schools, you haven't got that body that's going to be able to assist in developing new staff and so on.

IW: Something which is absolutely crucial, in an ideal system: small classes. I think it's been so long since we've had small classes. Small classes bring incredible benefits. Then of course, you need enthusiastic professionals to go with it. And really, it's a pretty much fail safe guarantee. Not too small, mind you, because I don't think little groups of six necessarily help, depending what the subject is and so on, but you need a certain momentum. At the same time, classes of 30, 35 or even higher are not going to be very creative.

GW: I think, from my perspective, if things didn't change, then it would be an awful lot better. There are clear improvements we can make in the education system, but going about it by cutting services and privatising are entirely wrong ways of doing it.

KC: We've got a problem here. We oppose the changes, but then you sound as though you're supporting the status quo. Even the local management of schools was flawed. First of all, you'd start building up huge [financial] reserves, which was silly. Generation after generation of children were losing out as schools built up reserves. Then, if the school is over- or under-staffed, instead of being able to shuffle teachers round to where they were needed, you've got to sack them in one place. The Times Educational Supplement and everybody else makes money out of adverts and they re-advertise somewhere else. So the system, if you start looking at it, is crazy.

Can you each give an example of something that has worked, an example of 'good practice', and what you'd need for that to happen consistently in the future?

KC: I would like to have lessons long enough to do some practical work in. Quite often we get constrained to the literacy hour, or whatever, when before they used to put two lessons together so you'd have at least an hour and a quarter. With the getting out and putting away, you're just constraining what you can do in the middle.

I used to like kids finding out for themselves a lot. Having to put an aim and an objective up before you started the lesson makes that quite difficult. You aren't allowed to discover things. But actually having time to talk to kids, sometimes they're just interested in you as a person, and having that trust to develop the relationship with the class so that they learn something about you and you learn something about them, then you're dealing with each other as people, not just a lesson from the internet you've downloaded. I teach science, but teaching is an art. It's about human beings and the way they relate to each other.

So what kind of experiment could you have conducted with more time?

KC: If you're doing work on circuit boards, they all need getting out, they all need checking at the end when you're putting away. If it's not just going to be something that you say, 'Right, build this circuit, get these readings, take them down, and come back,' [you need to] give people chance to make some mistakes, and you [need] a small-enough group so that you can go round and say, 'Well, why do you think that's not working?' Especially if there's a team teaching and you've got other people in the room to help, then you're learning together, instead of a set-up scenario in which you hope one or two people are going to learn something from.

Once you're having those individual discussions, you can see where they're coming from. Once you've been teaching for a while, you can spot people's blocks, you can spot what's stopping people moving onto the next stage, why physics for them is an impossible subject, and take them on to the next stage. That's one of the great rewarding things, isn't it? When you spot 'oh, that's what a short circuit is', 'that's why the battery has to be there, yeah', 'that's why my circuit never works'... the eureka moments.

Anon: I think, to be able to stretch sessions. If you've got something that, ordinarily, you'd only have an hour to do but you know you need an hour and a half - if you've got the flexibility to be able to do that without having somebody tapping on their watch. Certainly with pupils that I work with, anything that is as practical as possible, where you've got real objects, real artefacts and you've got a visual image of it to draw from later.

SK: I'm a linguist and you're constrained in lessons by the amount of language that you can actually teach somebody in a short space of time. With fairly basic language, my aim is always to get active, enjoyable lessons. I get them to sing stupid songs, and I sing stupid songs, and they love it actually, even quite big children. It teaches very effectively, because by rhyming you learn to make the correct intonation and everything else. But the one I can remember working really well was when we were doing food and I got them to prepare scenes in cafés. Not only did we just do it in one lesson, we actually got dressed up, we got the video camera and we recorded it. They felt so proud.

That's at one end. The other thing that I'm very proud of is having done exchanges for quite a long time. We have a school in Berlin that we do exchanges with and we've got our kids to go and do work experience in Year 10 in Berlin. They stay with families and it's absolutely fantastic. That's what you really want. You want the real experience. What I'd really like to do is to be able to take children to a foreign city, with a scenario that they have to carry out, and leave them with a mobile phone and say, 'Okay, phone me if you've got a problem, but this is what you've got to do.' Because, really, they've got to manage and I think that's what really it's about.

GW: The lessons that have worked for me: we've looked at the political and economic justifications for [government's] policy, and from an international perspective as well. It's been the students doing the research and then reaching their own conclusions, but from different political perspectives. And they know what my political views are, of course.

IW: Two things I can think of. One is with less-able, off-the-wall kids. I used to get a lot of satisfaction out of being able to swing them round.

KC: Physically?

IW: Quite often small groups; quite often Year Nine or Year Ten. Small groups of about ten of them. Ten off-the-wall kids with issues outside, winning them round. I can think of one where I always used to start off from a limited base. I'd tell them they've got to do something really prescribed, but then I'd always open it out. One of them was about a face. This is a face, make it look solid, that sort of thing; then move onto to camouflage the face, so it's only by looking at it that you see it's a face. Give them a few materials and so on. I think the end product is really, really important. They believe it then. And all the time they had this self-doubt; they didn't think they could do it: 'I'm crap, I'm crap' and all of that. Then they come round, and if one or two of them said, 'Can my mum come in and look at the work?' - quite often single-parent families - I'd think, 'Wow, this kid, possibly for the first time in their lives, thinks: God, I am worth something, I can do something.'

The other thing is a residential thing. The things you can do on residentials are sort of open-ended. We had a residential centre in the middle of Derbyshire and we used to take sixth formers there for a week and, again, start them mucking around. But what you have to do is have something which they can take back which represents the area. They start off with very limited sort of things, but then one or two of them chance their arm. I like that. Then they sort of go off in different directions.

There was one trip in particular when one [student] started to do gigantic cows as murals over this residential centre, and then other people trying to outdo that with bringing in stuff, bits of guttering and things like that, and making things out of it on their own. It reached such a pitch that, on the last day, they were just working, working, working. They had a bit of a meal, they didn't want to go out, they worked through the night. I went to bed about two o'clock and came down about half past seven and there they were, still working away.

It can be in so many ways, in any subject; it just takes off. And that's where pupil voice comes in, because they are incredibly creative in themselves. You hear it over and over again – they surprise you with their creativity. Small kids surprise you with their creativity. It's giving them enough tools, enough materials and enough time to just do that, and they use it really productively, to the nth degree.

SK: We've all talked about the same sort of things, haven’t we? About expanding people's horizons, opening up the avenues for the children themselves to use their brains and to feel satisfaction.

KC: It's interesting, this, because if you listen to some of the people behind the academies movement, their own self-view is that they're entrepreneurial and new ideas will pop up. We're all fuddy-duddies and stuck in our ways. New ways of achieving things will appear, like in private enterprise, where they find a cheaper way of producing a television set or something, and that becomes the new way of producing. But actually, when you look at how they're going to measure the success, how they're going to measure the output, once you've said that children move on to this level at a certain time, this will be the output. Then the managers of the school start saying, 'In order to achieve the targets that we've been set, this will have to be done like this, because this is the only possible way.' And it also means we're playing safe, because they've told us to do it this way. If we don't quite succeed, at least we've done it as we're being told to do it. So effectively, everybody's playing safe, and so you're not entrepreneurial. There's almost a contradiction built into their system. And there's no evidence from the academies at the moment that they are entrepreneurial.

Anon: Certainly in my field, there are different practices around, but in my area we've always felt that children - no matter what their level of their new language, English, is - they should be learning from peers who are English speakers within the classroom. They can be using their first language when they want to and when they need to, but they're not segregated or withdrawn into separate classes or separate units. They're actually working within a mainstream class with peers who can support them and model good English.

Does this affect the sets they are placed in also?

Anon: For children who are reasonably new to English, quite often we find children are placed in a lower set, even though, cognitively, they should be in a much higher set. And actually, they would learn more English by being in a higher set. The work is matching what they're able to do. The argument is often, 'Well, there's more support in that set, and the work's simpler, therefore that child will be able to access it easier.' That's not the best thing for them, but you do find that, not only in secondary but in primary as well, where, if children are grouped according to so-called ability, they might be grouped in a group with children with SEN (special education needs), because there is extra support in there and that's something that's obviously in the best interest of the child.

IW: When I first started teaching, a long time ago, it was all mixed-ability teaching. It sounds illogical, but I think most people who went through that phase could see it as really good, because there was more of a mutuality; an acceptance of kids as individuals, rather than being cogs in a wheel. You'd get some kids who were sort of behind, and there would be more of a cooperative effect, of helping people out, or the weaker kids looking at other people and using them as role models. Whereas now, it's dog-eat-dog and everyone's sort of closed off from that interaction. Well, I would say that because art and design courses can lend themselves to that, but I can imagine that languages possibly don't.

KC: On the other hand, in a subject like physics, it could be quite difficult at some stage to deal with issues that you wanted to teach unless people were already equipped in some way, linguistically and mathematically, and with a certain background of knowledge. If you were to talk about work and energy and concepts like momentum, and then give them mathematical formula, which are described algebraically, you would have lost lots of children very quickly.

In a comprehensive school, where I teach, in one of the groups the other summer - this is physics as a separate subject - [out of] 29 kids, one got a B, seven got an A, and 21 got an A*. That was a setted class - the work we were doing would have just not been understandable to some other children in that school. So it's very difficult for me to imagine how I could put a mixed-ability group and get those same 21 kids to get A*s in physics. It was quite amazing to me at the time, but we obviously were able to do things because they were a very bright group.

SK: I'd have the same problem [in languages].

IW: I think it depends on what level and what subject. If you take away the penalties from this equation, you can have professionals doing it in the way that they think is best without excluding other kids. That's the important thing. I certainly think lower down the school, secondary school, you don't necessarily have to set.

I think we've got to be careful here, because I think it's streaming I'm on about. I'm totally opposed to streaming: that kids at a certain level will be doing this in all subjects. Some kids are good in some subjects, others are good in others.

SK: I would say in languages, you'd start off with mixed ability, because they can all cope to a certain extent. But like physics, it's linear. And unless you've got a grasp of the basics, you can't then go on. And it's very frustrating for children who are either being pulled too far ahead and can't cope or, equally, if they are at the other end and they are sitting around repeating the same old things for the others to catch up. So it's really very difficult. I've never managed it more than about two years, maybe three years if you were lucky. Otherwise we've always had to set.

But set, not stream, and people don't necessarily understand the difference. Children who come in and they're bilingual, or even without much English, can actually be brilliant at doing another foreign language, so they're not necessarily held back in doing foreign language at all. You can do quite a lot of things. But to put all kids in a stream for everything, I just think it's dreadful, and I think wherever possible, the social benefits of mixing children together are really important.

In the other interviews we've done, teachers were concerned that the reforms will encourage a kind of hierarchy of schools in an area, with one school that's good and another isn't so good competing for pupils. Do you worry that is happening?

SK: That only works in big towns where there is more than one school. In most places, there's probably only one school for the kids to go to anyway. Isn't that true?

GW: I don't know. In Suffolk, all the upper schools are saying, if the [planned] free school gets set up, we're going to lose pupils, because the parents don't want to send their children to those 'urban jungles.' I wouldn't describe my school as an urban jungle, but it's more urban than what they want. The most well-to-do parents will end up, I suspect, taking their children out of a non-academy school and putting them into a free school, which will make the non-academy school say we have to become an academy to compete.

SK: I honestly don't agree with that. We have an academy that, at the moment, is completely under-subscribed. The people who have taken it over think they're going to turn it into some sort of grammar school, but actually it's in a large, ex-GLC [Greater London Council] overspill council estate, and they are suddenly having to cope with the fact that there are 40% children with special educational needs that they know nothing about. And they're not succeeding at the moment.

So just because they become academies doesn't mean they're actually going to be any better. And if the academy fails, it will either close down, or it will be bought out by a chain, and what you will end up with is chains of academies, I think, privately owned, with absolutely no accountability to the local people whatsoever.

KC: I'm going to go a bit off the wall here in terms of the ideal world that we're looking for. If you want to be free and independent and get rid of regulations, then think of the Bradford & Bingley, the Alliance & Leicester and the Abbey National. They wanted to be free of building society regulations and off they went. They thought if only they could be free of regulations, then they could be independent banks, providing lots of new services for their customers, who were their members before that. And now every single one of them has become a bit player in somebody else's game and is run from abroad by a Spanish bank called Santander. And this could be the fate of many academies.

The mistake they all made was that they forgot their principles. You've got to decide what your principles are first, and stick to the principles, and then you're on a firm foundation. So I think in education, we've got to decide what the principles are, and I think we've discussed them round this table. They include things like democracy, and the rights of children. They don't include education being a commodity. And then you build on those foundations.

IW: That's a good note to end on.