American straitjacket

18th August 1995 at 01:00
The 10,000-word rule book and repressive regime of a US high school horrified Rosemary Litawski who prefers a more active approach to effective learning.

As the new academic year looms, many secondary schools are, like ourselves, busy ordering or writing their homework diaries and student planners. The Office for Standards in Education is extolling the virtues of homework, articles appear in The TES from parents and teachers, and everywhere we are surrounded by action planning and target setting.

At Mereway Upper School in Northampton we are enthusiastically writing our "customised pages" for our new student log book. (The fact that we have an OFSTED inspection next term is, of course, irrelevant to the fervour of activity.) It will include our school aims, our mission statement, code of conduct, calendar, timing of the day, and all the facts Mereway students should know to make them effective. (A key OFSTED word - just coincidentally.) The aim is to help them organise and plan their homework and their time more efficiently - a student's Filofax.

Thus my interest was aroused, when, on a recent headteachers' study visit to the USA, generously funded by the Central Bureau, to look at school effectiveness, I picked up the student handbook for a Boston high school. It is a school, not far from a prestigious university, on the outskirts of Boston, with 2,400 students, aged 13 to 18. It is not an inner-city problem school, but one highly regarded academically and socially. Its intake is no more socio-economically disadvantaged than ourselves at Mereway. It has four times the number of students we have, but also four times the funding per student. Its resources and facilities mirror my vision of education. It represents the ultimate in investment in a future generation. Financially and in terms of physical resources it has everything I could dream of.

But behind the dream, the vision, there was also a frightening glimpse of what our society might become. All doors to the school, except for the main entrance were lock-ed, for security reasons. In the foyer you stepped over a metal detector before entering the building. Large, intimidating security guards patrolled the long bare corridors. All internal doors were locked, staff had large bunches of keys.

Every classroom had a teachers' panic button. Anyone in a position of responsibility (administration) in the school, was on a one-year contract. Every decision made about a student was heavily influenced by the potential threat of parental legal action.

The student handbook encapsulated my apprehensions about this possible future. There were obvious similarities. The first page contained a letter from the headteacher, although his main theme was "safety and violence prevention" and he referred to the recent formation of a "violence prevention task force" and a telephone help-line. There were pages devoted to the school's code of conduct, important dates, the cafeteria, study skills, extra-curricular activities, helpful information and course pages for recording their homework. Not unlike Mereway, nor many other schools in England.

But the differences were the most poignant. The code of conduct covers 14 pages, with approximately 700 words per page. Mereway's code of conduct, in line, of course, with the advice from the Elton Report (OFSTED looms again), is only 300 words in total and aims to be as positive as possible. The Americans' code of conduct, like our own, refers to attendance and punctuality (tardiness equals lateness in US). It then has a section on detention and exclusion.

Offences likely to lead to exclusion, or court action are listed as: * fire alarms: any student pulling a false alarm will be suspended for five days and also will be punished to the full extent of the law; * hazing: initiation into a student class or group - five-day suspension; * hats' policy: failure to remove a hat will result in disciplinary action; * sexual harassment: behaviour such as leering, pinching, patting, grabbing, verbal comments, sexual gossip, subtle pressure for sexual activity, rape and attempted rape . . . penalty can vary . . . suspension or expulsion, and possible police involvement; * skate boards: three-day suspension; * stink bombs: suspended for three days and a court complaint filed for disruption of a public building; * vandalism: violators will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law ie fines of not more than $100 for first offence; * weapons policy: ten-day suspension, exclusion hearing and possible police involvement.

We at Mereway thought we had policies for everything. We even have a policy on policies - truthfully and again, naturally, nothing to do with our impending OFSTED inspection. However, I must admit we do not have a weapons' policy. At the American high school all students and parents annually receive a copy of the weapons' policy, which they must sign and return. It includes half a page listing the various weapons, some that it describes as defined dangerous by law, for example, blowgun, ballistic knife, chains, and those considered dangerous by the school, such as razors, whips, hammers, bottles, chemical sprays and umbrellas! "If found in possession of a dangerous weapon, including a gun or a knife . . ." can lead to expulsion.

The final chart in the code of conduct, a summary of offenses and penalties, is a revealing verdict on the values of American society.

* smoking: one-day suspension; * snowballing: two-day suspension; * use of skateboard: three-day suspension; * ignition of stink bombs: three-day suspension; * possession of drugs: five-day suspension; * false fire alarm: five-day suspension and to court; * possession of weapons: ten-day suspension.

Other sections of the student handbook provide yet more insights. In the section labelled procedure, it talks about "carrying your ID card at all times", "how the building is locked by 4pm and all should leave". In the section on student services it mentions the mediation programme, the teen health service, the nursery for the adolescent parenting group, the drop-out support group, and Project 10 East, a club whose "whole goal is to end homophobia and heterosexism".

Thus when our politicians extol the virtues of the effective school, and point to the lessons to be learnt across the Atlantic, I am somewhat sceptically reminded of one revealing sentence in the student log book: "All passive recreations are encouraged, including sitting, sunning, picnicking . . . and academic classes."

Maybe our only paramount investment in the future is that students do not passively accept, but that we actively encourage them to question, that effective learning and effective schools above all imply active learning and student involvement and participation. Maybe it is time for me to start questioning why am I churning out all this documentation for OFSTED - is it really making us a more effective school?

Dr Rosemary Litawski is headteacher of Mereway Upper School, Northampton. She accompanied a group of nine headteachers from the Mereway Partnership to the USA in May 1995 to look at school effectiveness.

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