Change the rules and give the losers a break

10th November 2000 at 00:00
Sticking to the status quo condemns the victims of the learning game to a lifelong cycle of failure, says Matthew Boyle

I WAS greatly amused by the quote from a 1930s scientist who was part of a community which thought they finally had a good knowledge of all the "bits" that matter is made from. Suddenly someone discovered a new and jarring particle that didn't fit the accepted model. Isidor Isaac Rabi asked in exasperation: "Who ordered that"?

For the scientists, it was easy to accept that the whole model had to change to take account of the rogue discovery. (The muon, in case anyone cares.) The mind-set of a scientist is tuned to dealing with change. Is the mind-set of schools similarly tuned? Change is inevitable in all things, especially a system that demonstrably fails a significant proportion of pupils. So why is it that change is so frighteningly hard to achieve?

We live in an increasingly fast-changing world and while schools do achieve some changes they tend to be fairly traumatic for all concerned. Perhaps then it is time for schools to address the issue of readiness for change, and to look at the process itself.

Psychologists tell us that the majority of people don't like change when there is no threat to their own well-being or status. This decade or the next will surely see some radical alteration to the way schools are structured. It may be time to engage with the process, before we are overwhelmed by it, and critically to assess the evidence that proposals are built on. We need to be involved.

The hint of anti-intellectualism that undoubtedly pervades some of the dustier corners of the system will not serve us in these challenging times. If you are a classroom teacher the chances are you are irritated by the assertion that we need change. "Just let us get on with our jobs", "Give us a break from initiatives", I hear you say.

Indeed, in the face of target-setting, internal assessment, spurious development planning and now a rewrite of the 5-14 environmental studies document, the process of change in schools has seemed at best botched, and at worst utterly farcical.

This must not cloud our judgment of the core aims of a change. The Higher Still programme has been implemented very badly, and made unwieldy by a glut of internal assessments. But I can't fault its aims. The step to Higher was clearly too big for a school population who increasingly need to achieve it. My point is that it was the process that was botched, not the idea. My very real fear is that bad implementation gives ammunition to those who call for the status quo.

Unfortunately the status quo isn't working for everyone. Huge numbers of pupils are being failed by the system. It is certainly true that more is being done for struggling learners, but I suspect we are struggling against the law of diminishing returns. The current system is working as hard as it can. Only some kind of rejigging of school structures can allow all pupls to achieve.

Learners need to be referenced against their own achievements, not against those of others. This is taken as axiomatic in teacher training but has not in my opinion ever been a great success in schools. I suggest that the year structure which groups children by age from five onwards is at the root of the problem. That can give children nine years of comparing themselves with others before subject choices at secondary.

If you feel that you are losing out at the "learning game" when young, sitting in classes with the same peers for nine years might be a disincentive to competing and believing in yourself. If you didn't shine in your peer group at seven, will you believe that you can shine in the same group at 12? Perhaps you will gain the attention you so keenly seek through misbehaviour instead? To get round this children could follow courses that they would take until they felt ready to be examined.

They might also sit in classes with pupils up to two years older or younger at different times in the day. At all times their chosen diet of courses would be their main focus, not their performance compared to faster learners. This system would be built around the pupil's self-set targets and choices (in conjunction with a guidance system), and the expectation of eventual success.

Lifelong learning will be so important to an individual's career prospects in later life that this system could be the best way on to the ladder. At present too many learners leave school believing that success is beyond them.

To deliver such changes will require immense will on the part of the establishment. It will require that teachers and government be convinced of the soundness of the evidence. I believe the evidence is there in abundance. I also feel sure that the body of knowledge we have acquired will let teachers and government refine the basic model to make it better reflect how people learn. What I remain to be convinced of is that there is a collective will to do so.

You see, the current system is run almost exclusively by its own successes. It is also judged almost exclusively by those who were its successes. How many members of your school board are school failures? Do we have the professionalism to further democratise learning opportunities for those who learn more slowly, or is our distaste for change greater than our desire to help them?

Matthew Boyle, principal teacher of physics at Knightswood Secondary School in Glasgow, contributed to the Scottish Council Foundation's recent paper, Changing Schools. It reflected the discussions of a seminar in Edinburgh in June. The delegates were invited from many levels of education and industry and formed a particularly rich and experienced think-tank. The overwhelming consensus was that change in schools is needed. The group will be reconvened next Friday (November 17) to consider how to move from analysis to action - for the short, medium and long term.

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