Coping with chaos

21st March 1997 at 00:00
A LESSON FOR US ALL BBC2 7.30-8.10pm March 16 and 23

A new documentary reveals much about schools today

There's a startling moment in this Sunday's film - the second of two reports on comprehensive education. Amy, a troubled 13-year-old pupil at Banbury School, confronts and defies the kindly but formidable principal Anita Higham. Amy and her chums have been disruptive in class. They have already been called to the headteacher's study, and have literally shaken hands with her on a "no-more-aggro" deal. But Amy and co offend again.

Amy in particular is far from remorseful and even utters dark threats in front of the headteacher. She almost asks to be suspended, and when Miss Higham does so there's a revealing anxious-defiant reaction from Amy as the telephone call goes through to her mother. Later Mrs Higham describes how she felt it necessary to display the firmness which Amy does not experience in other spheres of her life.

It's a fine piece of documentary filming of a raw situation which exemplifies a key problem in schooling today - the way that children who live chaotic lives at home can bring that chaos with them into school. (It emerges later that Amy has never got over her parents' divorce and that she has been able to manipulate her mother almost at will.) The disruptive pupil is just one of the themes Su Pennington investigates in two thoughtful and unsensational reports. The programmes set out to answer the question of whether more than 30 years of change in education has produced a system which maximises the talents of the population as a whole.

The films nicely interweave a close look at Banbury, a large Oxfordshire comprehensive (1,500 pupils), with the views of a gallery of educational and political eminences ranging from Jim Callaghan to Chris Woodhead, Duncan Graham and Kenneth Baker.

The first instalment took us back to the earliest comprehensives. There were telling clips from 19667 of the elegant Anthony Crosland announcing the end of the 11-plus exam and the start of a period of "great variety and local experiment".

Banbury had been a grammar school and it was amalgamated with two secondary moderns to create a comprehensive in 1967. The headteacher in those days was Harry Judge, who describes how he aimed to maximise choice, to encourage the pupils to do what interested them and what they enjoyed. At Banbury, this produced hugely complex timetables and unusual specialities like aeronautics.

But with the 1970s came increasing worries about standards and a growing sense of national educational inferiority. Enter Rhodes Boyson, the Black Papers, Mrs Thatcher - and the rest is recent history.

Su Pennington picks her way clearly through this chronology. At the end of the first programme she checks out the current state of play at Banbury 10 years into the Baker reforms, and solicits wider expert opinion.

Both teachers and children are frustrated by the narrowness of the new curriculum. There's concern about the low status of GNVQs, and worry that the national curriculum merely imposes academic, grammar-school standards on comprehensive schools. There's anxiety, too, that schools are moving inexorably towards specialisation and selection.

Duncan Graham - one of the early architects of the national curriculum - is critical of what has emerged. "Our system is still geared towards what is best for the most able young-sters . . . The system which suits them is the least good for everybody else."

The second programme homes in more closely on Banbury's specific dilemmas. Anita Higham is concerned about the number of pupils she encounters who are depressed, suicidal, anorexic and involved in abusing their bodies in other ways. And there are problems on the academic front as well. Out of 250 new arrivals last autumn, more than half were two years behind their chronological reading age. Not surprisingly, 15 per cent of the budget goes on special needs.

These two well-produced reports eloquently demonstrate the complexity of education today. They are also a tribute to the staff of Banbury School and their impressive principal for having the courage to let the cameras in. It would be surprising if they have many complaints.

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