Dedicated to the ones he loves

4th July 1997 at 01:00
Forget testing, forget league tables. Robert Powell believes raising achievement is simply about the art of teaching. Maureen O'Connor reports

Watching a deputy head tear up a "meetings" schedule brings untold satisfaction to Robert Powell. If it happens at the end of his in-service training day he knows he has made his point. For Powell has been on an eight-year crusade visiting some 600 British schools, persuading staff that raising achievement is about the art of class teaching rather than structures, assessment and administration.

Next term he will see his fine words put to the acid test when he becomes head of Blurton High School in Staffordshire. Staff at the school might well spend the summer boning up on Powell's distilled wisdom which is published this month in Raising Achievement, the first of three books in a series he is publishing called Put Learning First. Among other things, they will learn how not to raise achievement (see box, page 5).

Tackling a headship for the first time at the age of 47, Rob Powell has had a varied career, He worked at Bicester School in Oxfordshire when Tim Brighouse was chief education officer, began to explore study skills and, with Brighouse's support, was seconded for two years from there to help evaulate the Resources for Learning project at Bristol University. He went back to Bicester as a head of year and then was a deputy head in Wiltshire before he made his career move into INSET and publishing.

So what has Rob Powell been telling schools for eight years? The dedication of his book - "to all those teachers who know that they add far more value to their students than the league tables suggest" - gives more than a clue. He is convinced that the present regime of testing and league tables is actually damaging children's performance. And that the stamina, ingenuity and creative thinking of teachers could get all young people further, faster.

The changes that have characterised education in the UK over the past 10 years - though less so in Scotland - have been largely concerned with structure or content. The biggest impact has not been on classroom practice but on the stress levels and morale of teachers. "The truth is that most change in education has a minimal effect on classroom practice," he says.

The negative change which grieves him most is the loss of 100 per cent coursework-based GCSE in English - an innovation which, he says, improved motivation and results. The suggestion that it might be possible for students or teachers to cheat led not, as it should have done, to improved moderation but to abolition.

He is similarly unimpressed by complaints that if exam passes improve, the exams must be "too easy", or if more young people go into higher education "degrees must be devalued", or that classrooms have fallen into the hands of trendy "facilitators". Most teachers, he says, are conservative and pragmatic, and are looking for teaching strategies which work. There may be extreme approaches, he says, at both ends of the spectrum, citing the adviser who was urging schools to make sure that no question appeared on a worksheet that could not be done by the weakest student and the grammar school teacher who boasted that none of the boys in his English class, sitting in alphabetical order, was ever allowed to talk.

But the main cause of low achievement, he says, is not one method or another - or different kinds of organisation - but simply poor teaching. Group work can be highly-organised and stimulating, or low level and time-wasting. Class teaching may be interactive and motivating, or no more than a dull lecture where information moves from the teacher's notes to the students' without passing through the brain of either.

On discipline, he advocates the commonsense line of the Elton report; that the central problem of disruption - which itself has a fateful effect on learning - could be significantly reduced by helping teachers become more effective classroom managers.

Good teaching is not the only answer in some failing schools, he concedes. Disturbed and disruptive children will not always be motivated by it, although he believes that in many classrooms exciting teaching can wean away from trouble pupils "on the margin"; those who will join in a bit of disruption for a laugh if someone else provokes it. There is a real question, he thinks, over what proportion of very difficult children any one school can handle.

But every school has its hard-core. And OFSTED reports are showing that some achieve well in some lessons, often in the more creative subjects, which indicates that something goes right in some classrooms which goes wrong in others.

If he has to pick out two of his themes which could make a difference, it would be the language of learning and the way in which personal and social education is handled in secondary schools. Very often, he says, the current testing regime is narrowing down what is being taught to low-level, short responses. The crucial language children need to handle a subject and make progress is being missed out.

"This is something which was explained in the Bullock report and never taken seriously. We need to get back to the idea that language learning is needed right across the curriculum. At the moment you have the absurd situation where level 4 questions in maths or science are being set in level 6 language. "

He cites the example of the special needs child faced with a question asking her to name an instrument to measure temperature. Her response was "trombone". The explanation was entirely logical: the child's music teacher had made sure she could read musical vocabulary - including the word instrument; her science teacher had not taken the same trouble with the basic vocabulary of science.

Rob Powell's other bete noire is the PSE course crammed into 20-minute tutor sessions and taught by staff with no expertise - and more important things to do with their brief class time. "Tutors actually need that time if they are to monitor their students properly and fulfil their pastoral responsibilities. And PSE needs to be taught well, because its themes and skills are so valuable, " he says. "Where they are taught effectively, they are brilliant, popular with staff and students."

In spite of the book, Rob Powell says he is not going to his new school with a blueprint set in stone for raising achievement. That would be to deny another crucial message of the book; that change comes through consultation, co-operation and the sharing of good practice. Even so, he has a wealth of experience to draw on after his travels, and his new school must be awaiting his arrival with interest.

* Raising Achievement, published by Robert Powell Publications, is available from Matrix, Publications Department, tel: 01565 650045


* Organise in-service training sessions that are a waste of time. The three common approaches which need challenging are: the flip-chart approach with a "facilitator" offering no new ideas; the NAB (Not Another Bloody Initiative) approach which simply fills a slot and more often than not fragments important issues; and the "menu" approach which can insist staff go to sessions picked off a list.

* Make sure that no staff ever see colleagues working in the classroom and learn from their successful practice.

* Organise the timetable into 35 or 40-minute single periods which leaves only 20 minutes for real learning.

* Ask teachers to work in lots of different rooms so that they cannot make best use of resources, display work or establish any identity for students.

* Teach the same topic to all year groups at the same time. Departmental budgets are then spent on multiple sets of identical resources or students have to make do with photocopies. Plus, the school library is overwhelmed with requests for identical materials.

* Make sure that tutors and guidance teachers have low status so that monitoring, mentoring and liaison with parents have a low priority.

* Ask form tutors to deliver PSE in minimum time so valuable themes and skills are downgraded and poorly taught.

* Make sure librarians, support staff and governors are excluded from planning meetings, INSET and other functions, ignoring the help and support they can offer.

* Waste time by organising a rigid schedule of meetings, even if there is nothing to talk about. The single thing teachers say would make most difference to the quality of their teaching is more time. Excellent teaching requires preparation. (In Scotland, secondary teachers have four hours minimum during their contracted week for planning - and it cannot be taken away to cover for absent colleagues.)

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