Groundhog day solution

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
We treasure fresh thinking, right? Even if it is potentially slightly mad? If we want to clear the way for blue-sky reforms we surely have to allow a bit of battiness? So I felt a bit sorry for poor old Martin Stephen, of St Paul's, calling down odium on his head with the suggestion that academically brilliant teachers should be given special contracts, with their work focused entirely on top-set groups, and that the poor dears should be "reassured that they will not be asked to teach groups for whom they have no understanding".

Mr Stephen clearly comes from the sort of lonely, adventurous minority who get their kicks bungee-jumping over alligator pits. One can see why the education world got so cross: after all, every day of the school year certain gallant teachers stagger out and stand in front of groups of children for whom even a mother would be hard put to it to have any understanding. Given that these heroic teachers often succeed in enthusing the most unlikely pupils, there was something monstrously, almost endearingly, preposterous about the idea that sensitive and highly- paid superteachers who really, really love maths (or whatever) should be shielded from oafs and idlers and dimwits. Why should anything calling itself a schoolteacher be released from the central, mysterious and wonderful teacherly task of drawing out enthusiasm and talent from unpromising, stroppy, hormonal blobs?

Unfortunately, though, Dr Stephen's Geek-Power idea rather overshadowed another suggestion he made, which ought to be given a bit more thought. He wants more grammar schools, but without selection. Anyone could go. The only caveat would be that every child would have to satisfy academic criteria in order to advance to the next class; if they didn't, they wouldn't be thrown out, but simply made to repeat the year. For as long as it took.

Now, I grew up partly in France, where such arrangements at the time were common. And I saw how my peers felt about it, so I know exactly why British schools have been reluctant to go in for repeat years. Quite apart from the incongruity and potential disruption of having a huge, hulking creature glowering in the back row, the children themselves absolutely hate and dread it. Being "kept back" is seriously embarrassing. Your mates move on without you, your circle of friends is compromised, and the nearby desks fill up with a lot of little pipsqueaks to whom you thought yourself naturally and inalienably superior simply because you were born sooner than they were. You re-open the dreary old textbook your real mates have abandoned, still with your old doodles in the margin; you look up glumly at the familiar teacher you tormented all last year. You endure a whole year of groundhog days.

But things you hate can have a useful side to them. The fear of being kept back is a tremendous incentive to pass your end-of-year exams, and therefore you are rather more likely to listen to the teacher, despite his or her irritating preoccupation with fractions or Shakespeare or diagrams of dogfish. You realise that there is no longer any chance that you can just drift on vaguely up the school until you and your mates are 16, whether or not you learn anything during that time.

Children are pragmatists: if they realise they are trapped in a quagmire, they will try to get out of it. If the only way is learning something, that is - as often as not - precisely what they will do. That ticket to the higher class - ah, how I remember this from France! - is a cherished passport. When my good friend Veronique, wickedest girl in the Quatri me Classe, was told that she would after all be able to join us in Cinqui me, we all rejoiced together. We had before us the awful spectre of Chantal, who now trailed miserably astern of us, still wearing the shaming pink pinny of the Troisi mes.

I am not sure whether holding-back would ever work here, among our cadre of pupils and teachers and human rights lawyers. But I can tell you one thing: it delivers a clear message. It lets you know that school is not just a chronological process which will release you according to age whether or not it has left any mark on you. School is a workplace, a career, a ladder.

You won't get on, get up, and get out until you have let it have its pedagogic way .

Children understand that sort of thing. No computer game, after all, would ever sell if you were guaranteed to rescue Princess Bustina from the Dragon's Lair after half an hour's playing, whether you deserved to or not.

You have to go through the levels, keep your eye on the screen and your finger on the button, and earn every inch of advancement. Think about it.

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