Lucky number is 15;Opinion

2nd April 1999 at 01:00
To eliminate failure in 'underclass' schools involves a radical rethink of staffing, writes Martin Johnson

Target time 2002 approaches, and inner-city underachievement threatens to undermine Labour's key goals. Hence Excellence in Cities, its pound;350 million package to help urban schools. Its 32 proposals range from excellent to silly, but we must all welcome the recognition of the problems, and the extra money. My new book, Failing School, Failing City looks at the same issue but reaches different conclusions.

This country now has an underclass, a group whose culture is shaped by expectations of unemployment, experience of poverty, and rejection of mainstream society's values and institutions.

Young people of the underclass bring to school a deep rejection of state education, and of the authority of teachers. Many urban schools have a minority of such pupils; they can be contained, or in some cases won over, by the huge efforts of their teachers and by successful role models. But there are a few schools in the cities and on the estates in which underclass pupils form a critical mass. These schools offer a qualitatively different experience.

As a teacher with 30 years' experience working in city schools, I have observed classrooms where pupils seem almost oblivious to the teacher, where staff are reduced to destructive conflict or unproductive truce. In my book, I have described schools where tension is constant, where staff are overwhelmed by the quantity of incidents which confront them.

Are these teachers incompetent? That is the official answer. Most of the secondaries failed by the Ofice for Standards in Education are underclass schools, but no one has explained that coincidence or how it is that the country's worst teachers collect in such places. It's nonsense, of course. Many have been successful in ordinary schools.

No, the truth is that the core of staff who stick it out for years are heroes, struggling on to try to make a difference, just sometimes, to the lives of young people who really do not want to know.

What could be done to end all this? Failing School, Failing City makes some suggestions. First, the Government must accept that these exceptional schools require exceptional levels of funding. They need to quadruple the number of teaching staff, to create classes of 15, and enable a reduction by half in contact time. This latter would allow not only recovery time for staff, thus reducing absence and breakdown, but also time to follow up every incident, accident, absence, unfinished work, and a dozen other issues which, unresolved, compound the loss of authority and control. When augmented with additional support staff, we could swamp such schools with sufficient adults to set a tone of support, purpose, achievement, and hope - overturning the dominant culture of helplessness and despair.

Hopelessly impracticable? Maybe, but we are talking about perhaps 200 of the country's 25,000 schools. I know that some "experts" see it another way. For them, turning round a school in difficulty is all a matter of good management, policy innovation, efficiency, not resources.

Such things may be sufficient in most cases, but in underclass schools they are not. There, only exceptionally charismatic leaders and superteachers can make a difference. We cannot base a system solely on exceptional talent, although that is the answer proposed by chief inspector Chris Woodhead in his constructive critique of my book (Daily Telegraph, March 24). We need exceptional funding, too.

Second, the compulsory curriculum has hindered development of programmes relating to the needs of such young people, and schools need far more freedom.

Third, an alternative would be to "abolish" underclass schools. Abolition could only be achieved by a radical change to secondary admissions policy, to enforce a greater degree of social mix. It is undeniable that the cumulative effect of present policies is to polarise intakes in terms of social class, and thus of performance.

Excellence in Cities will exacerbate polarisation through the status symbols of specialist and beacon schools and learning centres. It argues that this kind of analysis is disproved by the existence of high-achieving schools serving the same community as a failing school. No one ever produces an example, because none exists. Proximity of schools in a city says nothing about their intakes, because of the complex patterns of travel to school, and the mixed addresses of different classes.

Lastly, we must return to basics. Only full employment, and the eradication of child poverty, can solve the problem once and for all. Are inner-city teachers the only people left in our society who are disgusted by massive wealth and conspicuous consumption amid desperate need?

A government which really follows the logic of its slogans about opportunity for all will make those radical changes in economic and social policy which are the only long-term answer to failing schools in our divided and failing cities.

Martin Johnson is president-elect of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. "Failing School, Failing City" is published by Jon Carpenter at pound;10. To order, phone 01689 870437

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