Negative must be exposed

4th October 1996 at 01:00
Bernard Barker identifies common faults in the running of most schools. School improvers have researched the key features that make a good school so they can be passed on to others. They include strong leadership, shared values, clear expectations, community involvement and good discipline.

Unfortunately they don't explain how to achieve them. If your class has the whip hand, another teacher's good discipline can seem a mystery rather than an example. What do strong leaders do that makes them strong? And when the staff bicker among themselves, where do shared values come from?

I should like to suggest another approach. Why not identify the negative factors common to all or most schools and organise a national campaign to deal with them? Factors such as: * Teacher supply: schools struggle to attract quality recruits, especially in the second half of the summer term. The resignation-advertisement-appointment cycle is seldom completed in time to avoid a term's disruption. Heads often sign up second-rate candidates to fill holes in the timetable. Supply staff teach up to 10 per cent of lessons although many of them are unable to obtain permanent positions. Good teachers are switched to protect examination classes, passing on the pain to key stage 3. The result is a ragged, poorly disciplined fringe. Urgent action is needed to improve the quantity and quality of new and returning teachers.

* Discipline: a small but significant number of poorly socialised, low-attention-span youngsters lose contact with working and learning during their primary years and become increasingly disruptive as they grow older. They create a low-achieving, sometimes violent culture around themselves before absenteeism, truancy and permanent exclusion scatter them through the community.

There is a mis-match between their needs and the literary-academic culture of GCSE which is exacerbated by the pressure for ever-improving examination results. Overburdened schools and underfunded LEAs are unable to offer the beneficial experiences these should-be students need. Our society is passive about dealing with the problem. It is time for a national plan to co-ordinate all the agencies and partners responsible for the should-be learner.

* Paperwork: stat-utory requirements and Department for Education and Employment regulations have filled schools with policies, forms, reports, plans and records which achieve almost nothing for the student. We write, photocopy, file and process documents with great care but seldom refer to them. How often does a file come out of a cabinet? Schools should be about classrooms, not offices. Sir Ron Dearing should be asked to slim down the paper mountain so that teachers have time for children.

* Management span: school managers have an absurdly wide span of responsibility. What other medium-size organisation has the same person in charge of finance, personnel, production and administration? At every level teachers are overloaded with responsibilities and are unable to give sufficient attention to children and classrooms. A typical head of department, for example, teaches 20 hours a week, leads a team of subject specialists, contributes to curriculum and financial decision-making, manages plant and equipment worth Pounds 250,000 and is responsible for an endless assessment paper-chase. Senior managers have acquired major financial and administrative duties which have deflected them from "the core business" of teaching and learning. A professional class of school administrators must be created and trained if the self-governing school is to survive.

* Governors' meetings: accountability has spawned a treadmill of meetings. At the college of which I was principal, for example, there are 30 calendared governors' meetings (full or committee) a year, each supported by an agenda, minutes, papers and reports. Schools are obliged to have all the apparatus of local authorities and their senior staff have to act as education officers, clerking for committees and implementing decisions. This micro-political process consumes energy at the expense of children. The 1988 model of governing bodies is in urgent need of reform.

* Class size: the controversial issue of class size illustrates the folly of a sharp focus on examination results as a measure of quality in education. Provided teaching is adequate, able children do well, so class size may be a marginal influence on measurable outcomes. But the quality of lessons can be enormously enhanced by reductions in class size. Good learning needs time and space for discussion, exploration and discovery but class sizes are rising in primary and secondary schools.

* Overwork: the same class can be attentive and interested period 1 and poorly behaved period 5. So why teach period 5? Why not recognise that children would learn better if they learned less? Why not limit examination syllabuses, shorten courses, cut the number of subjects, reduce the hours worked and demand less homework? What puritanical obsession with ill-tasting medicine drives us? What percentage of the population has been inspired and won for learning by the school system these past 40 years? If we once stopped driving towards our silly tests we might find children keen and eager to develop their own projects, fascinated by natural phenomena. Instead we insist on visiting every corner of the museum and ruin what might have been a wonderful day out.

* Setting: this practice is near universal yet it is the single most negative influence on student motivation and performance. For every child flattered and stimulated by top-set life there are four or five times as many who learn from their placement that they are duffers and that it isn't worth bothering. Disaffected boys congregate in ill-disciplined bottom groups, while girls predominate in set one. Also, teaching is aimed at the mid-point of groups which prove to be more heterogeneous than expected. Setting is evidence of an anti-equal opportunities, anti-learning policy which should be outlawed.

These eight points are central to what is wrong with our schools. Government, LEAs, governors, parents and teachers should combine to tackle under-performance. Instead, individual schools are left to fiddle with their development plans while the nation under-achieves. We are not serious about standards.

Bernard Barker recently retired as principal of Stanground College, Peterborough

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