Paradise island

8th September 2000 at 01:00
Imagine a life without OFSTED or league tables, where the sun shines often and the beach is yards away. Well, Jersey head Peter Bray is already living it. Phil Revell reports.

HOLIDAYS already a distant memory? Does wrenching yourself away from the beaches, pavement cafes and sun, leave scars that last well into October?

It's not a dilemma faced by Peter Bray. He's head of Le Squez primary in Jersey where the beach is 200 yards away and the weather behaves in a most un-British fashion.

And there is more to this heaven. Superficially, Le Squez looks like any mainland primary. But schools in the Channel Islands are not ruled by London. Jersey has full control over its domestic affairs and some of the decisions the islanders have made have resulted in real

differences in the way schools are managed.

Jersey uses national curriculum tests, but there are no league tables. The island has school evaluation, but there is no Office for Standards in Education. "We inform our parents of how their children have done and the respective results of each school are known within the authority," says Bray. "But they aren't published. And that's because it was recognised, almost from the outset, that you cannot expect a society to understand fully the reasons why schools in certain areas will not perform as well as others."

School accountability in Jersey is built on a system of self-evaluation moderated by external advisors. "The previous director of education was uneasy about the OFSTED approach," says Bray. "Our process does set targets, but in a far more significant way. It's the school setting targets for itself. The process is as important as the outcome."

Tom McKeon, Jersey's current director of education, argues that self inspection by schools has been a key factor in their undoubted success.

"If the accountability process is to be of value it has to lead to development and that has to come from within," he says. Outsiders might suspect that an island-based process might fall victim to cosy mutual congratulation. Nothing could be further from the reality, Peter Bray claims.

"It's a very rigorous process. Our validation teams are steered and chaired by an HM inspector. Where tough things have to be said, I can say without any hesitation that they are said."

Teachers still face stress, but Ethel Southern, personal, social and health education co-ordinator at Le Squez, argues that they are less under pressure than their mainland peers.

"Teachers do find the process stressful, despite the reassurance from heads that it's a very positive process. One of its strengths is that teachers have an opportunity to reflect on their practice. It's a bit like giving birth. It's very painful at the time, but you get something pretty terrific afterwards."

And the other stresses faced by teachers on the mainlad? Class size, resources, new technology?

"Generally class sizes will be lower," says Mr Bray. "Our average is 22. It makes a huge difference; the teacher has a much greater opportunity to meet children's needs. Their approach, their delivery, their planning is going to be completely different. You can't do with 34 what you can do with 24."

Teachers are paid more on the island, but the high cost of living absorbs much of the differential.

The curriculum is broadly the same. The island has adopted most of the national curriculum changes since 1988, with some key differences in approach. Citizenship proposals, due to come into force in 2002 on the mainland, have not been adopted. Instead the focus is on personal, social and health education.

"The philosophy of the authority in the early nineties was that PSHE was the foundation of the school curriculum," says Ethel Southern. "It was considered of such value."

PSHE has been an entitlement on the island since 1994 and, in a neatly ironic twist, is partly funded by the sale of assets seized from drug traffickers.

But it's with computer technology that the island leaves the rest of the UK standing.

The island's States parliament has authorised an ambitious programme, which will give every teacher a laptop and every school a network.

This autumn a network will link every school on the island with broadband Internet access. This is happening alongside a pound;200 million refurbishment programme should benefit all Jersey's schools.

"The quality of the teaching and learning environment is of the highest importance," says director Tom McKeon.

Jersey is hardly deprived and some would assume that the investment in education is only made possible by its wealth. Tom McKeon recognises the argument, but points out that the amount spent per pupil isn't wildly different.

"We can invest because of the success of the economy, but the key word is value. The community values education very highly, nobody here questions the importance or significance of education. There are no natural resources on Jersey: the prime resource is the people."

Teachers on the mainland might see the Jersey model as one the UK should be aiming towards, but the key role of the education department, the insistence that professional debates are best held out of the public eye and above all the willingness to invest heavily in schools would all involve a rethink of the priorities of mainland decision-makers. For Peter Bray the issue is one of trust.

"What we have on the island is a system which says to schools: 'You are the experts at what you do, you know your school and your children best. You have the freedom to manage that. We will resource you properly and we will check that your systems for self-assessment are delivering what is required.' The key word is trust."

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