Remember, the good is in the detail

19th July 1996 at 01:00
The same week Gillian Shephard unveiled her White Paper on grammar schools, some newspaper cuttings arrived through the post announcing the closure of the school where my father was once head. What had been a thriving secondary modern was now, apparently, a half-empty comprehensive, chosen by only 14 pupils for next September.

My father would have been devastated. Although he always thought an education system which slapped "Failure" on to 80 per cent of children at 11 was absurd, he worked tirelessly within it to ensure his students never saw themselves that way. His school was disciplined and popular, and he was as proud as any parent of all his students who went on to A-levels and beyond, or who did well in the arts, or sports, or their chosen work.

He also felt obliged to be their public spokesman, giving talks and inviting visitors into the school, countering every denigration - and there were many back then at that time of the great comprehensive debate - of "secondary mod. kids".

Not that there was any sentimentality in our house about the behaviour of some of those kids, or how little good sense or basic literacy could be shoehorned into others before they passed on into the adult world.

"Always remember," warned my mother - once a teacher at the school - the day I passed my driving test, "your father's bottom stream are out there on the road with you."

Both of them always believed that the education debate in this country was led - misled - by people with no comprehension of the true ability spread in schools, and no interest in anything except in the grammar school "half".

Decades after their deaths, what has changed?

The most urgent educational problem we still face is how to raise standards for the broad mass of pupils. But, as a country, we still prefer to spend our energies arguing about whether or not to introduce grammar streams into schools (where, in many cases, they already exist).

Looking back to the newspaper cuttings in my hand, I dwelt on the irony of the fact that what had been a good school under the selective system, was now a bad one under the very system designed to give its students a fairer crack of the whip.

But neighbourhoods change, and so do people, and even if we created the most streamlined school system in the world, the lives of individual schools would still ebb and flow accordingly. In this, at least, the White Paper is right.

It is only local people - governors, teachers, parents - who know what is going on in their schools, and what they want to do about it.

Yet what they want is often so much simpler than politicians seem willing to accept.

Not far from my father's old school, is a comprehensive - Sharnbrook Upper - which Office for Standards in Education inspectors recently pronounced outstanding. With a fairly average intake, it gets exam results worthy of a selective school, and is now turning away students from outside its area, to retain its all-in community base.

"What parents want," the headteacher, David Jackson, has said, "is access to their local school, and for that school to be a good one."

So obvious, really. But so opaque, too. We parents - we lay people - know almost nothing about what it takes to turn a mediocre school into a good one. Educational researchers now know a great deal about this, but seem unwilling to share it with us, beyond the occasional cryptic word or two - phonics, say; or whole-class teaching.

But we aren't stupid. We know there must be more to it than that, otherwise every school in the land would become an academy of excellence overnight.

Sharnbrook's reported recipe is good teachers, close relationships between staff and students, and time spent at the end of each day discussing homework and tomorrow's school. Other schools, no doubt, have different ones.

But doing a tour of parental duty at school open days this end of term, it struck me afresh that, whatever recipe is chosen, it's all, in the end, in the detail. Good teaching is painstaking, tedious stuff; the difference between scribbling "Nice work, well presented" at the bottom of a book report, or "A very good piece of work, although I felt your introduction was a little 'flat', and would have liked to have known less about the plot and more about your own reasons for liking the book . . ." And doing it 20 or 30 times over, for every assignment, of every week, of every term, of every year.

It's about working on a pIay, or rehearsing a concert, until everyone is dropping, but your students have discovered they are capable of 10 times more than they thought they were when they started.

It's about endless subtleties, too. Not one-stop remedies, but picking and mixing classroom styles; about knowing which sticks and carrots each pupil needs to make the most of their time in school.

We parents don't see the mass of this small detail, because we don't often go into schools, and when we do, we are almost always focusing only on our own children's work.

Also - to be honest - it's not very exciting. It isn't even easy to describe. And most of it's invisible, anyway.

One headteacher, writing in The TES this year, likened running a good school to doing housework - you do it all one week, then you do it all over again the next. Is it surprising, then, that the nuts and bolts of school life have always failed to catch the public imagination?

But they must, if parents are to know what they should expect from schools, and if schools are ever to get the level of public support they need. And maybe, at last, the time has come when the educational world should go all out to try to make them. Because if everyone is as sick and tired as this particular parent of the endless tinkering with school structures, the educational electioneering, the political hypocrisy and party point-scoring, then I'm sure we're finally ready to stop discussing moving house, and to start listening to much more about how to do the dusting.

* Sincere apologies to any readers who struggled to make head or tail of my last column, on school sport (TES, June 21) from which gremlins in the paper's production system removed the entire middle third.

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