Time to slaughter some sacred cows

12th April 1996 at 01:00
Charles Rowsell makes a proposal for improving academic standards.

Why do our schools seem to do so much worse than those of every other country in Europe? Here are some reasons: We recently had a letter home from the head of our younger daughter's primary school. The governors had decided, it said, to extend the school day by 10 minutes. Great, we thought, some extra teaching and learning time. Further perusal proved a disappointment. The 10 minutes, explained the letter, would be used to extend the length of the daily assembly. I nearly cried because I know that the dreaded assembly is one of the reasons why we lag behind schools in other countries. We are dedicated to wasting time.

I know a lot about assemblies. I have had to attend hundreds of them during my career. Assemblies are usually pointless, patronising exercises. Sometimes, if the school is a church one, assemblies at least have the merit of being shameless religious indoctrination. Mainly they are a complete sham, varying between wishy-washy platitudes and hectoring mass telling-offs. Often the entire pupil population is herded into a cavernous, freezing sports hall in which they have to sit on the floor and be talked at for 10 minutes. When they finally arrive at the first lesson, they are dirty, shivering, bored, resentful and angry.

Schools in our EC partner countries do not have assemblies as part of their school day. They prefer to see schools as places where children go to be educated, not to be sermonised at.

The twice-weekly assembly is not all. On the three other days, the hapless pupils are at the receiving end of the dreaded "tutor time". This 25 compulsory minutes of purgatory gets every day off to an awful start for everyone. The poor tutor, who has usually come into teaching in the hope of actually doing some, has to deliver things like "thoughts for the day" and impart moral right-thinking to his or her students.

In France and Germany, they think we're mad. A quick registration, and then it's down to work. I haven't noticed our truancy rates going down after tutor time was introduced, and neither have I noticed the moral and social conduct of our young people being improved by the number of hours spent telling them how they should behave. If assemblies and tutor times worked, there would be a decline in drug taking, violence and anti-social behaviour among secondary school students, but all these things are on the increase. These time-wasting activities should be dropped in favour of more teaching and learning time.

Last week, we got another duplicated letter home. This time, it was from my elder child's secondary school, and the subject was uniform. The letter droned on about how certain, obviously criminal, elements were coming to school dressed in "unacceptable" and "inappropriate" attire. The staff, it claimed, were fed up with "having their time wasted" chivying their pupils about not wearing the correct uniform.

The problem is that this entire aspect of British schools, which does indeed waste a massive amount of time, has been brought upon them by themselves. There is no evidence that wearing an imposed uniform has any effect upon the academic success of children. You want the proof? School uniform is unknown in all our competitor countries. They prefer to get on with the teaching and learning unhindered by considerations which have nothing to do with education.

Academic success is the most important function of a school, but we are so married to our traditions that any suggestion that sacred cows such as assemblies and uniforms should be looked at again is regarded as tantamount to treason. The fury induced by such suggestions almost makes you fear for your life. All you are doing is trying to clear the way for some actual education, yet people's minds remain implacably closed.

There is a lesson to be learnt here, but we have a long tradition of refusing to learn lessons. That is the reason why all the "Back to Basics" hot air has only made things worse and continues to do so.

Charles Rowsell writes under a pseudonym.

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