`We don't want our students to be told they're stupid'

7th August 2015 at 01:00
Head tells TES of frustration with Chinese methods in BBC2 show

The teacher stands at the front of the room, addressing the class. The pupils, meanwhile, are entirely indifferent. They talk; they sing; they pay no attention at all to what is going on at the whiteboard.

Neil Strowger, their headteacher, is rather proud of them.

"We want students who can look at the status quo and make a confident decision not to take part," the head of Bohunt School in Hampshire tells TES. "We want to bring up people who challenge, but challenge in a positive way."

Bohunt School - the 2014 TES school of the year - is the subject of a three-part BBC2 series, Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, which began this week.

For four weeks, 50 Year 9 pupils were taught as though they were at school in China, by teachers from some of the top Chinese schools. At the end of the month, the teenagers competed against the rest of their year group in an exam.

The Chinese schoolday is long, lasting from 7am to 7pm. It begins with flag-raising and calisthenics, and includes competitive PE and copious rote-based learning.

"A small number of students quite liked the teaching style," Mr Strowger (pictured, inset) tells TES. "They liked the fact that they were just told what to do: copy this down and learn it. When it comes to revising, they've got good notes." He pauses. "They don't necessarily understand it. It's quite a lazy approach."

Stand and deliver

For most of the Bohunt pupils, however, the Chinese teaching methods were less successful. A fair amount of media attention has been given to the (mis)behaviour of the pupils: a class of 14-year-olds who, faced with endless dictation, decide that, really, they have better things to do.

It is a decision that Mr Strowger himself has sympathy with. The second programme in the series (screened next Tuesday) shows him observing a science lesson and then telling the cameras: "You've got a teacher stood at the front, basically talking to a PowerPoint. I was only in the room for 20 minutes and I was ready to bang my head on the desk."

What was notable, however, was that as soon as Mr Strowger addressed the class there was silence. "It showed very clearly that the students were making a conscious decision that they weren't going to accept what they were being fed at that point," he says. "The class-size question - that was not very successful. There's too much scope there for disengagement, especially with a teacher who's not trying to engage the class."

And English teenagers were unlikely to respond well to Chinese-style discipline, which involves trying to shame pupils into trying harder.

Mr Strowger, however, considers it a strength that, unlike their Chinese counterparts, his students are not ashamed of failure. "Failing is fine," he says. "But we want our students to fail in a good way, not to be told they're stupid or will bring shame on their family or their country. That's just a mindset that's alien to British kids."

By the end of the four-week experiment, however, the two countries had reached a state of cordial detente. And Mr Strowger now hopes to introduce a small element of teacher talk into his classrooms. He also admits to seeing the virtue in whole-school morning calisthenics.

"I think it says a lot about our students' resilience and forbearance that they were as cooperative as they were," he says of the experiment now. "But they are happy to be back in normal lessons, and to feel supported and valued and important."

Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School continues on BBC2 at 9pm on Tuesday

The story of a successful school

The pillars of Bohunt's success, according to the judges of the 2014 TES Schools Awards:

Results are achieved through sustained pedagogical innovation, within the classroom and outside it. In science, technology, engineering and maths, for example, the school runs a festival and invites businesses to provide "career-readying" lessons.

Students have presented to headteachers at the Apple European Summit.

Languages teaching is among the most innovative in the country: subjects including PE and computing are taught in Mandarin as part of an immersive programme.

The school is as interested in students' personal development as in their academic achievement. More than 600 pupils take part in its outdoor programme each year, which is designed to enhance their educational journey.

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