Skip to main content

Walk right in, it's around the back. . .

The Beatles were playing in Shea stadium in New York. The Rolling Stones were in concert. Bob Dylan was "unplugged". The heroes of our youth may have aged but they still managed to fill our screens over Christmas. While they were showing A Hard Day's Night my11-year-old daughter asked if we could turn over. Is nothing sacred?

I am launching a campaign for a Sixties revival that has not yet happened. Can't the BBC put Arlo Guthrie back on our screens? I want to hear the whole "Alice's Restaurant" monologue just the way he did it at Newport, Rhode Island in 1967. I know the official position is, that Henry Kissinger ended the Vietnam war - they gave him a Nobel Prize after all - but I always thought that the glory should have gone to Arlo Guthrie.

Surely, you remember the story. He gets done for littering in small town Massachusetts and then shortly afterwards he is drafted. He goes to New York to have his mental and physical fitness for joining the army checked out.

To his amazement they decide that he can't join up because he has a criminal record. In the song's decisive line he says: "You mean I'm not moral enough to go to Vietnam and burn houses, women and children because I've been a litterbug?"

Then he tells the audience how they can stop the war. Each person who gets drafted should go to the draft office and sing a bar of "Alice's Restaurant" and walk out. "If one person does it they think he's mad and they'll throw him out, and if two people do it they'll think they're both mad and they'll throw them both out, and if three people do it they'll think it's an organisation, and if four people do it - can you imagine four people doing that? - they'll think it's a movement. And, friends, that's what it is."

So what's all this got to do with school improvement? Just this: school improvement has passed through Arlo Guthrie's four stages and become a movement. Politicians at all levels are enthusiastic about it.

This is all good news but it misses the point. School improvement is a movement in the Arlo Guthrie spirit; it began in the schools.

All over the country there are remarkable stories to tell about schools which have rolled up their sleeves and succeeded against the odds. The National Commission on Education highlighted 11 such schools in its final report published in November.

But there are many more startling stories of schools which have improved their performance dramatically in quite a short space of time. Using just the five higher grade GCSEs indicator, real examples include schools which have gone from 16 per cent to 62 per cent in five years; from l0 per cent to 38 per cent over four years and even one which went from under l0 per cent to over 30 per cent in one year and will be looking confidently this year to improve even on that.

The leaders of these schools (and I don't just mean the headteachers) are outstanding people. Their combination of skills, vision, commitment, courage and thoughtfulness bears comparison with outstanding leaders in any field in any era.

In these schools the fear of change has gone. Instead the staff expect, welcome and, above all, shape change. There is a debate about whether the current school improvement movement is top down or bottom up. Like so many educational debates this is a false dichotomy. School improvement is both. Schools are becoming excited about it because it works. Pupils achieve more and teachers find their school becomes a more rewarding place to work.

National politicians in all parties are excited about it for the same reason. Their task becomes the creation of a climate in which schools can improve themselves.

No one, however, believes it is the only thing necessary to raise standards to 21st-century levels. Investment is important. So too, is a means of encouraging greater parental involvement. At the North of England conference recently I proposed that it should become a requirement for parents to attend twice yearly meetings with the appropriate teacher in order to agree a plan for their child's learning over the next six months.

A national representative of parents dismissed this proposal as "fairyland". A teacher leader described it as "fantasy". Yet why should parents not be entitled to such a meeting, particularly since the research tells us, that if parents become co-educators, levels of achievement can rise dramatically? And why shouldn't schools be able to expect that every parent will take the trouble to meet them twice a year? Shouldn't the many rights parents have (justifiably in my view) gained over the past decade be matched by a small but significant addition to their responsibilities which already require them to make sure their child is educated?

The response to my proposals that really interested me was from the head of a rapidly improving school. She said she would write to me commenting, no doubt critically, on some of the suggestions I'd made, but she wanted me to know that in her school, they were already moving towards setting individual targets for each pupil through regular meetings with parents. If you look hard enough, you can find the future happening already.

Unless we believe that young people in this country are genetically less capable than their peers in Germany or the Pacific Rim we should surely be able at least to match them for standards.

The first step towards making it happen is believing that it is possible. In short today's fantasy can become tomorrow's policy.

As Arlo Guthrie put it: "All you have to do is sing it the next time it comes around on the guitar: you can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant (excepting Alice)..."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you