Thursday, 2 May 2013

My experience of the state education system

I am passionate about delivering high quality education to all. Lots of people are. But many (most?) of these people speak from a position of relative privilege. They attended fee paying schools, grammar schools, or high performing state schools. (or even just decent state schools)

I didn't.

My primary school was OFSTED inspected when I was in year 6, and placed in special measures. My first secondary school was closed half way through my GCSEs due to poor performance. A neighbouring school was expanded to take us all in. The result was that only 25% of my school year reached the benchmark of five good GCSEs including English and Maths (four years later, 26% achieved the same). Many of my peer group achieved no GCSEs at all. No qualifications at all. Some could only be described as, at the age of 16, functionally illiterate.

Such a failure of education has given me strong views on the subject. Sure, I can't assume that everywhere faces the same problems as my schools. Yes, it is important to take a macro view of education and analyse various case studies and factors. But it is also important to root your theory in the real world. A real world experience.

So in my real world experience, what were the problems?

Children running riot (on a couple of memorable occasions, literally). Teachers totally out of control. Poor quality teaching. Low expectations and low achievement. Lateness, truancy, and a general lack of discipline.

The attitude amongst staff in the school was that all of this was to be expected. Look at the community it served: the children were clearly no hopers. To be fair, it is a difficult community. The usual problems of unemployment, welfare dependency, substance (alcohol, drugs) abuse, absent parents (more then average numbers in prison). The classic sink estate.

However, the attitude amongst staff was inexcusable. Those children had real potential. Yes, they were bit of a tough crowd, but that doesn't excuse giving up on them before even trying.

The problem, ultimately? Poor leadership.

The head teacher and his team created a culture of low aspiration. They accepted sub-standard teachers. They did not demand more and better from staff or pupils, and they did not create a disciplined and supportive environment in which staff and pupils could succeed.

Labour's answer?

The same as always: spend lots of money. They rebuilt the school whilst keeping the same management and teaching team. A few years later OFSTED put the school in to special measures and closed it.

The school reopened as an academy in 2011 with an ambitious team taking a no-nonsense, no-excuses, aspiration approach.

In 2012 56% of students achieved five good GCSEs including English and Maths.

When people talk about Michael Gove and I say he is an hero of mine, they look at me like I am mad. But I know - I am certain - that the free schools program and expansion of academies is absolutely what schools like my former one need. These policies tell educators that they can no longer blame poor performance on a tough crowd: they must aim high and they must innovate. Furthermore, the reforms equip leaders and teachers with the tools to do so.

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