Friday, April 10, 2015

How can we improve schools? It’s simple. Leave it to teachers | Education | The Guardian

How can we improve schools? It’s simple. Leave it to teachers | Education | The Guardian:

How can we improve schools? It’s simple. Leave it to teachers

For the past five years ideology has trumped children’s needs, says Sir Alan Steer, leaving poorer pupils behind. The priority of the next government must be to treasure the teachers

Students listening to teacher talking in classroom
The next government ‘should prioritise policies to raise the quality of teaching’. Photograph: Alamy

 he English school system is not underachieving. Among its 23,000 schools are examples of excellence to compare with any in the world – and standards today are incomparably higher than 40 years ago. A far wider section of society now benefits from a good education than would have been true in the immediate postwar period. As acknowledged in the 2014 report from the chief inspector of schools, there is much to applaud.

Unfortunately the success of the majority is not the complete picture. If most children succeed in realising their potential, some do not. If most schools continue to improve, a minority appear stuck in mediocrity. What is especially worrying is that the underperformance of children has a tendency to affect specific groups, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Explanations offered for this rarely survive close examination.
“Where”, asked Sir Michael Wilshaw in 2013, “do you think is the worst place in England to be a child from a poor family, in terms of educational opportunity? Is it inner London, Liverpool, Leeds or Manchester? Not at all. The evidence suggests that it’s west Berkshire.” Disadvantaged children in this lovely, affluent part of south-east England, he pointed out, last year had the worst attainment in the country at primary school; the second worst at secondary school and were in one of the bottom three local authorities for qualifications at age 19.
Such children, denied access to a good quality education, are often also being denied the opportunity to become fulfilled citizens. The link between educational standards and subsequent earning capacity is clear and well known, but the damage is not only to individuals. At a national level extreme inequality can affect economic growth. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development calculated that increasing income inequality since 1985 in the UK had reduced growth in the 1990s by 9%. Over a longer period it claims that British GDP would have grown by 7% had income inequality been at the same level as in France.
What can be done? Some commentators, from both ends of the political spectrum, believe that the performance gap between different social groups is beyond the power of a school to change. But children from specific ethnic groups or social backgrounds are not inherently programmed to underachieve. They may face greater challenges, but there are many examples of these being overcome.
In the 1970s, we worried about the aspirations and achievement levels of girls. As a young headteacher in east London in the 1980s I found a culture of low expectation for children of Bangladeshi origin. London at that time was seen as a centre of poor schools and underachieving children. Few thought then that things could be different.
Today such attitudes appear ridiculous and offensive. The rise in the achievement and aspirations of girls over the past 40 years has been one of the great triumphs of society and the education system. The local authority of Tower Hamlets, with its large Bangladeshi population, is now considered as a beacon of excellence across Europe. London leads the country in educational standards for all groups and is envied by other national capitals.
Change for the better is always possible. There is no reason why disadvantaged children in Peterborough, West Berkshire, Barnsley, Herefordshire and the Isle of Wight should be condemned to starting life so much worse off than those living in Hackney. This postcode lottery of opportunity is unacceptable.
But ministers’ headline-grabbing schemes are often the wrong sort of change. Free schools are an example where politicians’ interests trump those of children. Often created in areas where there is no need and absorbing large amounts of public money, free schools fail to produce any sign that they will raise standards and help children. On the contrary. As society worries about religious intolerance, Matthew Taylor, chair of the Social Integration Commission, argues that the creation of free schools and the expansion of faith schools are increasing segregation between different ethnicities and classes.
Political interference in the curriculum and assessment of children is another example of the wrong kind of change. Central direction may be needed, but it should come from a credible professional source rather than from a “here today, gone tomorrow” secretary of state. Schools and teachers cannot concentrate on teaching if they are subject to constant change in the courses being taught.
Strategies for change should concentrate on what we know works. International studies over many years show that the quality of teaching makes the most difference. In September 2014 the Sutton Trust published a report, based on How can we improve schools? It’s simple. Leave it to teachers | Education | The Guardian:
When trainees ask the inevitable question – whether it gets easier as time goes by – we owe it to them to tell the truth. The teaching might, but the job doesn't