All about the parents?

I’m afraid it’s Jamie’s dream School again this week, so for those who are bored of my rantings about this particular piece of water-cooler TV, there’s no need to read on any further. The programme has turned out pretty much as expected, and I’m not surprised that the star of the show is David Starkey, a man who looks and acts more like his ‘dead ringers’ cariacature every time he appears. Watching him, kid gloves and all, handling the Staffordshire hoard like a newborn child was to observe someone totally in love with his subject; he then looks expectantly up at the class of brats in front of him, only to note the look of total disgust on their faces. This was sad, though hardly unexpected. He’d have been better off unveiling a bottle of 20/20, which would at least have gotten their attention.

But I’ve already said enough about the failings of the programme. I’m more interested in the enormous elephant in the classroom that seems to be continually ignored by Jamie, and all involved with dream School. We are told that these pupils have been failed by ‘the system’. We’re never quite told what ‘the system’ is, only that it has failed these children. The reasoning goes thus:

1. The pupils all have no GCSE qualifications.

2. The pupils are clearly quite clever.

3. Therefore, the teaching they received was not good enough. They weren’t engaged, enthused or educated.

Conclusion: the pupils have been failed by their Schools, and by their teachers within those Schools.

I’m sure there’s some truth in this, but here’s an inescapable truth: there are good teachers in every School and there are bad teachers in every School. It’s true that teacher effects dwaf whole School effects, such that you are far better off having the best teacher in a lousy School than having a feeble teacher in a superb establishment. But clearly these pupils haven’t just had the bad teachers. The main problem with them is that they are unteachable. They are feral. They have never been taught how to behave. The general rules of life do not apply to these pupils. And whose fault is this? I’d absolve the pupils from blame, just as one absolves a non-housetrained dog from peeing on the carpet; it simply doesn’t know any better. Surely the majority of fault lies with the parents?

Malcolm Gladwell notes that pupils at high-achieving Schools don’t actually outstrip pupils at low achieving Schools by that much during term time i.e. the time that they actually spend at School. Instead, their education develops far more during the holidays, and this is where they move ahead of the low achieving pupils. During this time they are encouraged to read by their parents, to take an interest in sport, music, film, theatre, to debate, discuss and to challenge the world around them. They are not allowed to spend long days on the xbox and eating junk food. This is a generalisation of course, but it’s the general point I wish to make.

On this week’s episode, we were told that one of the pupils had grown up without a dad, had been kicked out by his mother and was living in a council flat on his own. The only time we were treated to a look inside, he was getting hammered with his mates on what looked like cheap schnapps. Failed by the system? Only if the system gave birth to him.

We can talk all we like about what needs to change with education, from curriculum reform and studying Latin (Toby Young) to discipline in the classroom (Katharine Birbalsingh), but why do we never talk about good parents and bad parents, and the effects of parents, rather than the effects of School and teachers. Young people need to be aspirational; they need to feel as though they can make a success of things, and they need the love, nurture and time investment from fantastic parents. How about Jamie’s dream parent School – get the parents of these youngsters with potential and teach them how to do a good job?

Just a thought, channel 4?

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Young is wasted on the Youth

As a mild-mannered individual, there’s really very little that winds me up. There’s a whole raft of little niggles; people who describe sportsmen/sporting acts as ‘world class’ and people who look at the desserts first on a menu are just two, but I can live with that, and apart from the involuntary curl of the top lip, these gripes tend to pass me by.

I watched a little of the ‘Toby Young sets up a Free School’ programme last week, and despite the fact that I was only half watching, the man and his ideals really grated with me. The premise was that Toby (restaurant critic and occasional columnist/minor reality TV channel 5-based celebrity) had suddently become impassioned with the need to challenge the British education system, and felt that the Free Schools programme was the way to do this. In case you weren’t aware, the idea behind Free Schools is that anyone can set up a School, so long as they make their bid to the Government, have a building, a curriculum and some teachers. They are supposed to be ‘all-ability, state-funded Schools set up as a result of parental demand’. This is a classic example of the ‘idea that sounds good when sold to the man on the street’, but is in fact so flawed as to be laughable. It’s a bit like the Labour ideal of 50% of people going to university, which sounds good until you realise that there aren’t any more good jobs out there than before, except now people are required to get into heavy debt gaining meaningless degrees from the university of Luton before they are able to get out into the work place and get the same job/earn the same amount of money as they would have done before their 3 year life hiatus.

Anyway, Toby’s point was that education has lost its way. Fair enough; in many ways it has. We could attack grade inflation, oversized classrooms, untrained teachers, the irrelevance of parts od the National Curriculum. Unfortunately, in the most myopic way possible, he decided that the reason it had lost its way could essentially be summed up by his own experience, which involved being un-motivated by teachers (no word of his own or his parents’ responsibility), and achieving no real grades at all. Now most people would have said at this point that if the teachers were not motivating, we should look to either swap the teachers we have (not realistic) or invest money in making the teachers we have better (realistic, relatively cheap and emintently sensible). Incidentally, Toby, this is where the real problem lies, in the lack of quality in some areas of the teaching profession, and the lack of structure in the homes of many young people.

This may not have made such good TV however, so Toby’s point was that we needed to re-structure the curriculum so that there was more rigour, and this included harking back to what he called a ‘classical education’. Not sure if he knew what he meant by this, but it enabled him to sound knowledgable from behind his spcs. This also sounded suspiciously like the curriculum that a middle-aged man who had ballsed up his School career would like to go back to School to study, but this may be due to the fact that Toby has no experience of Schools, teaching, the education process, motivation of young minds or any research into what actually makes pupils want to learn.

No-one would ever allow the public to set up their own defence academies, or their own hospitals, thinking that having a passion and a misguided sense of what was wrong with the MOD or NHS would be a sensible idea, though with education it seems fair game. It’s the equivalent of that bloke in the pub who spends all his time criticising the England team, claiming to anyone who will listen that all we need are ‘real Englishmen with passion’. His pub team?

I did think that I might have been a bit harsh on Toby, so I went to his Free School website, which has a 7 minute clip of him on the homepage. This was his chance to change my mind, to prove to me that it was the education of the nation that he really cared about, rather than keeping his TV career away from channel 5. ‘Motivation…classical curriculum…soundbite…soundbite…3 minute story about arriving in the wrong Welsh village…end’. Toby, drop me an email, and I’ll speak to you about education. It’s something I know about. You can then tell me all about celebrity come dine with me, which is something you know about. Let’s not move too far outside our respective spheres of expertise.