Half term allows you some time to emerge from the headteacher rollercoaster of meetings, observations, governors and the increasingly frenetic demands of the ‘Press’. Catching up on the raft of educational reading, reflecting on the ever-changing school priorities and watching some gentle films allows you to return to the human race.
The sassy, incorrigible American actress Bette Davis often cut through the waffle and would have made a very interesting Education Secretary. She once commented on less skilled actresses saying “The weak are the most treacherous of us all. They come to the strong and drain them.” She might have been talking about how the vulnerable in our British schools are viewed. Two contrasting news stories reflect the contradictory advice headteachers are being given. The Sutton Trust Summer Report damningly highlights the ‘Missing Talent’ of our white working class, with over a third of boys in the top 10% at primary school dramatically falling outside the top 25% by age 16. Children who grow up in poor homes have half as much chance as those from other families is the pessimistic, unsurprising storyline. This is born out in workbooks I look at which show I have two different schools. Boys’ books are generally unkempt, show a lack of pride in their work and subsequently their results are 10% below those of the girls. Yet they receive 90% of the questions from teachers which is exasperating for a father of two articulate daughters. Boys always seem to demand our attention and at times we are not offering them the right curriculum. Sticking their best piece of writing in their student planner has been one small step in insisting that quality written work is a non-negotiable for all subjects, all of the time. Insisting on correct oracy with no ‘man that’s sick’ and other Americanisms has helped.
The second unrelated story was the number of fines given to parents for taking their children on holiday in term time, trebling to an astronomic 50,414. That is 50,414 parents who have fallen out with their child’s school and whose message will differ from that of the school; often a cheaper family holiday is valued more than a week at school.
Once again, I feel schools are given a variety of mixed messages that need unpicking. Good education can and does open doors and so students need to value education and be at school. We decry the lack of family values and fine families for taking children on a family holiday yet we allow travel firms to hike their prices for the peak periods. We tell our bright working class boys to value education, yet provide them with an alien academic curriculum that devalues education as simply something to get through. Schools are then surprised when they are criticised for sending young people into the world of work with an obvious skills deficit. In Britain we have to start trusting school leaders, trust them to get it right and they will.
If we want to create proper social justice, a system where some young people are not seen as a drain on schools because they do not fit into the limited curriculum that the EBacc offers, we need to change our curriculum offer. History or geography not sociology or RE is too simplistic a choice, which devalues key subjects at a time when schools are being asked to discuss radicalisation and human values. Arts and music are the core of what makes many schools vibrant, hopeful places. The GCSE is hard, demanding and a great preparation for future life; why side-line these subjects? It devalues the impact of EBacc and makes absolutely no sense. Have a range of GCSEs and trust in their worth is my plea.
I had the pleasure of welcoming Nicky Morgan to our newly opened sixth form in the week when she announced her hope that all schools would follow the formulaic, prescriptive EBacc route for 90% of students. I was able to promote my blog and the alternative view. Her response was illuminating, see my blog ‘When Nicky met Neil’ but she appears not to trust school leaders and this lack of trust will ensure that we continue to sway from one popular theory to another with no strategic overview of the curriculum required for our diverse population. Currently we are catering only for the academic literary child.
Therefore, if you create the right curriculum students will come to school and families will see value in education. Alternatively, we could put a diva such as Bette Davis in charge of education. I believe I am advocating the return of the Dark Lord – Michael Gove – more contradictions, more madness. I live in hope that Ms Morgan will ponder on some of the challenges for all our students and will have listened to our plea for a period of educational stability.