Why state schools fail

This morning, I read two newspaper articles from opposite sides of the world and in papers with conflicting political perspectives. I was struck by what they had in common. Both were describing state schools and both contained elements that I recognised from my own experience both as a student and as a teacher.

Chris Fotinopoulos wrote a piece in The Age where he explained why he had reluctantly decided to move from teaching in the state sector to an independent school. Part of the issue is one of funding. There was a recent review in Australia – the Gonski review – that suggested increasing the amount of money going to state schools. The government at the time agreed with the findings and put a plan in place. It now looks like this barely enacted plan will be axed by a different government due to its cost. It is worth pointing out that Australia has an unusual system where independent schools are subsidised by the federal government and many think this is unfair when state schools are struggling to get by. The suggestion is that some of this money could be redistributed to fund Gonski.

Connected to this, Fotinopoulos raises the issue of poor behaviour. Needy kids come from poorer homes and many middle class parents opt out of the state system to avoid having their children’s education thwarted by the disruption caused by these students. Children from deprived backgrounds require extra funding that is not forthcoming.

And Fotinopoulos makes a pretty strong claim: behaviour is so bad in many state schools that teachers seek promotion in order to escape classrooms that are difficult to manage. It’s an odd thought. You might imagine senior managers would spend more time dealing with the most difficult behaviour. Certainly, the most effective whole-school behavior policies that I have seen and been involved with in state schools require a lot from senior staff.

I then read a piece in The Telegraph by Zoe Brennan. Ostensibly, it is a call for streaming in state schools. I disagree with this conclusion – streaming is too fixed for my liking. I am not against ‘setting’ where groups are set up in different subject areas according to students’ prior knowledge although it is a difficult area in terms of evidence – basically, robust evidence is lacking. I can see the practical advantages of setting provided that less able groups don’t go to new teachers and heads of department get all the more able ones. However, streaming is rigid; students are together in the same band for all of their subjects and there is little prospect of movement from one to another. I’m not keen on that.

When Brennan outlines her case, she draws upon her own experience from a flagship comprehensive in 1980s London. There were low expectations and behaviour problems that impacted on learning. At Pimlico Comprehensive, “teaching was delivered in mixed-ability classes in a permanent atmosphere of chaos. Some pupils were unable to read or write, instead disrupting the class.”

And so, from a distance of 30 years and 17,000 kilometres, we read about exactly the same problem.

Part of this is caused by the fact that our schools have failed on a very basic level. Many students in mixed ability state school classes who are unable to read and write would benefit from expensive intervention that funding such as Gonski might provide. However, I wonder how many needs could have been addressed earlier by giving children good, explicit instruction in the basics. Instead of parking the ambulances at the base of the cliff it might be easier to build a fence at the top of it.

Yet state schools have inflicted airy-fairy notions about maths teaching and whole language reading instruction on these students, the most needy. As the Snow et. al. report for the U.S. department of education makes clear:

“…not all interventions are equal. The amount of improvement in word-reading skill appears to be associated with the degree of explicitness in the instructional method. Furthermore, children with higher phonological processing scores at the beginning of the year demonstrated greater improvement in word-reading skills in all instructional groups. Explicit instruction in the alphabetic principle was more effective with children who began the year doing poorly in phonological processing.”

Flawed teaching methods disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. This directly leads to educational failure and class disruption by frustrated students.

But the elephant in the room is also the inability to effectively manage the poor behaviour that results both from this process and the myriad other factors that impact on students from all backgrounds. Plan A was that if modern, progressive, right-thinking pedagogies and mixed ability teaching were adopted then students would be engaged, enjoy school and the behaviour would sort itself out. There was no Plan B.

Brennan talks of students screaming ‘fight, fight, fight’ and setting fire to bins on unpoliced concourses. I wrote about my own experiences in a state school in my recent ebook but I didn’t go into the details of the behaviour. Suffice it to say that despite the school being in the process of turning itself around, I recognise this scene. There was a gap between two of the blocks at my school that you could not pass through at lunch time for fear of having a cigarette stubbed-out on your hand. In the middle of lunch. In the middle of a school.

As a teacher, I also had the opportunity to help turn around a challenging state school. We relentlessly focused on behaviour. If you want students to learn, first make sure that they are safe. It’s a simple idea.

I will always be in favour of increasing funding to state schools. However, I note that this happened after 1997 in England. It started out well with numeracy and literacy based interventions and a focus on assessment for learning. Over time, it morphed. The money was used to pay for consultants who offered little. The government focus shifted from the prosaic to ‘personal learning and thinking skills’ and ‘social and emotional learning’. Schools adopted strange whole-school initiative such as Building Learning Power. Money was sucked into fads and fashions.

I can see why this happens. But sometimes we need to focus our efforts on fixing the foundations rather than dressing the windows.

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2 Comments on “Why state schools fail”

  1. Gonski = spending more money on the policies that aren’t working currently.

    Your solution is correct, and might be summarised as:
    1) teach kids properly right from the start
    2) expect poor kids to behave in class and follow instructions, just as middle-class kids in “good” school are expected to.


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