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My Dream School: Part 2

November 21, 2007

Dr Goodscholar puts down her cup of coffee to welcome me into her office. She looks like image of middle-aged intellectual respectability, as she peers over her half-moon glasses. Her office is decorated with posters and paintings showing images of the classical world. I consider that a good starting point:

“Can I ask why does a boys’ comprehensive in one of the poorest areas of the country teach Latin and Greek? Wouldn’t Modern Foreign Languages be more usual?”

She smiles, although her eyes show some impatience, as if she’s been asked this question many times before.

“We do teach Modern Foreign Languages. In fact we enter more students for French, Spanish and Punjabi GCSE than any of our neighbouring schools, far more than we enter for qualifications in Latin or Greek. We don’t believe that every boy will benefit from a classical education. Only those in the top stream, those who will be attending a good university would benefit. I’d hate to think that the doctors, academics, teachers and clergy of the future would be without the benefit of being able to read Plato, Aristotle, The Vulgate or the New Testament in their original form.” She shudders at the thought of an insane world where academics and professionals are ignorant of even the basic cornerstones of western civilisation, then continues:

“The aim of our curriculum is to stretch the most able, while ensuring that all have the most intensive academic education possible.”

“Shouldn’t you be providing vocational education? Not every child is academic”

“Vocational education?” she exclaimed “Does this look like a factory to you? Do you think we are training car-fitters or hairdressers? We are a school we are here to educate, not train.”

“Surely that can’t be appropriate for all the boys? Surely the academically weak would be better off learning a trade?”

“Why? Do you want your gas-pipes fitted by an illiterate? Do you want your restaurant meal cooked by somebody who can’t convert Fahrenheit to Centigrade or understand how germs spread? We do help place some students in college courses where they can learn a trade. But while they are in the school the emphasis is on learning to read, write, calculate and appreciate the best of human knowledge and this nation’s culture. Those who are academically weakest are given the most extensive training in English and maths. That’s how they stop being the academically weakest.”

“There must be pressure to find less academic pathways for them”

“Of course there is. Not a week goes by without some fool suggesting the illiterate and innumerate can become the next generation of skilled craftsman without going through the agony of becoming functional adults first. But whenever somebody does suggest this to me I ask them if they would be prepared to let their own children leave school unable to write or do simple maths and not one of them has said “yes”. Vocational education is something people only advocate for the children of others. Now come on, I’ll show you why this school gets the grades it does.”

I am led back outside to the corridor. The school’s Faculty of Letters comprises of the departments of English, languages and classics. Dr Goodscholar indicates a classroom from which I can hear the voice of boys chanting verb conjugations. As we glance in the back of the classroom I am surprised to see students sat at individual desks focused on a seated teacher who is leading them:

“Je aie. Tu aies. Il ait. Nous ayons. Vous ayez. Ils aient.”

“It likes like something from another era”, I say. “It’s what I’d expect to see in a Victorian classroom”.

“An era where boys able to quickly master many languages were needed in order to run an empire. We might not have an empire now but I see no reason why we should aspire to teach them how to order an ice cream rather than identify and use all parts of speech.”

Dr Goodscholar then leads me through to the Humanities faculty. A sign declares that we are in is the department of theology and religion. I can’t help but notice as I glance into the classrooms the diverse nature of those teaching the classes, an Asian woman in a veil teaching stood in front of a board displaying key words from Islam, a tall black man with a booming African voice declaring loudly on the doctrine of the Trinity, a Sikh man in another classroom, and one teacher whose accent, beard and dress strongly suggest he might be a Rabbi. Dr Goodscholar realises what I have noticed:

“It is our philosophy that nobody ever learnt to understand a religion from somebody who doesn’t believe it themselves. We don’t expect anybody to teach about a religion other than their own.”

“Isn’t that hard to organise?”

“Yes. But we’d rather make that effort than waste our boys’ times being taught lists of festivals or colouring in pictures of deities they can’t even name.”

In all the classrooms I see boys are sat at individual desks facing the teacher who is stood or sat at the front. At first it seems that, except for those silent classrooms where boys are doing written work, in every lesson the boys are being lectured by their teachers. It is only after I linger outside a history lesson that I realise that many of the teachers aren’t giving lectures, they are answering questions. I hear one boy asking what effect religious upheaval had on the general population of England, and another ask about Shakespeare’s religious allegiances. Their teacher answers both questions in detail, clearly talking from extensive personal expertise.

We leave the Humanities faculty, (I ask if there are any Geography lessons but I am informed that the school doesn’t consider it to be a proper subject) and walk through the Faculty of Mathematics and Science. I notice that a lot classes seem to contain a large mix of ages.

“We try to set as far as possible by ability rather than age in most of the core subjects. There are exceptions, we find that it helps to have a certain amount of maturity to cope with particular topics, but on the whole we see no reason to hold students back on grounds of age.”

Suddenly the sound of year 10 arriving to my lesson awakes me from my dream. The Oldandrew Academy and its academic ethos fades back into the recesses of my mind as the crowd of students forming around my desk bring me back to reality with their abrasive greetings:

“Why do you have to be here? I hate this lesson?”

“Gimme a pen!”
“Why do we always have to do work in this lesson?”
“Gimme a pen!”
“Are we going to have a fun lesson?”
“Gimme a pen!”
“Where’s my book. You’ve lost my book. I can’t do any work if you’ve lost my book”
“Gimme a pen!”

“Can I sit next to Jordan?”
“Gimme a pen!”
“Why did you give me a detention, I’m not doing it?”
“Gimme a pen!”
“None of the other teachers make us do work every lesson.”

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40 comments

  1. Three years ago I worked on a Yoof project with two lads. One had a first in Maths from Oxford. The second was an illiterate, uneducated labourer from Plymouth. I know which one I’d rather get to plumb in my gas pipes.

    I know you created her but do you actually subscribe to the philosophy of this Dr Goodscholar? (is she perchance related to Professor Can’t-Changealightbulb?) If so then I’m concerned about your grip on reality dear boy. Perhaps you’ve spent too much time reading Plato, Aristotle, The Vulgate or the New Testament in their original form. I, intellectual midget as I am, don’t even know what the Vulgate is!! But why? they said me had learned good.

    Also I apologise in advance for this next bit, I am but a simple pedant:

    “Only those in the top stream, whose who will be attending a good university.”

    Do you mean those or who’s? If the latter then perhaps you really are better off in the private sector.


  2. “I know you created her but do you actually subscribe to the philosophy of this Dr Goodscholar?”

    Yes.

    “(is she perchance related to Professor Can’t-Changealightbulb?) If so then I’m concerned about your grip on reality dear boy. Perhaps you’ve spent too much time reading Plato, Aristotle, The Vulgate or the New Testament in their original form.”

    I haven’t. The bog standard comprehensive I went to did teach me Latin (they phased it out the following year) but by that point they’d dumbed it down to the point where we didn’t memorise conjugations or translate from English to Latin and as a result I have nowhere near the fluency necessary to read anything much.

    However, I do not fear that further education in the classics would have done me any harm.

    People love to suggest that academic learning is some kind of obstacle to practical common sense. “Book -learning” is somehow worthless compared with street smarts. Yet somehow the best educated still get the best jobs. Somehow those who get into the more traditional educational institutions still do better in life.

    My case is quite simple: Stop dumbing it down. Reclaim the brain. We now have a ludicrous situation where rigorous physical exercise is seen as necessary for soundness of body, but soundness of mind is meant to be created by avoiding rigorous mental exercise. Novelty and comfort are seen as the ideal attributes of intellectual activity. We seem more worried about obese bodies than obese minds.


  3. I hope with the removal of Geography from the timetable other non-subjects have also fallen. Such as Drama, Theatre Studies, Media Studies, Business Studies, Sociology, Dance, Pe as a G.C.S.E. to name a few.


  4. You appear to have forgotten PSHE.


  5. You’ve also forgotten health and social care (what your parents should have taught you) and travel and tourism (dumbed down geography), which should be dropped from all schools.


  6. Citizenship also springs to mind.


  7. I too learned Latin in a bog standard comp and got to a very good university. Not sure I would be so lucky these days. I would like to go and work in that school … ah, dreams.


  8. You can become a doctor and other such earners without knowing any obscure language.
    We always regarded Latin and the arts in general as make-work for people who wanted to be intellectuals but not actually work.


  9. How did I forget “making baby” studies (Health and Social Care), at our school we have not had one pupil get pregnant who was not studying that subject at G.C.S.E. or A-Level.


  10. “You can become a doctor and other such earners without knowing any obscure language.”

    Latin and Greek are obscure?

    Why am I suddenly reminded of the following exchange from my favourite episode of the Simpsons:

    “(Bart leading the family in grace before dinner, blesses himself)
    Bart: (in Latin) In nomine Patri, et fili et spiritus sancti
    Homer: Bart, what the hell did you say?
    Lisa: That’s Latin, Dad. The language of Plutarch.
    Homer: Mickey Mouse’s dog?”

    Which is only slightly spoilt by the fact Plutarch wrote in Greek.

    Apart from this you appear to be suggesting that people should only be taught the minimum that they will need for their profession, and not obscure things like the roots of Western civilisation. Can I suggest that this attitude is what has got us into this mess in the first place?

    “We always regarded Latin and the arts in general as make-work for people who wanted to be intellectuals but not actually work.”

    You’ll forgive me if I’m not cheered at the thought of people congratulating themselves over their own ignorance. Who was it that claimed that real wisdom lay in appreciating what you don’t know?

    Oh, it was Socrates, so I guess you missed out on that bit too.


  11. Lovely dream, Andrew. I have to say though, I’m glad it will remain a dream. Incidentally, will there also be a lesson in principles supporting atheism, or will science and common sense take care of that, as they do now?


  12. “Incidentally, will there also be a lesson in principles supporting atheism, or will science and common sense take care of that, as they do now?”

    I never quite get how half the time internet-atheists tell me that atheism isn’t a belief-system or a faith, and is just a rejection of belief in God and the other half of the time they claim it has distinct principles and should have parity with the religious faiths.

    Anyway, I would suggest that atheist belief systems (and indeed atheist religions) should be taught in RE in the same way as I have advicated for other beliefs: by people who believe in them and on the basis of how they reflect the faiths in the school’s community.

    I wouldn’t advocate inviting somebody in to slag off all religions anymore than we need to balance French lessons with somebody coming in to slag off the French. Religious Education should be about learning what people believe in the culture in which you are located, not what they don’t believe. If you want to hold that all such beliefs are at odds with science and common sense and to be ignored then feel free. However, I’ll treat that suggestion the same way as I do the suggestion that teaching algebra, Shakespeare, languages or classics is a waste of time, as another excuse for enforced ignorance.


  13. Likewise, I will never understand why the God-botherers assume that religion is important enough to be studied alongside other subjects and expect the rest of us to shut up and accept it. It is an irrelevance to most people – why must we validate it by having it in schools? Teach philosophy, perhaps, with some (objective) study of religion as part of that; but religion as a subject has no place in schools (well, not state schools, anyway.)


  14. Oh – good blog, by the way! Descriptions of life in the lower reaches of the educational swamp are horribly accurate.


  15. “Likewise, I will never understand why the God-botherers assume that religion is important enough to be studied alongside other subjects and expect the rest of us to shut up and accept it.”

    I’m trying to decide whether this argument most reminds me of one of those Marxist historians who decides it’s not worth studying powerful historical figures or ultra-conservative religious groups who try and ban sex education.

    An ideological hostility to something does not justify removing it from the curriculum. Until I look at a world where there is no conflict or prejudice based on misunderstandings of other people’s beliefs, until nobody makes basic category errors when discussing religion, until religious tendencies are absent from human nature, until I see nobody grasping bizarre ahistorical conspiracy theories to account for the history of religions then the academic study of religions is important.

    “It is an irrelevance to most people – why must we validate it by having it in schools?”

    There are more religious people in the world than there ever were. Even as a member of a very irreligious class of a very irreligious country you should notice that religions of those around you have an effect on your life.

    Anti-theists saying “let’s not mention religion” are like Victorians saying “let’s not mention sex” or Communist leaders claiming that nobody desires status or wealth in their nation. Innate qualities of human beings (like sexual desire, status-seeking, or spirituality) don’t go away because people don’t mention them.

    Monks have the honesty to admit that lust and acquisitiveness have to be resisted. Most pacifists are quite willing to admit that aggression is a natural human instinct. The danger comes in trying to write off things that exist in all cultures, and are common in most cultures, as an irrelevance. When it comes to human nature throwing parts of it out of the door just sees them coming back in through the windows. We don’t see Victorian England as having a healthy attitude to sex or Soviet Russia as having a healthy attitude to aspiration. We won’t see a country where religion is taboo as any healthier.


  16. Who said it should be taboo? I said it shouldn’t be taking up curriculum time. There is a rather enormous, and rather obvious, difference there.


  17. “Who said it should be taboo? I said it shouldn’t be taking up curriculum time.”

    If something is a major part of life (for many people central) and doesn’t appear in the school curriculum because some people would rather children never found out about it, then I consider that to be a taboo.

    Remember that even the physical processes involved in going to the toilet appear in the science curriculum.


  18. You may well consider it to be a taboo, but you’re wrong. I have no desire to stop anyone discussing religion or worshipping their God, nor to remove religion from public discourse; I just don’t think it needs to be on a school curriculum. Any amount of hobbies are at the centre of people’s lives. You don’t need to humour them by having it on the curriculum. More people watch TV than attend church, and it’s clearly an important part of many people’s life. We don’t have compulsory TV studies. Is TV taboo?


  19. “More people watch TV than attend church, and it’s clearly an important part of many people’s life. We don’t have compulsory TV studies. Is TV taboo?”

    Actually we do have units about the media as a part of PSHE, and there’s also bits of English that seem to be about television. That’s without the optional subject of media studies.

    And with regard to taboo, then it certainly seems like a taboo if we are willing to learn the history and geography of many different peoples (not to mention the languages and literature of a select few) but not about their religions. To strike out important information about our culture and other cultures certainly strikes me as enforcing a taboo. It also strikes me as dangerous at a time when ignorance and prejudice is so widespread.


  20. Yes, we do have BITS about TV. Lets have BITS about religion, if it’s deemed necessary. The media have a bigger influence on life today than organised religion – let’s kick RE off the curriculum (keep it as an option in KS4, I guess) and introduce Media Studies as a compulsory subject throughout the school. Let’s teach students about the institutions which ACTUALLY shape the world they live in.

    And you are still (deliberately, I assume) misusing the word ‘taboo’. Nobody is trying to ban or silence anything or anyone.


  21. “The media have a bigger influence on life today than organised religion – let’s kick RE off the curriculum (keep it as an option in KS4, I guess) and introduce Media Studies as a compulsory subject throughout the school. Let’s teach students about the institutions which ACTUALLY shape the world they live in.”

    It was news to me that we aimed to teach about the institutions rather than the parts of life that the institutions relate to. RE isn’t specifically teaching about organised religion anymore than French lessons are about the Oxford French/English Dictionary, Economics lessons are about the Bank of England or Science lessons are about the Royal Society.

    I am not misusing “taboo”. If we pretend that religion is irrelevant when it is clearly one of the greatest forces in history and in the world today we clearly are suppressing the truth for our own comfort. Something a culture specifically avoids mentioning or acknowledging is a taboo no matter how you dress it up.

    You seem very willing to compare religion with the important things we don’t explicitly teach. How about looking at things we do teach? Are quadratic equations, the book “Hard Times” and the details of motte and bailey castles really more important to our lives than the religions in our culture?


  22. I would just like to add an unusual note of support: I would love a curriculum that involved plenty of book learning. I myself have learned everything that is most useful from the study of Greek Philosophy and the Classics.

    Making it palatable in a world that generally distrusts learning, however, would be hard.

    Regarding RE: it should definitely be taught, but not without including atheism as another perspective on religion. Also RE should be cross-cultural and take on a view of the whole world and throughout history to be valuable.


  23. a) I like your point about academic education. I see plenty of role for more vocational/practical stuff, but for everybody, not for a lower stream. (I wish I knew how to rewire a plug for instance, and I’d even trade all my knowledge – such as it is – of academic physics for that skill!)

    b) are you serious about the religion thing? After all, that means most people won’t have any religious education at all, nor know anything about what anybody else believes. I can’t think of any rationale for that.

    c) You talked about a top stream (or something like that). Would you really stream by ability across the board?

    (I’m trying to decide which post to have my go about mixed ability teaching on… still not decided!)


  24. My ideas about RE set out who would teach it, not who would learn it.

    I advocated setting by ability in most subjects. I even said it should replace teaching students in age groups. However, for timetabling purposes it might be necessary to identify a top stream for Latin and Greek.


  25. Ah right – I heard this proposal came up at the NUT conference this year, so you could be in luck! I’ve no particular objection to having specialists teach about their faiths, in that respect.

    I think ability setting is an evil to be avoided where possible (and I know this is where our greatest difference lies). I also concede it is an evil that is not always possible to avoid, and your subject may be one such place. But I don’t think it should ever be aspired to.

    It is not controversial educational theory to suggest that high-flying students achieve deep learning from teaching a subject (or, rather, explaining it to others) – nor is it especially controversial to suggest that all students learn better from their peers than they do from you or me (the problem is usually WHAT they are learning!) Therefore it is only slightly controversial to combine the two and say – where possible – mixed ability teaching, properly managed, offers the best chance to encourage the learning of the least able and stretch the most able. It can be problematic in some subjects when the distance is too vast (and that, I assume is why some setting is inevitable in the likes of Maths) but the problem is usually not the mixture of abilities, but the behaviour issue. But of course, taking the high-flyers out leaves those students who wish to work but struggle with those who aren’t fussed, further disadvantaging the former.

    Mixed ability teaching is very hard, and I’m by no means claiming to be great at it (indeed I’ve had students complain – normally too late for me to do anything about it – that I’ve pitched things too high for them, etc.) But it is better. Setting labels students, encourages bullying, division, bad behaviour (yes, it encourages bad behaviour) and is effectively selection under one roof – though it is better, in that regard, than streaming across the board.


  26. I’m sorry but saying something isn’t controversial doesn’t make that the case.

    Students (or indeed people generally) learn best by being directly taught by an expert teacher, not from interaction with their peers particularly, if those peers are at radically different ability levels.

    Mixed ability teaching isn’t “hard” it is impossible. Most books on how do it describe groupwork, discussion, separate activities, everything but actual teaching. It is impossible to stand in front of a class and simultaneously explain 5 different things.

    And please don’t tell me that setting encourages bullying and division. There is nothing worse for causing humiliation than putting in kids who can barely write their names in with high achievers. The most able often feel embarrassed to achieve, the least able feel humiliated by being unable to keep up.

    And finally, I’m no advocate of selection but we are in a disasterous situation if it becomes a “boo-word” that can be blindly applied to anything as a criticism. I would sooner have selection than universal mixed ability teaching, even if it meant I ended up teaching the rejected in a secondary modern. Mixed ability grouping is about dragging down high achievers while simultaneously demotivating the weakest. it is usually done because the time-tablers don’t have the brains to group people any other way and because it helps bad teachers off the hook of having to advance all their classes rather than just the median child.


  27. That is enormously unimaginative. And wrong.


  28. I have no worry about being thought of as unimaginative. I’m not into reinventing the wheel, I’m more concerned with the people who are systematically pulling the wheels off of our education system.


  29. Have you a dream school for girls?


    • Pretty much the same but for girls.


      • So you’re not of the school (ha) that believes girls and boys need dramatically different approaches in terms of teaching and behaviour management? There is a big, big boost in my current school towards new methods of ‘boys’ education,’ as if it hasn’t been perfectly possible for hundreds of years to educate boys, and as if the modern education system is not in fact built on the foundations of one that educated boys almost exclusively. I’m a bit baffled by it sometimes. I don’t honestly see anything very feminised about listening, reading and writing.


        • Which part of “pretty much the same” didn’t you understand?


          • I did understand it. Perhaps it wasn’t clear enough that I was hoping you would explain your reasons. Is there an existing blog post in which you discuss the issue of co-ed or single-sex schooling, or the current trend for ‘boys’ education’? I tried a couple of searches on related terms but didn’t come up with anything, and I am interested in what you think about this topic.
            I certainly didn’t intend my comment to sound as if I was criticising what you wrote. I understand you do get a lot of critical comments so perhaps this influenced your reading of mine.


          • I haven’t really written anything about single sex schooling, it’s just that single sex schools are so massively over-represented amongst the most academically successful schools, and the promises that co-education would lead to better adjusted adults turned out to be so utterly false, that I can see no reason to continue with bisexual schooling.


          • i quite like the idea of a school for bisexuality…. doubles your chances of pulling doesnt it?


          • Sssssh!
            I wanted to see if anybody would reply without noticing what I said.


  30. I have worked in a variety of schools and have been part of mixed ability set ups and setting/streaming approaches.

    The truth is, even in setted classes, there is still a degree of mixed ability teaching and the teacher has to take account of this.

    In my view ‘true’ mixed ability teaching e.g. a GCSE class which has a variety of A*- G level students is only possible with very small classes and teaching assisstant help in a school which has excellent ethos and discipline. Otherwise it is grossly unfair on all students.

    Setting generally is a far superior method.

    Olandrew is bang on the money when he speaks of humilation within classes. Students are keenly aware of their relative abilities. Putting a F student on a table with an A student causes mutual resentment. It amplifies the F student’s shortcomings in a peer group situation whilst the A student feels stifled and short changed. Both feel patronised.

    Imagine if you joined an adult education class in say, conversational French and as a novice you were in a class of expert linguists who had paid money for expert tuition? Who would be happy in that scenario? Who would feel happy as they stumbled over simple attempts to ‘ask the time’ whilst advanced students sat and secretly sneered. Any takers?

    Sometimes the ‘bleeding obvious’ is very much the best way forward.


    • I’d agree with you there. I would, generally, like to have much smaller classes to make it easier for teachers to get into depth with each student. There is so much talk about differentiation and individual learning pathways (I’m speaking from a New Zealand secondary school perspective) with very little recognition of how difficult this is to actually do when you have five or six classes of about thirty students each. How can you possibly know sufficient detail about each student’s strengths and weaknesses to set them appropriate work, and to give meaningful feedback on said work? You can’t, and so we keep doing the same lockstep work, teaching to the middle, instead of being able to make sure individuals make up their deficits and extend their best abilities.
      On top of that, we still give internal assessments at the same time for everyone in a class, instead of when the individual student is actually ready to be tested on that knowledge and those skills, and so we get endless repetition of assessments that some students hadn’t a chance of passing the first time, and they feel dumber and get more disgruntled each time.
      Most of the time I find that my classes have a broad middle band of skill and ability, and then one or two students who excel and could learn more if I just set them to read classic novels and write response essays about them, and then, oh then, students who are hopelessly unequipped to take part in any class at this level. Foreign students, some of them refugees, who don’t understand half of what I say. Many of them diligently try to do what they THINK the work is, and their little faces are so sad when they get poor marks because they haven’t remotely understood what they were meant to do. I try, along with teaching the rest of the class and attempting to control the behaviour of the noisy, inconsiderate ones, to spend time with these students and check that they understand, but many of them don’t even have the frame of reference to do a simplified, adapted version of the work the rest of the class is on.
      They would learn so, SO much more if they were in a small class with other students on their own level, and their teachers focused exclusively on bringing their English skills up to speed.
      Gee I feel better after venting that.


  31. J’aie not je aie ! Love it!


  32. Just stumbled across your blog, Old Andrew, and enjoying every post. Also, yay thread necromancy!

    @ John Cramer:

    “We always regarded Latin and the arts in general as make-work for people who wanted to be intellectuals but not actually work.”

    The idea that someone could learn a new language without actually working is one which strikes me as rather amusing.

    @ MrR:

    “Any amount of hobbies are at the centre of people’s lives.”

    If you seriously think of religion as just a “hobby”, you probably need a bit of religious education yourself.



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