Schools Don’t Have To Be Endured

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Last week’s Guardian featured a brilliant, scathing analysis of the colateral damage being heaped upon our education system by our current Secretary of State. It was written by Suzanne Moore and what made it so powerful is that you sensed she was speaking, not as a journalist, but as a deeply worried parent. Like the rest of us. Of course one woman’s personal polemic is another man’s (in this case Toby Young) ‘hysterical ill-informed rant‘.

Her argument was that Michael Gove is carrying out a far-reaching experiment on our kids, founded upon ideology, rather than evidence. She began with a parent’s familiar lament: forcing bored, tired kids to do pointless, meaningless homework. She went on to attack the dismissal of emotional intelligence, the loss of personal expression, and the erosion of arts subjects in state schools, while private schools still instill these qualities in their students.

Young countered by saying that setting pointless homework showed how bad state schools were, that ’emotional intelligence is balls’ and that there was no evidence to show that arts subjects were on the decline. I’ll leave it to you to decide who’s talking the most sense – though I find it hard to take lecture from a man who promotes the teaching of Latin, and rote learning in his free school, and essentially attempts to patronise Moore with a Winnerian ‘calm down, dear’.

It was left to Henry Stewart, posting on the Local Schools Network blog to put a more  balanced, evidence-based position forward. Stewart proved yet again that you can distort statistics, as Young had done, to tell you anything. It was all down to the spin you put on them. The overall impression however, from this discourse, is that it’s either standards, discpline and structures that matter, or that we should favour liberal arts over the exam factory mentality which currently pervades schooling.

I read all of this while taking a bunch of school leaders from the UK to the High Tech High schools in San Diego county. The leaders represented about a dozen of the new Studio Schools, originally set up by Labour’s Andrew Adonis, and subsequently praised by Michael Gove. Studio Schools have had Free School status forced upon them by the Department for Education, but that really isn’t the point. I believe that the box that a school is put in matters nowhere near as much as the teaching and learning that happens there. In that sense I take issue with the often knee-jerk reaction against the diversification of school models. Suzanne Moore might have thought it was a neat journalistic turn of phrase to dismiss academies and free schools as ‘madrassas for the middle classes’, but it’s not true: any new school has to become a free school, but that doesn’t make them the school of choice for the middle classes; equally, schools are applying to become academies, not becuase they want to improve results, or come under central control, but because there’s money in it.

I’ve closely followed, and worked with, Studio Schools for some time, and I know that they are working with many students that don’t fit into rigid, traditional schools. These are not middle-class misfits, just kids who get bored at school, and don’t see why they have to choose between the intellectual or vocational, hand or head.

But perhaps the most telling phrase in Moore’s piece was this: ‘Parents may be fooled by too much homework, dreadful uniforms and a few IT lessons, but look further please’. This, to me, goes to the heart of where we’ve lost our way. 

High Tech High schools are charter schools. That makes them neither good nor bad – just like free schools. It just allowed them to be. But what they do there should give all those who adopt ideological positions on education – on both the left and the right – pause for thought. Most visitors – over 3,000 a year – who go there are struck by absence of the overt imposition of discipline. No uniforms, no lesson bells,no lists of rules, no compulosry ‘busy work’ (their description of most homework) no segregated toilets, no forced ‘sir’ or ‘miss’ (teachers can choose how they wish to be addessed). Instead there is a mutual respect, and affection, between teacher and student. I’ve been there 5 times and I have yet to see anything resembling horseplay, or even raised voices among students.

Instead, here’s what I do see. 10 year-old students proudly describing how they learned about floatation, construction, density, and displacement, by building boats out of cardboard and taking them out into San Diego bay (every single boat sailed without a leak). I heard senior students descibe internships (work experience to Brits) where they were asked by lawers to pick holes in defence arguments before a trial, or sift films scripts in a Hollywood production house. When I asked this student if she wanted to work in movies, having had such a potentially starry experience, she said ‘no, I really want to do something worthwhile, I’m going to be a teacher’.  I heard of immigrant parents deeply moved by seeing themselves described by their children as ‘heroes’, in a literature project. I watched teachers enthusiastically planning their next projects with students – High Tech High believes in students learning through doing authentic, community-based projects. 

And everywhere I went I saw students and teachers excited about learning. Young people don’t do ‘busy work’, but come home to Skype their friends in order to make their projects work. Parents queue up in their hundreds to get in to critique the results of those projects – not to ask about target grades. Teachers relentlessly interrogate what makes ‘beautiful work’ (work that has depth, rigour and authenticity).

In case you think this is a ‘soft option’ for middle class kids from hipster Southern California, consider this: High Tech High has a high proportion of Hispanic kids for whom English is a second language (they’re 20 minutes from the Mexican border); they have a higher than average proportion of students reciving free school meals, or with special needs; their walls are covered in artwork, yet they have a higher than average number of students who go on to study science, technolgoy, engineering and maths at university. 

And here’s the clincher: in their 12 year existence over 80% of their students have completed a 4-year university degree, many of them first-in-family. These are astonishing numbers.

High Tech High is proof positive that it’s not either/or, sheep or goats. The Studio School leaders that I’ve accompanied this week will, I hope, go back to their schools committed to create relationships that don’t rely on strict discipline, but on mutual respect. They’ll get their students engaged in real-life meaningful projects, rather than rote learning, but not at the expense of skills over knowledge. They will demonstrate that students can be engaged and still achieve.

Our schools don’t have to be places where learning is endured, rather than enjoyed. It just takes vision and courage from school leaders, trust, with responsibility, in students, belief in the joy of learning from parents, and politicians who want the best for students, ahead of their own career advancement.

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