School Placement: Harvey the Ghost and Exam Life Skills

Originally Published January 2012

I spent this week observing lessons at a Coventy secondary school for the start of my teacher training. The school is in a relatively deprived area but is improving rapidly with a sense of optimism among the staff. 40% of the students are either SEN (Special Educational Needs) or EAL (English as an Additional Language) and the school is diverse in terms of ability, race and socio-economic background. Here are some conclusions I’ve come to so far from my limited experience.

Examinations harm education

In every lesson and every meeting exams dominate. Success in exams often consumes any other aspect of learning. Huge amounts of money are spent by the school and vast amounts of time is wasted on examination preparation, technique, criteria, rubric, predictions or assessments as actual learning becomes secondary. Teachers, who are passionate about their subject and about education, are constantly stifled. Students’ own learning is stunted, their interests closed down as teachers are forced to teach to the exam.

As long as league tables determine the life or death of schools I don’t see a way around this.

What is the point of education? If it is anything more than a protracted administration process, examinations are wholly inadequate and indeed, damaging. Exams are just so bleak, everyone hates them, they’re the main thing we remember about school, they don’t relate to anything in ‘real’ life and they’re fairly universally recognised as a pot-luck method of assessment. Everyone knows league tables are flawed and yet we bow to them slavishly. We force millions of students through endless exams only to give them disappointing grades or tell them that its all too easy anyway. How do we get students interested in learning? There’s no easy answer to this but examinations are certainly a hindrance. The education system in Finland seems to offer an interesting alternative.

Teachers care

The vast majority of teachers I’ve met over the last week care about their students and enjoy teaching. Many are in school by seven and work hours into the evening. Everyone I’ve spoken to is against becoming an academy (tenuous evidence and all). Yesterday Mr Gove suggested that people who oppose the academy program are “enemies of promise”, a particularly contemptible thing to say. The man who is meant to support teachers and build up schools yet again undermining the most important people in education to turn a quick political profit. He speaks of building up the professional image of teachers while characterising them as work-shy reactionaries. Of course levels of professionalism vary but the minister for education should surely be more constructive.

Education is about good relationships

Those teachers most able to help students are the best at developing good relationships with the students. They are also able to judge the appropriate balance between work and being friendly. The best teachers seem never to shout or provoke conflict but attempt to understand and solve problems.

Good schools pull in the same direction

It seems that in good schools the staff and students are working towards the same vision, otherwise they constantly undermine any individual positives. This comes down to leadership and strong management. Pulling in the same direction can be as simple as every teacher enforcing school rules consistently (no mobile phones in sight) or effective staff cooperation.

How do schools get better? Interestingly, the most improved academies are ones which replaced failing schools. It is therefore difficult to pin their success on academisation rather than the combined influx of new management, staff and money. Strong direction and purpose drives a good school, whether or not that school is an academy seems largely irrelevant.

Students are funny

They have ghosts called Harvey, cats called Basil, and hide 50kg of desiccated coconut in their wall space. And one of them does a really good impression of Boris Johnson.

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