Philip returns to class for a new perspective

Philip spent the summer recess with teachers gaining a teacher's perspective of what needs to be done to improve education.

I have always believed that in any walk of life the people who know best about what should be done are the people who are doing it on the ground or in the case of schools, those at the chalk face. They are the ones who can see at first hand what is working and what is going wrong.

One of the main problems with many politicians is that they set themselves up as leading authorities on every issue. I would prefer to learn from the real experts.

Last year I spent 30 days working as a Police Officer and as a result got a tremendous insight into a Police perspective in tackling crime.

I therefore thought that I would spend some time during the Summer Recess shadowing teachers to get a teachers' perspective of what needs to be done to improve education standards in the country and I spent a week at Bingley Grammar School thanks to the agreement of the Headmaster.

I should make it clear that I was tremendously impressed with the school, the behaviour of the pupils and the quality of teaching which was outstanding. The issues which I believe need to be looked at are not a reflection on Bingley Grammar School itself, but issues which are probably more relevant at other schools.

It also has to be said that, unlike the Police where there was a huge amount of common ground among Officers about what needed to be done to tackle crime, there is no consensus amongst teachers. Indeed if you were to ask 10 different teachers what should be done in schools you could expect to receive 10 conflicting answers.

However below are the top five issues I believe the government should concentrate on to improve education which I have based on the opinions of some teachers, my observations and analysis, although these are by no means necessarily issues at Bingley Grammar School.

1) Discipline

It seems clear that the most essential ingredient for a successful school is good discipline, something with which many schools seem to struggle. I was hugely impressed with the discipline at Bingley Grammar School, and I believe many schools could learn from their example.

They have introduced a system of "positive discipline". This combines a carrot and stick approach. Credit stamps are given liberally to pupils for good contributions and clear penalties are given for poor behaviour starting from a verbal warning to an official comment being written down. 3 comments from the same teacher leads to a detention with a day in isolation the next sanction up. Each year the school has a trip to Alton Towers, with those pupils who have been in isolation the only ones missing out.

The school also employs 2 Behaviour Managers, retired Police Officers who can investigate any reports of bad behaviour or bullying to ensure the culprits are caught and properly punished. I was very impressed with the work they do as were the teachers, including those who were initially sceptical about the initiative.

Clearly Bingley Grammar School is better than a typical comprehensive school, particularly those in inner city areas, and has a better catchment of pupils than most, but I believe other schools could learn from the way Bingley Grammar School deals with discipline. Education Bradford locally and the Education Department nationally could do much more to spread good practice.

It is also essential that schools are supported when dealing with discipline issues, particularly with expulsions which is always a last resort. Local Authority appeals panels should not be able to undermine schools by reinstating pupils the schools have expelled, and schools should not be so harshly penalised financially for getting rid of a persistent troublemaker.

Parents also need to support schools in being firm with discipline, and not undermine their efforts by coming into school and complaining about the punishment given to their child.

Whilst parental choice of schools is a good thing, it should be the school itself which sets the ethos of the school. Parents who do not like that ethos should be encouraged to find a school which they do like rather than undermining what the school is doing.

I believe it is the ethos of the school and the discipline which is the single biggest factor in people sending their children to be educated privately, and much of this involves things which cost no money at all. Pupils showing respect by standing up when any adult walks into the room or primary schools having the children shaking hands with the teacher on their way out at the end of the day are things which routinely happen in fee paying schools and I think state schools could learn things from them.

2) Standards

Whilst standards at Bingley Grammar School are much higher than the average for schools in the Bradford District, I did come across some worrying evidence regarding standards. I hasten to add that these standards were through no fault of Bingley Grammar School.

For example I spent a lesson with the (admittedly) bottom set of maths for year 7; students who had only just come up to the school from primary school.

About half a dozen of these pupils, 11 years old, did not know the difference between an odd number and an even number. I found it worrying that pupils could go through 6 years of primary school without learning this basic information. These children were not disruptive; they were attentive and well behaved but did not know this information. I do wonder what secondary schools are supposed to do faced with pupils coming to them without basic literacy and numeracy skills, and therefore do support David Cameron's view that such pupils should be held back for an extra year at Primary School. Given that this was the case at a good school like Bingley Grammar School, with a good catchment area, one has to wonder how many pupils have the same difficulties in some other schools across the district.

There was also some evidence of dumbing down of standards. Teachers were particularly scathing about some initiatives such as 21st Century Science which it seems students need very little (if any) science knowledge to pass. It may suit government statistics to downgrade subjects in this way, but it does nothing to improve standards of education.

3) Tables/Targets

The most radical change in opinion I developed during the week was on the issue of school league tables. Having started the week as a strong supporter of league tables, I am now at best ambivalent about them and perhaps even hostile towards them.

Of course I believe in parental choice, and in parents being able to make an informed choice about the school to send their children to. However I am not even sure how important league tables are for that. Most people have a pretty good idea which schools locally are good and bad without reference to league tables, and parents do talk to each other. The Government does not need to produce a league table of supermarkets for shoppers to know which are the best or cheapest, and I don't think league tables add a great deal to what parents already know.

There is however a very damaging culture which league tables (like other public sector targets) have entrenched and encouraged. Because of league tables, schools have had to become focused on ensuring the percentage of pupils who get grades A-C is as high as possible as that is how they are measured. People may think this is a good thing. However, put yourself in the shoes of a headteacher faced with this target and it is clear why it causes a problem for the strongest pupils and the weakest.

This target culture means that schools need not worry about the high-flyers as they are virtually guaranteed to get an A-C without the school having to concentrate on them. Consequently they are not stretched as much as their talent deserves and they suffer as a consequence.

As for the very weakest, schools can recognise fairly quickly which pupils are the ones who have no chance at all of gaining an A-C grade and so there is no incentive for the schools to ensure they do as well as they can if they cannot get a C grade.

Consequently the ceiling in schools is being lowered for many pupils and the floor is being lowered as well.

The only group of pupils who benefit from the league tables/target culture are those who are on the borderline of getting a C or a D. Every resource will be thrown at these students to ensure they get a C rather than a D. Whilst this band of students benefit from the league table obsession, this cannot be a sensible way to run an education system.

4) Single sex education

Bingley Grammar School conducted a trial of single sex classes for GCSE Science last year with surprising results. The trial was introduced as it was felt that it would benefit the girls as it was thought they were being held back by having boys in the class.

However the girls didn't improve their performance at all, although they didn't suffer. It was the boys who really flourished and their performance improved considerably. Given the concern about the poor performance of boys compared with girls in schools across the country, I think more single sex classes and single sex schools should be introduced across the country.

5) Funding

Although many of the issues I have discussed above can be resolved without (or with little) extra funding, there is an inequitous funding situation which needs addressing, with vast amounts of money being spent in areas of high deprivation at the expense of schools in less deprived areas like Bingley. Schools like Bingley Grammar School could be real flagship schools in places like Bradford but are held back by the current funding formula, a further example of how the ceiling is being lowered.

I am extremely grateful to the staff and pupils at Bingley Grammar School who made me extremely welcome and were very open with me. I witnessed some inspirational teaching, dedicated staff and well behaved students. I suspect Bingley Grammar School is not a typical school, and perhaps schools could do more to learn from best practice elsewhere. If all schools had the same ethos and standards as Bingley Grammar School, I would be extremely happy. I think the areas I have highlighted would improve the morale of teachers and make a real difference to standards in all our schools.