Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lazy, illiterate teachers, cynical heads who have given up, and pupils who treat them with contempt. A horrifying portrait of the British schools failing young boys

It's the most disturbing social issue of our age - why Britain is plagued by a generation of violent, barely literate young men living outside the normal bounds of society. For nine months, a leading investigative journalist has been examining their world for the Mail. Here, in the third part of our exclusive serialisation of her findings, she takes on our failing schools.

When Darren was 14, he became one of the bad boys. Barely able to read and write and unable to keep up in the classroom, he started truanting with nine other pupils who also felt school had nothing to offer but humiliation. Trashing bus shelters and stealing anything for kicks soon progressed to stealing in earnest when they discovered a fence in their small town in the Midlands. They'd have the wheels off a BMW and £100 in their pockets within the space of an hour. Then they moved into drugs, selling cocaine and ecstasy to the queues outside nightclubs.

Weren't they afraid of getting caught? Oh no, getting arrested was 'part of the game', said Darren, now 21. Half the time, the police would let them go; otherwise they'd usually get away with a £50 fine in the youth courts. Once, he remembered: 'Four or five of us were arrested three times in two weeks. In fact, Darren found himself at his local police station so often that he used to say breezily to the charging sergeant: 'No worries. I'll take myself down to the cells. I know which cell to go to.' The charging sergeant would shout after him: 'Don't forget to shut the door!'

Darren, however, doesn't have much to laugh about now: he may have given up crime, but he lives on benefits and can't get a job - despite being obviously bright. The wrong turning he took at 14, when he abandoned school, has probably wrecked his life. Even so, he's done better than his nine mates who arrived with him from primary school all barely able to read and write. Two of them are dead - one committed suicide in prison and the other smashed a stolen car into a bus shelter at 80mph. Two are serving long prison sentences - one for stabbing someone in the neck. The fifth is a 'very bad' alcoholic. Three now control the drug scene in the town. And Darren's closest friend, a gifted football player, is homeless, hooked on crack and weighing just 7st.

Why do so many boys from poor backgrounds go so catastrophically off the rails in their mid-teens? The trend in education and sociology circles is to point the finger at parents, violent DVDs or deprivation. What they never mention is school.

The link between illiteracy and delinquency is beyond doubt: when 14-year-old boys such as Darren and his friends can no longer keep up in class, they misbehave and often drop out.

Despite the Government's Literacy Hour and a massive increase in spending on schools, a third of all 14-year-olds have a reading age of 11 or below. One in five has a reading age of nine. This is an extraordinarily high level of failure. After all, learning to read is a routine business managed by countries a lot poorer than ours. Cuba, Estonia, Poland and Barbados, for example, all boast higher literacy rates than ours, despite spending far less on education. We wouldn't accept it if one in three everyday hospital operations ended in failure - so why do we accept it in our schools?

The age of 14 is when children are most likely to play truant, disrupt classes or face exclusion from school. And those most likely to do so are the black Caribbean and white working-class boys, who are, in turn, more likely to join gangs and terrorise their neighbourhoods.

To find out why this is happening, I spent nine months talking to black and white working-class teenagers from low-income families, as well as youth-club leaders, teachers, school inspectors and charities. The more I found out, the clearer it became that poor schools lie behind most of the statistics on crime, social disorder and drug abuse.

Educationalists argue that schools cannot compensate for the failings of society. But this is exactly what schools should be doing. School is our one opportunity at social engineering. It is our one chance of transforming the future of boys with chaotic home lives. Yet all over the country, schools are failing them - for reasons that could so easily be put right.

Certainly, for the majority of the boys I interviewed, school was part of the problem and not the solution. Most, such as Darren and his friends, hadn't been taught to read and write properly at primary school and were at best semi-literate. For such boys, their lives are all but finished before they have really begun. The effect on society is devastating, too: feral gangs roam our streets and many people are scared to leave their homes. How has this been allowed to happen?

At one comprehensive I visited, I was surprised to find the headmaster in a jubilant mood. Not because his pupils were doing particularly well - but because he'd just discovered a GCSE English exam that didn't require them to read a single poem or book. 'You have to be ahead of the game,' he told me. As far as he was concerned, he was perfectly justified in 'ducking and diving' between exam boards in a quest to increase the number of pupils scraping by with a pass (grade C) - and so fulfil that all important Government target. Many were barely able to read and write when they arrived at his comprehensive - despite passing SATs tests after much coaching - and their chances of ever learning were already ebbing away.

Why? Because this same headmaster has given up on them, claiming he lacks the funding or the staff to help them catch up. Breathtakingly cynical? Certainly, but his attitude isn't uncommon in schools across the country. Heads are judged on how many good A-C grades their pupils get at GCSE, not on how many disadvantaged boys they turn around. Better that the bad boys drop out than drag down a school's results.

One problem is the sheer numbers who arrive from primary school without the ability to read and write properly. Time after time, as I visited comprehensives across the country, I was told that there was no chance of giving the new intake the extra lessons they needed. Even at one predominately white suburban secondary school, the man in charge of teaching literacy skills told me 40 per cent of the first-years were 'at least' two years behind in reading or spelling or both. He'd worked out he had five minutes a week for every pupil who needed help.

A science teacher in an inner-London school told me: 'I am so used to teaching 14-year-olds who have a reading age of seven that I don't even think of it as strange anymore. It's become the norm rather than the exception.' Last year, almost 250,000 children - 40 per cent - started GCSE studies without having achieved the level of reading, writing and maths needed to cope with the course.

So what's the solution? Four years ago, the Government announced that schools would be switching to the most successful method of teaching children how to read - synthetic phonics - in which children are taught letter sounds and blending skills. But it didn't quite work out that way. Instead of introducing this tried-and-tested method, which has had spectacular results with boys from disadvantaged backgrounds, a new phonics-based method was devised, which is not as effective. And, still, some teachers are not even using that. They prefer pupils to try to pick up the meaning of words from looking at pictures. Or, as a school inspector remarked: 'The child is put in a corner, surrounded by books and assumed to be able to read by osmosis.'

For Jake, 14, who was in the top maths and science sets for his first two years at an East Anglian secondary school, this has been a disaster. In the end, he told me: 'The lack of reading and writing kills you in every subject. Even in maths, you need to be able to read the question.' His school never addressed the problem.

Like phonics, the concept of sitting pupils in rows of desks facing the teacher is widely considered too didactic. Now, most primary schoolchildren sit at tables scattered about the classroom, as I saw for myself when I sat in on one class for a week in the East End of London. On my table, the three children giggled, kicked each other and chatted. Their attention lay on what was immediately in front of them: themselves. Somewhere on the periphery of our vision, the teacher walked about, struggling to keep order. Somewhere else, behind our heads, hung a white board with work upon it, gleefully ignored by my table.

When I blamed the children's poor discipline and concentration on the layout, the teacher looked at me with horror. 'The pupils are working together, directing their own learning,' she said emphatically.

The educational establishment emphasises what ought to work; it doesn't investigate or accept the evidence of what actually works. As one science teacher in the East End told me: 'I'm instructed to put into place initiatives for which there's no educational evidence whatsoever.' Another complained: 'Education is an evangelical movement - evidence has nothing to do with it.'

Children are now expected, for example, to be 'independent learners' in charge of their own education. ('Why do teachers keep asking me what I want to learn? How am I supposed to know?' one boy asked me in exasperation.)

This approach has a disastrous effect on the academic achievement of boys from poor backgrounds. Yet faced with a pupil who's incapable of directing his own learning, teachers and psychologists question what's wrong with the child, not what's wrong with the teaching.

The school regulator, Ofsted, has proved remarkably toothless - indeed, two of its own inspectors are so disillusioned that they risked their jobs to talk to me. Instead of concentrating on the basics, they said, they have to check that schools are complying with the latest educational ideology and Government initiative. Both inspectors have been shocked by the low standard of writing, even in good schools - which one of them blamed squarely on poor marking (never to be done in red ink). Many teachers, they noted, had stopped correcting children's grammar, spelling and speech at all, for fear of discouraging them. But when one of the inspectors complained about a school's marking policy to her boss at Ofsted, he replied: 'I don't have a problem with that.'

In any case, the inspector continued, teachers at some of the schools she visits are poor at spelling and grammar themselves. Examining the work of one form, she found the teacher had made numerous spelling mistakes and marked one essay with the comment: 'You need more stuff.'

The Government, as we constantly hear, is on a mission to improve our schools. How? Well, this year, the emphasis is on promoting healthy eating and 'community cohesion'. Indeed, every single school I visited had material on these two topics prominently displayed on their noticeboards. What a pity that some of their pupils were unable to read it.

One of the inspectors told me: 'I spend more time looking in children's lunchboxes than testing their literacy.' Someone, she said despairingly, needs to make children sit down, work hard and learn to concentrate.

Schools are also failing boys from deprived backgrounds in less obvious ways. Recent research has produced compelling evidence that self-discipline is more than twice as important as IQ when it comes to doing well in exams. Even more surprisingly, self-motivation has a bigger impact than even reading ability on future earnings.

Application and self-discipline, of course, are not dictated by intelligence, class or privilege. So the failure of schools to teach them is condemning boys from poor backgrounds to a lifetime of wasted opportunities. They have been crippled as surely as if someone had hacked off a limb.

I met many men in their 20s and 30s who had never experienced the repetition and effort needed for schoolwork. 'No one ever made me sit down and learn,' said one. 'I never caught the habit.' This meant they'd never learnt self- discipline or how to concentrate. Consequently, they don't know how to turn a burst of enthusiasm into the day-to- day effort required for success.

Bright boys from chaotic backgrounds are almost totally dependent on their teachers for that first step to a different life. Yet, shockingly, some teachers saw their educational and social status not as a cause of inspiration to their pupils, but of shame. 'My main focus is not to offend my pupils,' said one. 'I don't want to push my middle-class values on them.' So when a bright pupil told this teacher he'd probably end up stacking supermarket shelves, she didn't urge him to think about an alternative career. Instead, she told me: 'I pointed out to him the many positive aspects of the supermarket job - meeting people and so forth.'

Another teacher told me firmly it wasn't 'his place' to encourage a bright pupil to move from his area or live in anything but a council house. With such an appalling lack of encouragement, it's little wonder that so many 16 to 18-year- old youths - about one in ten - are neither in education, jobs or training, and have little aspiration to succeed.

Were they at school today, the chances of David Lloyd George, the nephew of a cobbler, and Aneurin Bevan, a poor miner's son, rising to become Prime Minister or a Cabinet minister are almost nil. Like so many of the bright young men I interviewed, they'd probably end up in prison or on the dole.

A decent education broadens horizons; it should also provide authority, moral leadership and - through sport - an appropriate outlet for aggression. Then it has the power to transform lives, even the most unlikely.

Take Jason, whose earliest memory is learning how to roll a spliff. His father is a drug dealer, and his home in the North of England is a hangout for addicts - among them schizophrenics, who regularly drop round to exchange their medication for drugs. Against a home background that also included violence and incest, Jason found school a welcome contrast. He joined everything on offer, including the choir and the Boy Scouts - and he was lucky enough to have good teachers. 'I didn't miss a single day,' said Jason. And now? He's training to be a teacher himself.


Mass: School officials, education boss disagree on bills

As usual, teacher representatives don't like charter schools

The state's top education official clashed with public school leaders on Thursday over Gov. Deval L. Patrick's bills to expand charter schools and improve the worst performing schools. During a crowded hearing by the Committee on Education, S. Paul Reville, the state's secretary of education, said the bills are aimed at closing a wide achievement gap in public schools between white students and minorities and between poor and wealthier students. "No student should be forced to languish in a dungeon of a failing school," Reville told committee members. "By creating and expanding successful charter schools and by fostering the rapid turnaround of underperforming schools through these bills, our students won't have to."

One of Patrick's bills calls for lifting a state cap on charter schools in only those school districts that are among the lowest 10 percent of MCAS scores on a statewide basis, including Holyoke, Springfield and Chicopee. The Patrick administration released an analysis showing Holyoke was the worst performing school district in the state last year on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams, Springfield was the second worst and Chicopee the 13th worst.

Springfield currently has four charter schools, while Chicopee and Holyoke each have one. The governor's bill would allow for several additional charter schools in Springfield, at least one more in Holyoke and probably a couple more in Chicopee.

Patrick's second bill would establish new types of innovative public schools operated by school districts. Teachers, parents, universities, museums and nonprofit groups could be partners in the proposed new schools. Leaders of these schools would receive a lot of flexibility and autonomy in areas such as curriculum, schedule and exemptions from teacher contracts. The bill would clear the administration to appoint a receiver to operate chronically low-performing schools. Reville said this would apply to about 30 schools in the state.

Anne T. Wass, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said Patrick's bill to establish new types of public schools would allow for changes in teacher contracts without negotiating between a school committee and a union. "Keep teachers involved in improving our schools by giving them and their union a voice," Wass said.

Paul S. Dakin, superintendent of schools in Revere and a member of the executive committee of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, criticized Patrick's bill to expand charter schools. Compared to the school districts from which students are drawn, charter schools do not have equal percentages of students who speak a main language other than English or special education students, particularly those with severe needs, Dakin said. "Yet, we are here today at a time of unprecedented budget crisis talking about the possibility of raising the cap and funding more unproven and costly charters," he said.

Charter schools are financed with tax dollars but operate independently of school districts. Teachers are not unionized in the state's 61 charter schools, except for one in Boston. School districts must pay charter schools for each student. The charter schools partially reimburse the districts for each student over three years. Supporters said charter schools are more free to innovate. They often have longer school days and longer school years.

Last year, Reville said, 70 percent of students in next year's high school graduating class with a main language other than English failed the MCAS test. Last year, he added, 70 percent of black students and 60 percent of Hispanic students graduated from high school in four years compared to 90 percent of white students.

About 100 students and parents from the Boston Preparatory Charter School attended the hearing wearing blue T-shirts with a quote from President Barack Obama that charter caps need to be eliminated. "Charter schools give the kids so much more discipline and they stay focused," said Theresa A. Bowman, parent of a 12-year-old boy at the Boston charter school.

Richard C. Lord, president of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a statewide association of employers, said charter schools are a vital part of public education especially in cities. Lord said both of Patrick's bills are needed for Massachusetts to win a maximum share of $4.5 billion in federal "Race to the Top" money under the federal stimulus law. He said the additional federal money would allow the state to move ahead with plans to improve public school teachers, turn around troubled schools and boost technology.

Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education who appeared with Patrick to introduce his charter bill in July, has said that states could be at a "competitive disadvantage" for the federal stimulus dollars if they cap the growth of charter schools.


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