Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Don’t hold children captive to failing public schools

Columnist Matthew Tully is bothered by the possibility that motivated parents would be the school patrons most likely to seek out the choices made possible by Gov. Mitch Daniels proposed vouchers, thereby sticking public schools with the not-so-conscientious parents who remained ("Are vouchers the best choice for students?" Jan. 16). So why not go all out with public charter schools before trying vouchers, he suggests.

The problem is that critics of independently managed charter schools across the nation are beginning to use the very same argument in a desperate effort to slow their growth. Whether used against vouchers or charters, this argument amounts to saying motivated parents and their children ought to be held captive in failing schools, in hopes that their mere presence eventually will raise performance.

While it is true that some parents follow issues of education quality more closely than do others, it is also the case that most parents want the best for their children, and parents take note of what decisions other families are making. Given a full range of school choices, a lot of parental follow-the-leader will be played, to the benefit of children.

One way to ensure the broadest possible benefit would be to implement a reform recently begun in California and now spreading to other states called the Parent Trigger, whereby a petition signed by at least half the parents in a failing school would result in all families receiving a charter school, voucher or other option.


British schools are lovely and the system isn't broken, say Left-wing teachers. Have they been brainwashed?

By Katharine Birbalsingh

There is something very strange going on. For over a decade all I ever heard from teachers was about how hard the job was, how the children’s behaviour was shocking, the management poor, the system restrictive. Indeed, many left the profession because of it. Others stayed, disillusioned and fed up but soldiered on as best they could. Now, suddenly, at conferences and the like some teachers insist on declaring how happy they are, how lovely our schools are, and how the picture I paint of a “broken system” is one they simply do not recognise.

Have these teachers been probed by aliens?

Charlie Carroll, author of the recently published On the Edge, has written a remarkable account of his journey as a teacher through some of Britain’s toughest schools: thirty-eight to be precise. To quote the back of the book: “I cannot count how many times I have been told to f— off by a pupil.” Charming. Yet the teachers Charlie meets these days (in the papers or on the radio) paint a portrait of calm and dedicated learning in our schools.

Charlie tells me that he too has had the same experience: that before, all over the country, not just in these dreadful schools, but everywhere, he would hear from teachers crying out to be heard. And now that they have their chance… silence! Not a word. What on earth is going on?

Charlie’s book is well worth a read if you can stomach the constant misery of his existence as a supply teacher. Like some kind of educational suicide bomber, Charlie loads up his van and scours the British Isles in search of adventure, or death… one is never quite certain. Nottingham, Manchester, Birmingham, The Peak District (yes, I did say The Peak District), Sheffield, West Yorkshire, London, The West Country, (giving a break to the madness and sees Charlie in a good school), Liverpool, and Middlesbrough all manage to get a look-in on this journey only fit for fantasy television.

Because that’s how shocking it is. Even with my “inner city” experience I didn’t quite realise just how terrible some of our schools are. It made me feel positively wretched, especially in light of my recent escapades, arguing with half of Britain, trying to persuade them that the system is indeed broken. “Just read Charlie Carroll’s book!” is what I want to say, but I know they’ll just laugh and tell me that his experiences aren’t representative of the whole. Too right they aren’t. I have never worked in schools like the ones in his book. It is as if Charlie’s schools jumped straight out of a horror film, only that the true horror is that they are just down the street from where you live.

The book is packed full of all sorts of statistics that you’ll find fascinating if you’re interested in education. And you’ll enjoy the running commentary given by Charlie, telling it as it is, from a real teacher, on the frontline. Here I was thinking I was on the frontline. But, no, I wasn’t. So many of our nation’s children have been left to rot in schools that we have abandoned. But apparently I’m mistaken to claim that our education system is broken.

Charlie Carroll not only taught in them – he found the energy and dedication to write about his experiences. Why? Because he wanted us to know the truth. No doubt, like me, he naively thought that if he could just tell them, and that if he could just let people know what’s happening, someone might do something about it. Little did we realise that great numbers of people would turn a blind eye and deliberately ignore the truth because it is easier to believe the lie.

Charlie Carroll still works as a teacher. His real name remains a secret. Lucky him. He’s still entitled to his life as it was. He wasn’t as foolish as me to get up at the Conservative Party conference and shout the truth out loud. Instead, he has written it in his book, On the Edge. If you want to know just how bad our schools can get, On the Edge is a must-read.


Old-style same-sex schools best?

Rowan Pelling

When I was 11, I waved goodbye to co-education and, armed only with a lacrosse stick, sank blissfully into the oestrogen-plumped world of Walthamstow Hall, an all-girls' school in Sevenoaks. These were the days of A-line skirts, knee socks and vast, regulation knickers that entombed your nether regions. In this safe, bluestocking atmosphere, we struggled through the worst indignities of puberty, free from the jibes of equally pimply boys.

Yes, schoolgirls can be bitchy, but the downsides of the vixen tongue have never diminished, for me, the enormous pluses of female friendship. I retain seven bosom friends from those days. We've been bridesmaids at each others' weddings and act as godparents to assorted offspring. I simply cannot believe I would have carried such a tight raft of female friendship with me – for over 30 years now – if I had been at a co-ed school.

So I was sorry to read that all-female education is on the decline. According to The Good Schools Guide, girls' schools account for only 13 per cent of the leading establishments in their ratings – the lowest proportion since the list started in 1986. I have always been able to see how boys benefit from the civilising effect of having girls in their secondary school classes, but I have never been so sure if girls reap an equal benefit. I remember a friend who joined a public school that had recently taken girls in its sixth form: on her first day an anonymous note was posted under her door. It just read "flat"; it took her time to work out it referred to her chest.

I didn't realise it at the time, but I was lucky my school's science labs and debating forums were ruled by women and that we girls got to play all the best roles in Shakespeare. I wonder if even our horseplay would have been stifled if we had been in mixed classes: the bras left on desks, the wasps freed from jam jars, or the time the whole form crushed into the school's Wendy house. I heard comedian Miranda Hart tell a similar story, about hiding in a cupboard for the entire class before bursting out, and thought how "girls' school" that anecdote was.

In co-ed classes, girls are too worried about male approval to behave with such carefree idiocy. Girls-only schooling raises aspirations and boosts confidence – and it helps women forge unbeatably strong professional and personal relationships with other females. Even now, I can generally tell if a woman's had a single-sex education: alumni often have an air of bright-eyed intrigue about them, as if you and they were still perched on a radiator in the common room, discussing the pros and cons of French kissing. You can take the girl out of St Trinian's, but…


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