Monday, 8 February 2010

Secondary schools

A few years ago, a colleague and I were asked to produce a resource that aimed to help pupils with transition from primary to secondary school. (I have since had one published by AC Black but it’s quite different from the original – honestly!).

We started by talking to a wonderful woman: Janine Oxley a high school teacher who had already developed a lot in terms of supporting pupils with this process. We also went into schools to investigate pupils’ perceptions and concerns. The concerns were pretty consistent: fear of bullying, getting lots of homework and becoming lost in the big school. The resource therefore addressed these issues and helped pupils put them into perspective. However, the thing that struck me most during this investigation was the change in pupils’ attitudes as they arrived at secondary school.

At the time, Norfolk had both primary schools and middle schools, so in effect Year 7 (11/12 year olds) could be found either at the bottom end of a secondary school or the top end of a middle school. We visited Year 7 in both situations and were shocked by the contrast. Year 7s still in middle school were enthusiastic, interested and excited by the novelty of visitors (it was a school in a deprived area). Year 7 in high school was the opposite. Which made me ask – what do we do to our children when we send them to some high schools?

The fact kids go from a relatively nurturing environment with a key adult (or two) that they spend all week with to, by contrast, a relatively anonymous existence. Spending time with many different adults seems to play a key role in all this. I recently spoke to a newly qualified teacher at a high school who said he liked the children to be scared of him as it helped with control –as after all, he only saw each child for a couple of hours each week. (I will add that I have seen secondary teachers with good control without the need to scare children). So the children go from having a relationship with a class teacher to much weaker ones with many teachers. No wonder their peers step up and become more influential (which can be a positive or negative thing…it depends).

And that’s why some secondary schools have really ‘gone to town’ with providing pastoral care and support for their pupils and given their pupils more of a ‘voice’ in the school.

I was once at an education conference and lucky enough to hear one particular headteacher talk about his secondary school. By chance it was the school my feller had attended as a teenager. This Headteacher was inspirational and he had made radical changes which included:

 De-schoolifying the school. He decorated the school colourfully, put plants in the corridors. He put huge photos of the kids on the walls along with motivating sayings. He said, ‘why should kids have to attend a dreary building every day?'
 He made the dining area a pleasant place to be. He also brought in a service that for 50p, a table cloth and vase of flowers would be put on a table - so you could pay for this to happen for your friend (for their birthday for example). Pupils did use this service. He also provided an area where a jazz band regularly played while the pupils ate.
 He insisted that every presentation in assembly be given by both a girl and a boy because he was fed up of all sports reports being given by boys and charity work being described by girls. He wanted to combat sexual stereotyping.
 He became strict about the uniform – citing different clothes/trainers/make-up as a potential source of teasing and bullying.
 He consulted the students about anything that would have an impact on them.
 He met with the male and female chairs of the school council for a cup of coffee at 11 a.m. every Friday morning. Sometimes, they brought pressing issues, sometimes they just had a general chat. He felt it was really important to regularly get pupils’ perspective.
 He made the school day comprise of just three lessons two hours long. His justification for this were 1) to reduce the amount of the day, kids spent in the corridors (the place of most ‘flashpoints’) and 2) With lessons that long, the teachers had to change their style of delivering lessons and use pupil demonstrations and presentations in lots of lessons.

He was clearly a driven, intelligent, visionary and dynamic man.

And it makes me ask (again), when a school is not a place that adults would like to be in, (e.g. being shouted at, uncomfortable, grotty toilets, few opportunities to have a say in anything, crowded, etc etc) why on earth do we send our precious children there?


  1. That head sounds amazing!

    Re the Year 7 thing, here, the opposite seems to happen - the Year 6s at primary school are fed up, demotivated, arsey, doing badly (in general) - like they have outgrown the school and are not being stimulated enough/in the right way. When I see them move up to Year 7 they become motivated, excited again, stimulated, happy. However, this does not last - by Year 8 they are flat again. Of course, you would expect this to some extent (habituation) but although the school is considered to have very good pastoral care and empahsis on the individual, the corridors are bare and they spend a lot of time in them and there is no "tablecloth and flowers" leadership going on, that's for sure.

    I was talking to someone the other day who said plainly that it is absolutely crazy that at the age (14/15/16) when we most want to pull away from adults, take risks, experiment, go a little crazy, sleep a lot, spend all our time having fun with our peers, etc. is the age when we try to make kids focus really hard and put all their energies into school work and passing exams. She suggested kids did their exams before that age or after. Makes sense to me.

  2. What is the name of that school? I want to look it up...

  3. We've been quite lucky, all of our kids have been to Angel Middle (now junior), which has a wide and tremendously varied demographic from the North city, so it's got a bit of every social group you can think of, from working class/estate to middle class silver triangle, plus children from the various settled immigrant groups. The head is fantastic, just the right mix of authority and imagination, and he integrates everyone. All of our kids have enjoyed it.

    The high school is a different matter, it's large, but we've given them the choice, and so far all three have plumped for teh same one, which is a fair plod from our house, but I have to say, generally in terms of how they've faired educationally, I think it's pretty good, the head is a bit more of a businessman than I'd perhaps like, and I have had to sternly try and tell him off a couple of times over various issues, mainly bullying, which was dealt with to our satisfaction eventually. It's a large school with a mixed demographic, South Weste city estate kids and various others from all over, and despite the misgivings I've had, they do seem to have some imagination, One of ours swapped to another school for sixth form, and I have to say I think she regrets it, it's more of an old grammar style thing turned into a middle class high school because of it's tight catchment, and the ethos seems to be much less progressive and far more standoffish. Like most things there seems to be a waveform as to how these schools fair, The big old mixed group high, feels like it's doing better at the moment, I like that...

  4. My two elder children left secondary school in their early teens. The first left because she could no longer tolerate the environment. The impetus came in the form of a book lent to her by her sociology teacher which made the point that there was no sound educational reason to stay. (Sorry, I forget the name of the book.) The second left because her school, which trumpeted its 'child centred'credentials but clearly wasn't, lacked the will or flexibility to address her concerns which could have been remedied by movning from one set to another.

    I am convinced that the primary function of secondary education is economic: the provision of child care as cheaply as possible so that adults can go out to work and kids can be kept away from mischief. Most of what is taught is arbitrary and has little bearing on future jobs or careers.

    Oh, and don't get me started on pastoral care. Given the nature of high schools it's often a case of applying the wound with one hand and the plaster with the other.

  5. Jonathan, are your children at Steiner now? (as teenagers)?

  6. Hmm, I can't agree about secondary education being economic, my oldest two, have had some amazing and inspiring teachers particularly in English which they are both good at, One in particular, who now works in private education, which is such a pity as the state schools need people like him.

    This has really driven their enjoyment, we started them on the route (well Jen did, I just provided the eclectic soundtrack), by encouraging them to read from an early age, showing learning had value, that knowledge and understanding are important.

    I think they've both had value out of their education, despite it being a bit bumpy in places. One is doing a degree in "thinking about stuff hard" then an MA hopefully in "even deeper thinking about stuff" the other is going to do a degree in "speaking and how it works in your head". I believe what they've got out of the system, together with the skills we have tried to furnished them with, will hopefully give them a reasonable chance at almost any career choice they ultimately take. They both want to write something or other, I hope they manage it.

  7. This is out of my realm of knowledge really (since when has that ever stopped you? Ed.)

  8. Makes me sound dinasaurish, but I tried, honest!

  9. Claire, all three children have had time in a Steiner school. These schools come with their own problems, one being a lack of state funding, another being parents prepared to pay for an education tend to choose schools they believe will accelerate their learning. The Steiner system begins more gently than the National Curriculum. My youngest began learning to read aged about seven. At eleven she reads as well as the most academic of her peers but has had the benefit of a longer pre-literate period. (Don't imagine the alternative to learning to read is merely a vacuum.)

    TJ, I am glad your children are doing so well. I suppose I would have to ask how much that was down to school and how much was down to a supportive home background and their own potential. Children are very robust and will thrive practically anything if they are loved and encouraged. I'm not saying school is all bad (I work in them after all!), just that it could all be so much better.

  10. That Headmaster sounds inspired!! From a community development point of view he's doing all the right things to keep the pupils in his school engaged and that's no easy task!

    I didn't hate school but it sure wasn't a great place to be! I went to a small school, about 800, in a small town. The kids there had no interest in learning and the teachers there had no interest in teaching...I got picked on (bullied would be too strong a term for it) because I wanted to go to Uni...fortunately I've always been a bit gobby so gave as good as I got (I know, I can tell your surprised!) so it was water off a ducks back. I've always thought I would have done better sooner had I gone to a school where I was encouraged.

    C x

  11. Claire - The Year 7s in the middle had outgrown their school to some extent - yes - but their attitude was still quite different from those at high school - more 'up for it' while still in the primary. The contrast was stark! We visited about 5 schools and found the same. Pilot scheme?

    Jonathan - I remember what your eldest reported about state school after being in a Steiner - 'there are no (healthy) relationships in the school.' The state school appear to be improving (as compared to my time at school)...but slowly step by step rather than the whole re-vamp it possibly needs! There are inspirational and exciting things going on - but not unifomly - as you know! I think the bottom line is too many children in classes to give meaningful attention to.

    Mr T - Yes an inspirational teacher can have a fantastic impact....the current tick box climate appears to squeeze them out. Schools don't appear to let ALL teachers work to their stengths...some are T crossers and I dotters, some are creative wonders...the latters are currently made to conform to the prefernces of the formers!

    FF - no comment? What??!!!???** Not like you at all! Tell me what you had for breaskfast.

    GOK - what made you sound dinosaurish?????

    Carol - back in 'our' day, many schools were truly uninspiring! I remember my high school having a policy of not giving responsibilities to pupils because then they could not break rules or mess about??? What sort of a policy was that? it really should be a time when we get our young people to become excited about opportunities open to them....which sadly doesn't always happen.

  12. Jonathan - I'm a big fan of the Steiner philosophy and believe that learning to read (or learning written numbers) at age 4 is generally too young (symbolson paper before concept understanding). I visited a Steiner school with a view to sending my son there but found Steiner in action was disappointing in this case - primarily because of the particular teacher which he would have had for the whole of primary as you know. Where do your kids go now or are they home educated?

    Molly - Year 7s - deffo more up for it here than Year 6s but that is proabably a reflection of the primary school! (apart from fairly uninspiring teaching, they spend the whole year practicing SATS). I visited two middle schools in Frome and thought they were great - apart from the smaller size of the schools compared to secondary schools, they had an understanding of the nature of children's "middle years" and what the kids needed. I think it kind of makes sense to have a school for this "middle" stage - if done well, and not just treated as an extended primary school.

  13. I work as an LSA in a primary school, in a year 6 class. Luckily Amy, the deputy head and also class teacher of yr 6 is one of the most inspirational and proactively positive teachers I have ever met. She teaches in such a way that EVERYTHING we do is interesting and exciting, even maths (which I hate). And different. For example, to help them remember what a 'perimeter' is )opposed to 'area', we walk around the edge of the hall, and maybe Pee against the wall (pretend), so we remember p is for perimeter, the outside edge.

    I digress.... throughout the whole year we prepare them for secondary school. Everything we do always has a back issue of teaching them to be responsible for themselves, getting themself organised (their books, their trays, their everything), explaining at secondary school they will have lots of teachers, not just the one. The skills they learn with us not only give them coping mechanisms to enter secondary school prepared, but also life skills to see them through with whatever they choose to do with their life. I have seen the children enter our class in September, and leave at the end of our school year confident, happy, and excited to be taking the next step forward. We are also very lucky in that our nearest secondary school is just over the road, and we have very strong links with them, their teachers come over and work with our kids, we use their impressive city learning centre (computer suite) - this Thursday a teacher from there is coming over with video equipement and an apple mac to spend a day with us so our class can make a film about our school for a video competition we are entering.
    Our primary school is shunned by the white middle class neighbourhood around us. At a local coffee morning, a spy tells us that one of the women verbally had a go at another woman asking 'why do you send your kids to that ghetto?' We have an incredibly high proportion of children with english as a second launguage, (5 times the national average), many who arrive with NO english (just had two mongolians arrive this week!), and many with learning difficulties. We have parents banned from the playground because they (physically) fight, and some who talk of 'hating' our school (but still send there kids here), but they are just full of hate anyway.

    However, with a one form entry, we are a small school, and it feels like a family. A happy family. Love almost oozes out of the walls (well it does in my classroom). Reading what you all wrote about schools, I thank you, as it has made me again appreciate what I have. Some of our kids have rotten home lives, and the love and attention they get from us is sometimes more than they recieve outside these walls.

    I think, like life, it is not just what you do, it is where you do it, and who you do it with that counts....

  14. The school that my children went to in France was nicknamed Stalag Luft 3.5. It was a square concrete block with not a scrap of work on the walls. It was honestly the most depressing place and totally non-conducive to learning. The toilets were locked during break times and both children were subjected to racist comments by teachers and support staff. Bullying was rife too. Most of the teachers were just 'serving time' as government employees until retirement although there were the odd one or two who did seem to actually like their jobs. Neither was given the opportunity to visit the school before they started and the change from their small (24 pupil) rural school to a town secondary was huge. On the other hand, their school here is truly inspirational. The standard of teaching is phenomenal and the school environment is warm and welcoming. The minute we walked through the door we knew that we'd made the right decision to return to the UK.

  15. I hope our kids surviving state education is partly down to us, who knows. I like mucking about with art and that, We both love reading so they learnt pretty early, not in the womb or anything like that, I just pumped loud music at them at that point. I can't say I'm a huge fan of Steiner or Montessori. I don't know what it is, the Catholicism, the sticks or the gnomes (I jest), but there is something about it that I just find a bit odd, maybe Molly has a test I can do to unsettle me for a few days and find out.

    I actually quite like state education, it does just needs to not have so many stupid tests and maybe a few less stupid teachers, that may seem unfair, but both my 13 year old and my 18 year old have commented on an astonishingly badly equipped IT teacher - who didn't know how to turn a computer on - why do they need to learn that stuff, everyone has a computer don't they, I mean excel - do a masterclass later - sheesh... and maybe education could have less managers, I also like the NHS, who've sewn enough bits back on me to prove their worth, and really hot chillis I like those too, and Nick Drake I really really like Nick Drake at the moment.

  16. Uniforms........ ugh smacks of the control over syndrome along with arms folded over the chest.
    It has been a long time since I escaped from school.

    Am a fan of the Montessori and Steiner education models, they seem to encourage a certain brightness in their pupils, that is missing from the run of the mill stereotype.

  17. I'm sorry, but I have to defend our education system, it ain't perfect, no denying that, but over the last 8 years or so as our children have progressed through secondary school, we've had various gaggles of bright, lively and intelligent children and teenagers rushing in and out of our lives with the ebb and flow of it all. Arriving as they do from all over the city and nearby muddy lanes, from a huge mix of backgrounds; from the children of unemployed single parents' living in shitty council flats off St Martins to a music lawyers kid from Thorpe, they've been a variety of shapes, classes, colours and creeds. The things they've have in common is they go to the same state high school and they are all pretty much dazzling people. Maybe we're just very lucky, or maybe our schools are actually a lot better than we give them credit for, exactly because they mix it up, because they bring all these different social groups together, and give people something that is as close as we can manage an equal chance.

  18. Ooh, is this a heated debate?!! Mrs. Merton

  19. But I agree with everyone! Claire

  20. That's because there is excellent practice out there...but not everywhere.

  21. Can I introduce a new thread (though I am too late) and say that I think our education system is far more suited to girls than boys in general. My son, who is a very boyey boy and always needed to be very physically active, be outside a lot, learn by doing, etc. is just not designed to sit down at a table from age 4 and deal with paperwork and symbols (instead of real life)for most of the day. The girls (in general) adjust to this much better and some of them thrive on it. Boys are not catered to well in my experience.

  22. Hmm, I don't know, "I've got one of those, yuk outside, why would I want to go out there" boys. and three girls, two of whom are fairly girly, although not exactly barbie pink or anything, and one who's a bit tomboyish. I suspect as someone pointed out i think, that different situations and educational subtypes cater for different types of kids, boys or girls, perhaps it's more personality than anything. It's the same with career choices, I couldn't stand and discuss stuff in front of nodding men all the time, I'm not comfortable with pitch meetings, but I do it occasionally, I'm fine with informal stuff, but give me a visual puzzle or ask me to come up with a visual metaphor, living in that paper and symbols territory I'm happy as larry, whoever he is. We're all different, I suppose I do the likes of Steiner a disservice, because it should be about what suits particular people or personality types.

  23. In total agreement Nick.
    My 'flamboyant' style of teaching got some kids whipped up, but probably unsettled those that went on to be librarians! They got their turn when they had Ms Hockey Sticks the following year. Some resilience and felxibility will take kids a long way.

    Vive la difference.

    Off to a T crossing and I dotting conference about the Healthy Schools Enhancement Model - not my cup of tea - but some of these headteachers cannot get enough (see previous post in autumn 'When you wonder if you are going crazy...')

  24. Yes, I think you're right too Nick - let me adjust what I said then: school does generally not cater well to very physical, outdoorsy, learn by doing personality types.

    But you might want to have another little look at the genitalia of your son...just in case...

  25. Claire, one child has grown up. She was very directed and got the GCSEs she needed, at home but with admirable support from the school she'd left, to de a dance BTech. That gave qualified her to do a dance and choreography degree at the Laban. One child is in year 10, doing GCSEs at home at great expense, the other (Yr7) goes to school but worries about attendance targets, homework and planner marks for minor infringements to the extent that she eplodes when she gets home.

    I'm with you on the gnomes, TJ, but managed to keep my distance. The main teacher at the (very) small school was terrible with adults but great with children. The fact is that the Steiner system, for all its kowtowing to the dead guru, is genuinely child-centred. It also seems to have a better understanding of child development. There's nothing wrong with a child learning to read at four, and nothing wrong with helping them in that if they are drawn to reading. The problem comes when you set a reading target that's supposed to be good for all four-year-olds.

  26. Thanks Jonathan for the update on your children.

  27. I totally agree about the targets, I dropped all foreign languages at 14, with special permission from my French teacher, who in a moment of epiphany realised I really actually just didn't get it. I'm the same with music score, I just can't make the connection in my head. At the age of about 35 after a few trips to France and various French family members it suddenly started to make sense. So my target age must have been 35-ish. Music I've given up hope, I do it entirely by ear, and can read tab, but I get by, maybe 45 will be my reading music epiphany year. So yes anyway, I really do detest the whole target, measuring side of our present culture, doing a lot of design for third sector, I see the lengths and expense caused by measuring things, particularly relating to housing and social care. It's a bit weird.

    Another good thread Molly, don't stop.

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