Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Three unmentionable pachyderms - or why children fail

Are you a 'talentless and embittered individual tapping away at your keyboard in the intellectual vacuum of cyberspace'?

Neither am I - even so, I was tempted at first to get irate about Rod Liddle's contemptuous dismissal of bloggers. But then, on further reflection, that would surely be demonstrating exactly the same readiness to take offence that many of us satirize on a regular basis.

Which is a long-winded way of saying this post is bound to offend some people, but only if they allow it to. With the start of the new term, matters academic are permeating the blogosphere once again, and I feel there's something that needs to be said.

It's a tale of two schools, set a few streets apart in an industrial town somewhere in Britain. Highlands is the local flagship with a large sixth form; A level results regularly appear near the top of league tables for state schools and a high proportion of pupils go on to good universities.

Lowlands has no sixth form - like many local authorities, this one has gone down the route of making most schools 11-16 and concentrating the sixth form provision on one site - at Highlands - or in technical colleges.

All pupils in the area have the right to attend the school of their choice and to go on to the sixth form at Highlands. Why, then, do the other schools in the area have near- or below-average GCSE results, while Highlands hovers near the top of the tables?

The contrast is even more striking in the shared catchment area of our two schools - Lowlands has a poor record of GCSE results, despite taking pupils from the same area as its league-topping rival.

There are some obvious conclusions to draw; parents of clever children will obviously aim for Highlands so the school is vastly over-subscribed (though selection isn't officially allowed, this will increase the chances pupils are bright) and house prices near Highlands have rocketed, pricing out 'disadvantaged' children.

And there are also some very large elephants in the classroom. For years I've been waiting for at least one of them to be noticed in the endless results coverage but so far they remain unobserved, unmentionable pachyderms uncomfortably squashed  between the lab benches and the computer desks.

Elephant One is heredity. Current orthodoxy is that all 'learners'* are born equal, with the same capacity for achievement, and subsequent differentials are entirely the result of environmental factors or a 'specific learning difficulty'. And it's wrong - heredity says the children of the successful professionals in their expensive houses might well get good results regardless of environment.

Elephant Two is discipline. As it becomes increasingly difficult to exclude disruptive pupils, teachers are struggling to do their job and keep control with almost no sanctions available to them - even sarcasm is banned these days - and often with little or no support from home (Lowlands has seen several assaults on teachers by parents).

The higher the proportion of these pupils, the less the others will learn, however bright and well-motivated they are. Lowlands has a problem of critical mass; one unruly pupil in a lesson may be ignored or over-ruled by the rest - half a dozen can make life very difficult indeed for their hard-working and conscientious classmates.

And Elephant Three, perhaps the most contentious of the lot, is teaching**. Teachers choose to work in 11-16 schools for a variety of reasons - location, of course, and the availability of jobs - but those who want to teach sixth formers will move on as soon as they can.

The others remain for a variety of reasons, ranging from the laudable (they feel they can make a difference where they are) and the mundane (they can't or don't want to move house) to the disappointing (the ones who aren't up to sixth form work academically) and the downright reprehensible (no A-level essays to mark, so plenty of time for militant union activities).

So Lowlands has some wonderful inspirational teachers, but it also has far more than its fair share of those struggling with the demands of their subject, the terminally disenchanted and strident union activists - NUT membership is well over three times that at Highlands, where most staff belong to less confrontational unions.

And there you have it - three elephants whose existence governs the academic achievement of hundreds of 16-year-olds every year. And until someone points them out, there will continue to be much hand-wringing and lamentation over the inexplicable failure of Lowlands pupils and the social deprivation that must be the cause.

*Current edu-speak for the young person in the classroom. In the most nauseating example, teachers are also required to designate themselves 'facilitators and learners', and school heads to adopt the title 'Head Learner'.

**A representative example from a 2005 study of physics teaching by the University of Buckingham:
  • Pupils’ opportunity to participate in physics and be taught by teachers well-qualified in the subject is reduced if they attend an 11-16 school.
  • Nearly a quarter (23.5%) of 11-16 schools had no teacher at all who had studied physics to any level at university.
  • Teachers’ expertise in physics as measured by qualification is the second most powerful predictor of pupil achievement in GCSE and A-level physics after pupil ability.


  1. designate themselves 'facilitators and learners', and school heads to adopt the title 'Head Learner'.

    So who is "laerning" from whom here?

    I will admit to never being likely to win the world English grammar awards, but something just seems grammatically WRONG with that.....????

  2. I will admit to never being likely to win the world English grammar awards,

    Or the spelling whilst typing one either.

  3. So who is "learning" from whom here?


    Which is, delightfully, the reply of my son's (excellent) teacher to any question about school policy - the good ones are still out there, but most of them have defected en masse to the private sector, as the state apparatchiks hounded out the giftedly sarcastic, the bangs-and-smoke scientists and any Oxbridge graduate unwise enough to venture into the staffroom of an 11-16 comp.

    And reading this from Harriet Sergeant, one can see why:

    'They viewed inculcating attributes such as lucidity, spelling, grammar, punctuality and manners as “patronising”. They feared anything that smacked of the didactic. “I am not a teacher. I am a facilitator,” said one teacher primly. The head of another school insisted she was a “head learner” rather than a headmistress.

    *B*ggered if I know

  4. At the risk of sounding philosophical the crux of the issue could be language. In my view for much of the population in the last couple of generations or so, there has been a distinct deterioration. The structure, the vocabulary and the ability to cope with conceptual matters all seem to have been lost for many youngsters.

  5. "Current orthodoxy is that all 'learners'* are born equal, with the same capacity for achievement..."

    The triumph of hope over experience...

  6. Demetrius, for decades now, teachers have been told not to correct pupils' grammar, or to influence their vocabulary, as this might be patronising or - worse - racist.

    The result? Compared to their counterparts in, say, India or Africa, British children interviewed on television are models of sullen inarticulacy. A recent documentary on teenage mothers even saw fit to include subtitles even though the subjects were all English.

    JuliaM, indeed; sadly the ivory-tower educational theorists never dirty their hands with actual classroom teaching (beyond visits to hand-picked pupils with class teachers in attendance) so they'll never know.

    They're onto a winner - if all children achieve the same, the theory was right; if they don't, there were environmental factors at work.


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