Raising their sights

While the NZEI and PPTA celebrate mediocrity all around the world is working proof that their ways are the ways of failing and new ways and methods are successful. The unions are intent on providing only for themselves, professing they care for all students while shamefully neglecting 20% of their students.

Michael Gove in the UK is forcing change and one school in a hard hat area is making a difference.

Cicero said ‘a mind without instruction can no more bear fruit than a field, however fertile, without cultivation’. So it is perhaps fitting that his head is on pupils’ blazer badges at one of London’s newest and most audacious schools.

The immaculate uniform is just one thing the West London Free School has in common with other, better-known seats of learning. There is the rigorous discipline, too, as well as a focus on competitive sport, musical excellence, a house system and mandatory Latin.

But what’s truly surprising is that this isn’t a private, fee-paying school, or even one of the country’s surviving grammars, but funded by the taxpayer – and is non-selective. Here is a working example of Michael Gove’s vision of how a state school might be freed from central or local authority control.

If schools are to succeed we must break the hegemony of the teacher unions.

Nor is this just any free school: it was founded by author Toby Young, the most prominent of the campaigners for state-funded independent schools. His WLFS, opened last year by Mayor Boris Johnson, is the scheme’s flagship.

Education Secretary Gove’s encouragement of free schools is controversial. Some fear they will appeal only to the middle class and could undermine existing schools. But on this rare visit behind the scenes, Young was unapologetic about the school or its ethos, which is more akin to that of a prep school or old-fashioned grammar. After all, nine children chase each place.

The school is proud of its strict discipline: one boy was sent home for his hair being too short. The few who get in live in the catchment area or are drawn in a lottery, and enjoy what Young calls a ‘classical, liberal’ education.

Mobile phones are all but banned, classes are small and teachers wear black gowns on special occasions. Chewing gum earns a detention and there’s an hour’s homework daily. Attendance at after-school clubs is compulsory four days a week – subjects on offer include debating, drama, Mandarin and Arabic. The neat blazers, by the way, are supplied by Eton and Harrow’s outfitters.

Young refuses to accept that children from low-income and single-parent households or ethnic minorities should set their sights any lower than those from white, middle-class homes.

‘Too often schools make excuses for children, particularly children on free school meals, children from low-income families. We don’t do that,’ he says. ‘Critics said if you include Latin and expect children to do at least eight academic GCSEs you won’t have a single Special Education Needs applicant, but that has proved to be wrong.

As is usual, the opponents are proven wrong time and again.

‘We were also told that because of the classical liberal curriculum we would only attract rich, white children with educated, middle-class parents. Actually, 50 per cent of our intake have English as an additional language, and 35 per cent are black, Asian or minority ethnic. A quarter of our pupils are  eligible for free school dinners.

‘It is a really accurate microcosm of the area it is in, and that is one of the things parents single out – it is a comprehensive mix. Yes, we are attracting children whose parents would otherwise send them to fee-paying schools but we always set out to do that, as well as attracting the very poorest children in the community, because we want our school to be a genuine comprehensive.’

He adds: ‘We don’t have a boathouse, but we have high expectations of all the children.’

By having high expectations it raises everyone’s standards. Unfortunately the teacher unions have really low expectations, which is why they oppose almost every attempt to improve excellence.

Soon after the school opened, two children were temporarily excluded, one for fighting, one for stealing.

Then there was the case of 11-year-old Kai Fizzle, who was sent home after he came to school with a close haircut 3mm shorter than the rules allow. At the time, his mother Tania Scott said the school failed to understand Afro-Caribbean hair needed to be kept short to be easily manageable.

Young says: ‘We were criticised on the grounds that it was discriminatory because the boy in question was black and there were cultural differences to account for, but we thought that was nonsense. You can’t have one rule for the white boys and another for the black boys.

‘One of the reasons Afro-Caribbean boys underachieve is because schools don’t have the same expectations of them and don’t hold them to the same standards as other ethnic groups. At our school we hold every child to the same high standards. What is unusual about our school isn’t that we have strict rules, but that we enforce them. Quite often in school they will have an elaborate code of conduct, but they just won’t enforce it, and that sends a very bad message to children.

‘We have just as many challenging children as the local community schools but they know we have a fairly strict code of conduct and we are not frightened to enforce it.’

Happily, Kai has continued at the school – with regulation-length hair – and Young says he is ‘thriving’. He adds: ‘If you create a well-ordered, structured environment, that makes it easier for children to learn, especially if you have zero tolerance towards disruption in lessons.’

I can imagine the unionist commenters frothing already at those comments.

The school says that, as a result of imposing tough rules early on, the pupils, many from difficult backgrounds, soon learn to behave and are happier for it.

The same applies in general life.

The sooner we stop listening to teacher unions, they are part of the problem, not part of the solution the sooner we can start getting better results from the education sector.


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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

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