A young man fetches his eleven years old boy from school. He is dressed in a nylon anorak from under which a long frock falls low on his calves. He is bearded and wears an Arabic cap. His right hand clutches his son’s left hand. The young one is wearing the attire of the western male, a suit, white shirt and tie. It is the boy’s school uniform.
To me those two clutched hands bridge Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of civilizations”. I made a one week visit to schools at Small Heath, one of the most depraved urban districts of the UK in terms of employment, crime rate, health conditions and housing. Not so in terms of schooling, I learnt. The three schools I visited, a primary school and two comprehensive schools for secondary education, were all located in this area, and all three of them were appraised “outstanding” by Ofsted, the UK school inspection board. Of course these schools had not been chosen at random, I travelled with a group of Dutch teachers, on a study tour organised by the international branch Inet of the Specialist School and Academies Trust. Nevertheless, how is such a remarkable result achieved?
Firstly you need a visionary, charismatic school leader. The type of person you go along with, even when you don’t buy into all the minutiae of his plans. One school was upgraded by such a leader within four years from the bottom of school ranking to the top. He expanded the school’s remit from the school’s premises, fenced with barbed wire, by reaching out to the community around it. One of the strands in his programme meant offering courses to adults. “Only the parenting course didn’t catch on.” Such a leader is good at attracting sponsorship. The school’s brand new van drove us from the hotel to school every morning and I guess such a vehicle can’t be bought with state funding only. Not only is he a good manager but he motivates his staff on a daily basis. During briefings to all staff early in the morning he stands in the line of heads of departments, listens to their messages and shows his approval. He joins the roars of laughter. He meets all students weekly in the main hall and addresses them.
Secondly the school instils confidence in children and makes them ambitious. The school doesn’t concede defeat, nor does it accept that the best children from poor backgrounds can hope for is a career as taxi driver. Every student must get the education that enables him to materialise his talents. The school wants the academic inclined students to attain their A* levels and go to university.
With such aspirations the school cannot allow its students to indulge in silly behaviour. Sitting at the back of classrooms I only once in those four days saw a student do something which contradicted goal oriented student attendance. She took the pin out of the headscarf of the girl sitting before her. This was not perceived by the teacher, but the harassed girl griped and was expelled from the classroom straight away. To my amazement the insulted student left without any objection, while the perpetrator smiled smugly. In an other lesson I heard the teacher say: “I put you on a C1”, referring to a certain level of misbehaviour in a scheme for students understandably represented in “The Behaviour Snake.” You had better avoid spiralling down the curves towards the beak of the serpent. Ultimately you are sent away forever. I hadn’t even noticed something was going on.
I witnessed this wonderful discipline at all three schools. All students seemed meek and obedient, not to compare with the rumbustious boys and chattering girls I meet in Dutch education. The whole situation seemed wholly otherworldly to me. I can come up with two explanations only. Possibly a school population of only immigrant students is more amenable because they share a completely different parental background. In their cultures the revolution of the sixties never took place, so to say. The other rationale might be that the discipline system is enforced rigorously in a concerted effort of all staff because everyone understands that giving some leeway would set hell loose. Probably both thoughts are valid: the problems we have in The Netherlands with young boys from Moroccan background often is explained by the gap between the rather loose Dutch society and home where they are flogged by their fathers.
Just as school cannot allow students to create havoc, can it allow teachers to have it their own way. The outcome of lessons must be secured. So every lesson I observed started with stating goals to achieve by students. Students were asked to appraise their knowledge and skills with respect to this goals. Subsequently the lesson was executed, after which the students had to reflect on their success during this lesson. The teacher then would comment on their reflection by giving feedback leading to advice how to improve. This format of four steps was implemented in an amazing variety of ways, but always it would lead to evidence on paper, to be archived. I learnt that heads of departments checked their teachers and thereby produced more paper work to be delivered on demand. Clearly Ofsted has a stranglehold on every level of the hierarchic structure, felt every moment of the school day.
This ubiquitous lesson format guarantees a basic quality in any educational arrangement. The four steps are good practice. All lessons I observed were well executed by skilled teachers. The level of attainment by students was remarkable. I definitely took home a lot of ideas to improve my own practice. Albeit, the time spent on producing evidence on paper painstakingly cannot be used to produce new teaching tools and invent new directions. Some of my art lessons are adventures, for me and for my students. “Actually, I don’t know what you are going to come up with,” I quite often hear myself explain to a student. I have not become a teacher to execute lessons only, though mostly this is what I do. I like to explore what teaching and learning is about by experimenting with unpredictable results. My teaching is learning, and it defies formats, not all of the time but sometimes. I guess my teaching would not be acclaimed in an English school. Ofsted would not approve of it.
Content and Language Integrated Learning
One can’t help comparing when being in a completely different setting of your own job. At primary school I observed a reading lesson. The lesson prepared the kids for the Standard Assessment Test. That means teaching to the test. In Dutch schools the same lesson could have taken place in preparation of our CITO-test. In both countries the results of the tests are crucial, not only for the child but for the school as well, as the outcome will position the school in rankings.
I admired the quality of reading and the level of answering quite difficult questions, comparing these aspects with the reading abilities of my students in Dutch and my bilingual students in English. So I asked the teacher how many of these kids, twenty eight there were of them, spoke English at home. She answered promptly: “One.” This may not necessarily have been the one white kid in the room, there are a lot of people from Poland in the UK.
I teach in a Dutch immersion programme in which children are taught in English across half of the subjects. The kids in the English classroom are involved in an immersion programme in which all of their subjects are taught in a language not spoken at home. All these kids are bilingual, not just the gifted middle class kids as is the case in my school. These students speak Asian or African languages at home. All the teachers I met are involved in an immersion programme with a deep impact on the lives of their students.
My colleague of art told me that, after having evaluated the results of a lesson on portraits, some of her students repaired the transgression of a taboo by scratching the eyes from their drawings. The English enjoy the advantage of having a tradition in wearing a uniform at schools: it hushes up differences in cultural backgrounds. In this district of Birmingham the school uniform includes a headscarf with the school’s logo for girls who wish to cover their head. Also the school instils proud in diversity by organising “Diversity Days” which feature cultural backgrounds.
The most remarkable difference between the schools at Small Heath and my own educational environment in The Netherlands is the grip school management has on the classroom situation. Compared with these schools a Dutch school resembles sheer anarchy. A teacher in The Netherlands is quite autonomous with respect to his classroom management, the content of his lessons and the feedback he gives to his students. Any school leader wishing to steer his school towards a shared goal has to fight obstinate staff. At the Small Heath schools clearly all staff complied with diktats issued by the school management. Although this may be rooted in a different tradition it can also be related to the context in which the schools have to function. Having to cater for children in a multicultural inner city area sets clear targets which ask for a concerted effort by all teachers.