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December 01, 2004

What would improve inner-city schools? - The perspective of an inner-city teacher

Posted by Francis Gilbert

What would improve inner-city schools? Francis Gilbert - teacher and author of the bestselling I'm a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here - makes five proposals that he believes would make a difference.

I fear the power of the state. Having spent over ten years working in public sector education, I have become increasingly disillusioned with the way the government interferes with education and constantly sets the agenda. My criticisms of the state are this:
it is not flexible;
it is inefficient;
and its National Curriculum has been a national disaster.

My experience is far from unique. Teachers in the state sector have to deliver a curriculum that is often inappropriate to the children they teach. They have to deal with ill-disciplined pupils. They have to negotiate with incompetent, meddling bureaucrats and teachers. Perhaps the problem with the state system is not lack of money, but the inefficient deployment of resources: it is not unknown to have three professionals in a disruptive classroom with none of them contribute to the learning of the pupils.

As a consequence of my encounter with the state education system, I believe that there are five policy changes that might begin to solve our country's educational problems.

1. Take the education system out of state control;
2. Allow schools to set their own admissions policies;
3. Disband the National Curriculum;
4. Introduce a standardized reliable series of external tests; and
5. Offer improved child care facilities to the parents of very young children.

1. Take the education system out of state control
If parents were given a voucher that was worth the whole value of their child's education for a year they could then spend it where they pleased. This would encourage real ingenuity and innovation in schools because they would be genuinely competing for customers. Such competition would improve schools just as it has improved other businesses. Let us take the example of corner shops. My local corner shop had a series of poor managers and didn't prosper. However, a Turkish family took over the shop and suddenly it is prospering because the family is able to cater to the needs of its customers: there is a real selection of good food, some economy food, and a range of magazines and so forth. This kind of choice and efficiency is not available to me with regards to the local schools I could send my child to. I would like him to study Latin, French and Drama, and to learn about music. Because these subjects are not part of the National Curriculum, they are not available and yet I know that many parents in the area would like their children to study such subjects. I keep thinking what would happen if that Turkish family was running the school: they would be only too happy to hire a French teacher for an afternoon if that's what parents wanted. They'd be responsive to local needs. The state is not responsive and its employees are not answerable to parents or pupils but to the state: Ofsted, the Local Education Authority, the Head Teacher. The tax payer would probably pay less under a voucher system because state education is very expensive with its layers of bureaucracy.

2. Allow schools to set their own admissions policies
In the first stages of the voucher scheme one would have to allow schools to set their own admissions policies because good schools would have regulate numbers of pupils coming in. Schools must be able to select by ability in order to achieve a real social mix, particularly in the inner cities. The current system of selection by catchment area is very unfair and overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy who can buy a house next to the right school. If we are going to establish a meritocracy, we need to allow bright pupils to flourish whatever their background. If there was a genuinely competitive system, the question of admissions would melt away because everyone's needs would be catered for. There is no admissions policy to get into Tescos.

3. Disband the National Curriculum
I have been persuaded by my own teaching experience and reading Rhys Griffiths' book National Curriculum, National Disaster that the National Curriculum has hampered the progress of children. I personally believe that vocational subjects should be merged seamlessly with academic ones so that we do not create this false divide between the world of work and academic study. But ultimately, it should be up to individual schools to set their own curriculum so that they cater for what parents, pupils and teachers believe is right.

4. Introduce a standardized reliable series of external tests
I see nothing wrong with external exams to measure pupils' abilities as long as they are accurate and really test pupils' abilities and not the teacher's ability to cram pupils. The American Standardized Assessment Tests (SATS) do this to a certain extent, but there are plenty of other models to choose from. What is certain is that GCSEs and A Levels are failing to do this with their over-emphasis on assessed coursework and modules. The ultimate test for an Arts student should be whether they can read a long, complicated book by themselves and understand it. Many A-Level students cannot do this, even after they have achieved A grades at A-Level.

5. Offer improved child care facilities to the parents of very young children
If the state is going to intervene and reduce social inequalities, it needs to fund a decent nursery care system for very young children. In my experience patterns of poor behaviour are established very early on in life and often it is too late to instil educational values into children after the age of 7 because they are not able to concentrate, to imagine, to empathise, to read or write. Such nursery care should not be compulsory, and should be run privately, but if good quality child-care is to be widely provided the state will have to fund it with a voucher system or something like it.

Francis Gilbert is a teacher and the author of I'm a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here (Short Books, London, 2004).


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Good piece, but doesn't the sentence "Schools must be able to select by ability in order to achieve a real social mix" indicate a bit of "social engineering" lingering in your soul?
Selecting by ability would achieve ... ability. Social composition would have to be left to chance or whatever social factors correlate with ability.

Posted by: Jon at December 5, 2004 02:33 PM
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I am a sophomore special education/early childhood double major who is currently studying multi-cultural education settings. I find your comments and suggestions very useful because you have been in the field for many years, while I have only begun with an inner-city field experience this semester. Having been in the inner-city schools for several weeks now I can clearly see your concerns. The government does have quite a hold on America's education system, which is good and bad all at the same time. Good because achievement tests can be nationalized through a national curriculum, but at the same time bad because teachers have to do nothing but teach to the test. I also feel that when the schools are removed from government control and charter schools are allowed to come into an area there is an even greater pressure to perform on the national tests. In today's society schools having their own admissions policies would be quite a change and in a way I'm not sure that it would be the best for today's children. While it would most likely work in some situations I feel that having admissions requirements would only force parents to make their child choose a path very young in life. Every parent wants their child to be the best, but what kids need is a well rounded education where they have opportunities to explore different talents and interests. Through admission policies I would be concerned that children would only have the options which their parents had chosen for them when they entered them in school.

Posted by: Shanna at March 8, 2005 12:43 AM
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So where do we go from here? Your ideas sound great, but how do we begin the undertaking that is needed to get these things rolling. I see the inequalities, but how do I...one person...begin to make a difference? The board of education in my district is terrible and it has parents running for private education, regardless of the resources and great teaching that can be found in public education. Where should I go to make a change? What should I do? Talki is cheap...

Posted by: Erica at May 29, 2009 04:20 AM
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