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Generally good kids
I’m a parent. I’m middle aged and I live in a leafy part of England where there is a very low crime rate. Standards of living are great: there are a range of cultural pursuits and fantastic restaurants nearby and we can access the countryside in 500 metres.
In terms of education, my 7 year old son has mastered his times tables through repeat practise and he has a thirst to acquire knowledge about the world. We use quiz cards at home to broaden his knowledge of geography, history and the natural world. We study maps and memorise continents, countries, capital cities, rivers and mountains. He has benefitted from the use of phonics in reception and Year 1, through which he could start to pronounce and access vocabulary. Through this process at home and at school we could check that he understood the meaning and context of each word. From this he could start to read independently and widely and begin to develop and embed factual knowledge.
My daughter has almost finished reception. Before she started school she could read without recourse to phonics through auditory memory. At school they persisted in using phonics to ensure that she could develop a broad range of correctly pronounced vocabulary. At a few moments along the way I grew frustrated that, perhaps for my daughter, phonics was using a sledgehammer to crack a nut based on how adeptly she could read purely through repetition and auditory memory. Nearing the end of reception she has a reading age of 8 and each week completes several picture books and reads a few chapters of a children’s novel. She loves reading and it brings her joy and happiness.
At face value everything seems fine, but when you stand back complacency set in around here a long time ago.
In terms of uniform, every school has the same type of sweatshirt, just in different colours, with different logos. There is no blazer or tie in sight. Pupils can personalise their uniform or look by wearing different colour socks, by growing their hair to compete – who can be the most outlandish? Jewellery is a free for all competition to see who has the most generous parents.
There is a relaxed feel in each school. Pupils chat and walk without purpose. When you visit and ask why they don’t need to queue up you might be told because they are “generally good kids”. They generally don’t display any significant bad behaviour, the secondary pupils only swear when the teachers aren’t around and they certainly don’t do anything drastic like have a big fight.
They put their mobile phones away slowly when entering school. They can access these at break, at lunch, and when their teacher isn’t looking – only the latter isn’t allowed but even then they’re subject to many warnings and there’s never considered any need for action.
Therefore these schools feel sleepy and relaxed. Of course it’s a safe environment. It’s also not one with particularly high expectations.
Now a parent might say “Who cares if Matthew has really long hair? It doesn’t matter they are years away from employment, and hell isn’t a hair-cut policy a bit draconian, the sort of thing other schools need to do”. Parents are supportive of schools by giving their time to school events and by making sure that their child comes to school fully fed and prepared every single day, with their freshly cleaned sweatshirts and fleeces. In my children’s primary school the teachers are welcoming and friendly, and at the start of the day will sip a cup a tea as their pupils fail to form anything resembling a straight line and amble into school. After some parents might go for a run, some might go to Waitrose, and others go to work or return home. Pick up is simply the reversal of the above and the cycle goes on for each day of each term. There is never any attempt at a formal introduction to the start of the day outside and certainly no roll call in silence. The general view is that these children do not need visibly formal rules because they are “generally good kids” and come from supportive homes. I see coasting schools.
There are positives though – schools do tend to value reading widely and often. There are loads of books on offer from Moshi Monsters to the Gruffalo. In fact you can be sure that every well-known picture book available is in the library and every so often the pupils can dress up as characters out of these books.
Where are the classics though?
They are there hidden in a corridor, pristine and un-thumbed. When visiting recently I commented to a teacher “it is lovely to see the Railway Children and Black Beauty, new copies as well, can my daughter take one home instead of that Moshi Monsters book she came home with last week?” T
he response I received was “no they are for KS2”.
I retorted “they look unused to me”. I then followed it up at parents evening “please can you help my daughter select the book she chooses each week?”
The response from the teacher “she should choose herself, she is only in reception and should choose what she wants”.
I got increasingly irate and express my frustration “she came home with a Moshi Monsters book which will not extend her vocabulary in any way”.
Yes pupils read widely and often, but most of the books are happy go lucky fiction. How can my daughter start to think about more difficult aspects of life that are sad or even tragic? How will her vocabulary grow? Where did she learn that esq. stands for esquire? Certainly not in Moshi Monsters.
But it’s ok, the parents can do that: they are university educated and have a shed load of books at home. They can even teach them a bit of basic geography or history for good measure too.
There is no need to worry though because these generally good kids are just making expected progress.
Surely though these children could make exceptional progress if academic expectations were raised, formal routines introduced and curriculum leadership raised?
There are schools in some of the most deprived areas of England where such a culture exists and children are making swift progress. It’s time we demanded more of the sleepy coasting schools where parents’ actions mask the relaxed attitude to education.