Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Secret of Good Schools?

Michael Gove thinks in headlines but then fails to do any necessary research for the actual story.  His latest headline was that state schools should become more like private schools, but without the money obviously.  Which pretty well makes the transformation impossible.  The things that Gove was lauding as good for schools - extra sports, Combined Cadet Forces, outside speakers, societies - area also precisely the area that his department and government has cut back on in school budgets.  Does he even look at his own budgeting arrangements? 

Nonetheless, because he is after all the Education Secretary, the Today programme ran a short discussion this morning between two heads - a prep school headteacher and a state school (Academy) headteacher, although the Academy head is nothing as lowly as a mere headmaster, he is an Executive Director.  The explosion of school titles is often in directly inverse proportion to the explosion in a school's results, although Mr Day, the Executive Director in question, appeared to be running a pretty good school up in Northumberland.  Unfortunately, the Today programme debate offered little illumination on the issue of how state schools could learn from the private sector, since both participants were understandably only able to comment on their own schools.  Which sounded like good ones.

There are in fact two key factors which often make the difference between the private and state sectors, the second of which is emulated in the top state schools for the most part.  The first factor is simple to identify but difficult to obtain.  Money.  Top private schools spend more than twice per pupil than state ones, and have wealthy foundations to fund capital projects to boot.  This means smaller classes (and even bad teachers do better with smaller classes) and fantastic facilities.  It also means paying staff higher wages in the very top schools, and giving them smaller timetables - no wonder everyone wants to work in them.

The second factor is less quantifiable, but more important.  Parents.  Most good schools achieve great things and  motivate their students because they have the support of a significant body of positive parents.  Education may be formally done in school, but the motivation for it and attitude towards it comes entirely from the home.  My own school is a good example.  Parents throng the parents' evenings and meetings, because this is what they regard as important in that complex, messy, unteachable process of bringing up their children.  The school benefits, and it keeps teachers on their toes.  We pat ourselves on the back when we return from school trips because the students have all been so impressive and everyone we meet has seen fit to mention how exemplary they all are.  But this isn't really much to do with us, and everything to do with their parents.  We just try and maintain the home ethos in school.  Positive parenting is also the secret behind the success of those Free Schools that are doing so well - the West London Free School springs to mind.  Money helps, but nothing engenders a good school more than the support of parents. 


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