Not the way to help state schools

Not the way to help state schools – I have worked in both sectors, and Alan Johnson ‘s proposal makes me want to laugh – and cry! Private school teachers cannot rescue state schools.

The Independent
May 28th 2007

I’m not sure whether Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education thought that the week before half-term would be a good time to dump daft news on teachers in state schools, or whether he thought they would appreciate a good joke before taking a break. He will find that he has antagonised many teachers in state schools who work hard at a difficult and demanding task, and that cannot be good for state schools and their pupils.
Unlike the Secretary of State, I have run a state school, and taught in private schools for seven years, and I find his proposal makes me want to both laugh and cry. The notion that teachers from private school can somehow be parachuted into troubled state schools is both patronising and woefully misguided. Although there is much in common in the teaching in the two sectors, there are crucial differences of which the Secretary of State clearly has no idea.

No private school would dare tolerate the presence of pupils who were known to bully, cheat, lie, steal, disrupt classes or behave in any way that prevented other pupils from working. Parents who pay for school places do so in the hope and belief that their children, and their teachers, will be spared such distractions. This was abundantly clear to me that very first day that I taught in a private school; every pupil accepted that adults, not just teachers, were there to help, guide, encourage, correct and, if necessary, admonish them. This was understood and accepted by everyone and teaching and learning was the order of the day.

This is what enables teachers in private schools to succeed. They are not equipped by training, temperament or experience to cope with the sort of thing I encountered when supply teaching in state schools two years ago. I wrote:

Too often I found the business depressing, children without books, pens and anything else they could think of that meant that I could not expect them to do any work. They would pretend not to understand instructions and displayed a lack of manners or basic consideration for other people, even their classmates,  that would make them unemployable outside schools.

As long as state schools are obliged to accept pupils without any kind of agreement or understanding with parents, and cannot readily dismiss any pupil who threatens the education of other pupils, parents will see private or independent schools as safer places and such schools will be regarded as better places to work by many teachers, the very teachers whom Alan Johnson wants to send on his rescue mission.

Like other state schools, the one that I was running in the mid-nineties was suddenly obliged to teach modern languages to all pupils. Within a year two members of my modern language department had left to teach in private schools, where they could make good use of their very considerable talents and where they were welcomed with open arms. Now, whenever I encounter “refugees” from the state sector, the one thing they tell me is that they will not be returning to the state sector. Compelled to do so by a Secretary of State, I am sure that they would rather leave teaching all together.

And it’s not as if there have never been schemes of co-operation between the sectors; years ago Dartington in Devon with Northcliffe Comprehensive in Conisborough, Dauntsey’s with St John’s in Wiltshire. Where there is mutual benefit and appreciation this can and should happen. But where schemes such as Alan Johnson’s are insisted upon, parents of children in private schools will be wary.

As will the teachers there who will be concerned at their standing, legal and professional, working away from their employer’s premises. State schools may not oblige their staff to take responsibility for pupils off the premises where the school’s writ does not run, so why should the independents? Assuming that the government does insist that independent schools make their staff available to state-maintained neighbours, then private school teachers, who might be willing to undertake exchanges and mutual assistance, but resent coercion, will be looking at their contracts of employment. It is one thing to visit other schools on one’s own terms, another matter to do so under duress. Private school teachers will keep their distance and will see this scheme simply as another government initiative for state schools that will follow countless others into oblivion, like David Willet’s proposal today regarding racial quotas for schools, another chore for state schools where, we should remind ourselves, children only spend a quarter of their waking hours.

There is also something curiously perverse in all this, like parents with whom I have had to deal. Having bullied or cajoled a school into admitting their child they then seek to excuse the child’s wilful neglect of clear arrangements or expectations and expect the school to tolerate hostility and abuse that will undermine the very thing, the school and what it offers, which they claimed they were so enthusiastic to support and share.

Alan Johnson has a vague idea that private schools and their teachers are better regarded than their state equivalents, a view he seems to share with current prime minister who has called for greater independence for state schools. Neither of them understand the words “private” and “independent,” for as soon as they direct private schools such schools will become more akin to state schools, and less of an attraction as sources of support and help.

It is state school teachers who should spend some time in independent schools for they would return demanding that politicians address the minority of children in difficult state schools whose presence is encouraging increasing number of parents to seek places in the private sector.

Share this: