Public Meeting at the New Oriel Hall Larkhall

Between 40 and 50 people attended this meeting which was a result of the leaflet drop of that name made throughout Larkhall and the adjoining areas.

Twelve questions were asked during the course of a lively one and a half hour discussion.  These were, in the order asked, as follows:

  1. What kind of time scale are we looking at?
  2. Why do you say that St Mark’s is vulnerable?
  3. How do you implement your philosophy?
  4. How do we make BANES ‘do it’?
  5. Who are the key players?
  6. What understanding is there amongst us of the staff of the three schools sharing our ideas?
  7. How do we address the question of human resources, i.e. how can you ensure quality of staff?
  8. If none of the three schools was involved, how would that place your philosophy?  Would we need to opt out altogether if the staff of the three schools didn’t follow our idealism?
  9. What about introducing a play ethos for the under 7s?
  10. What is the opinion of the church?
  11. Doesn’t your vision exclude the Valley Schools?
  12. How do we get the Heads involved?

Although an electronic recording of the discussion was made, it seems better to reorder the questions slightly so as to ease the task of the readers of this record.  This enables my answers to have a sense of continuity and fit into a single piece.  There is one long answer, and eleven significantly shorter ones.

2.   Is St Mark’s vulnerable? At a time when BANES is looking to achieve “best return on its money” (and is under considerable pressure from London to do so) and so is planning to close one secondary school, the fact that St Mark’s is the smallest of the BANES secondary schools with only 280 pupils on its role in a facility built for 540 makes it economically vulnerable.  It is also vulnerable in terms of the numbers of staff needed to provide a balanced curriculum and makes it a very uneconomic school for the Authority to maintain.  The fact that it currently does not have a Sixth Form on site, when most Bath secondary schools do, makes it, in the eyes of some parents, a less attractive school to which to send their children at the age of eleven.  It is known that this is one of the reasons (and certainly not the only one) why significant numbers of parents of 11-year-olds opt to send their children either to one of the other state secondary schools, or into independent education.

 

That the future of St. Mark’s has appeared uncertain for several years (here the blame must largely lie with the desultory way in which the Authority has approached the rationalisation of secondary education) has understandably contributed towards this, but it is not the only reason, nor can it be largely blamed on its historic legacy of years before.  Fighting in a tough corner, and receiving more than its fair share of difficult pupils from other parts of Bath, St Mark’s has developed an ethos that works well for many of its own pupils (which has to be the school’s natural and reasonable response) but in doing so it seems to many potential parents to be the kind of school that does very well for special needs children but is not the place that they want for their own child.  In this the school’s very present success seems to work against its public perception.

This may well be a total misconception and it is to address this issue that when I spoke to the staff, some governors and some parents, at St Mark’s for a whole day in February 2007 I urged the school to make a “leap of faith in the community” (see attachment).   This meant, as the staff record of the day noted and which is appended to this document, (i) getting involved in Larkhall community projects, (ii) getting into the local primary and infant schools so that coming up to St Mark’s is a natural and wanted progression and (iii) as the staff representative reported to the common room “get John to talk to the community; find out what they want from St Mark’s, and what they are going to give St Mark’s.”

My offer to address such community meetings was reiterated later that year, and again several times in 2008.  But no such meetings have ever been held and, I would suggest, the broad base of friends that St Mark’s most desperately needs has never materialised – until perhaps the meeting of May 22nd, and this one on July 9th.  The public meeting held at the invitation of BANES on May 12th was well attended by the current parents of St Mark’s who quite naturally expressed pleasure at what the school currently provides, but it was not well attended (presumably because they didn’t think anybody would take any notice of them) by those people within the community who have not considered sending their children to St Mark’s.

That the governors of St Mark’s have entered into discussion with the governors of St Gregory’s for pupils from St Mark’s to have an automatic right of transfer at the age of 16 to St Gregory’s addresses one major part of the St Mark’s dilemma.  It should reassure potential parents about what could happen five years on from transfer from primary school. To a concerned parent of an 11-year-old that is fine in the long run but what is going to make St Mark’s an attractive proposition for the next five years?  Can one of England’s smallest urban 11-16 comprehensive schools grow and evolve quickly enough to attract  twice as many 11-year-old as currently wish to go to St Mark’s?  That has to be the essential transformation.

To create a new sense of enthusiasm the governors of St Mark’s have to go far further than resting their case on the link with St Gregory’s and urgently work on the issue of enthusiastic transfer from the infant and junior schools to St Mark’s.  To do this they have to talk with, listen to, and work with members of the entire community.  That community is broader, as was said in the first leaflet, than just Larkhall and involves all the schools of the Valley.

Which is why, at the first public meeting, the case was made to give urgent consideration to creating an all-through Larkhall 5-16 school.  The case was made on how this would benefit all children; how it would attract very good staff; and how it would also enable the three separate schools to develop as a single unit on a single site, so bringing with it enormous economies of scale.  With such economies of scale a reallocation of funds could be made to ensure that progressively all the youngest children are helped to so master the basic skills that the curriculum of secondary education could be transformed.

5. Who are the key players? Of course these are the Heads and the governing bodies, supported by their staff.  But, and here is the problem which this project has to overcome, all of us have to think in terms of what is actually best for all children, not just now but in five or ten years time.  We have to think about all the children of Larkhall and neighbourhood, not just the children attending our particular school.

 

 

It is a natural ‘newspaper headlines’ kind of reaction that in times of stress and tension the easiest thing is to “Save Our School.”  It is here that a wise community must become so critical as to enable the argument to be carefully worked through.  Speaking as a former Head myself I know how easy it is (because we seem to carry so many responsibilities and pour so much of ourselves into our jobs) to become more committed to the well-being of an existing institution, than it is to rethink what is best for the children… and the next generation of children.

In the 1950s when the planners built St Mark’s and redeveloped St Saviour’s infant and junior schools, educational thinking and the research which underpinned this, saw a logic in splitting the education of the 5-16 year olds into three phases.  For much of that time we have actually known that one, not to mention two, periods of transfer cause considerable disruption to many children’s academic learning.  We have known this, but we have done little about it.  In the past 10-15 years biomedical and cognitive research has shown overwhelmingly the importance of shifting resources towards the youngest children, and then capitalising on the metacognitive abilities associated with adolescence to move away from a teacher-dominated curriculum towards more independent study.  Just because central government seems incapable of grasping the vexed question of transfer of funding from secondary to primary education, does not mean to say that a community as tightly-knit as Larkhall could not take up this challenge.  Think national, act local is a good maxim.

Some people have suggested that to introduce the concept of the all-through school at this stage when the schools of Bath are fighting for their survival is a dangerous distraction.  We would argue that it is just at this moment when people are seriously considering future alternatives that these are the issues that should be right at the very front of people’s thinking.

4.   How do we make BANES ‘do it?’ Conventionally no one person, no single school, nor any collection of schools has rarely ever been able to make a very major shift in the policy of local authority, be it BANES, or a large county council.  Again my own personal experience in Hertfordshire exemplifies this point.  Local Authorities become very proud of what they have achieved, and then struggle to perpetuate that model, long after its usefulness has ceased.

For better or worse we appear in mid 2010 to be moving into a political situation where, at least on paper, Authorities are being required to be more responsive to the needs of the local community.  They only become responsive to well thought-through ideas, and to the very obvious commitment of people to run with this.  This change of mood is reflected in the BANES document of earlier this year – The Review of Secondary Schools.  That Review actually invited separate proposals to be considered by BANES.  It was in the light of that invitation that we first submitted the proposal at the end of May and it was clear from talks held subsequently that the key officers and elected members were aware of this, and noted what its value could be.  Since then however, political changes at Westminster have led to any assumption that an alternative view of education provision can be met simply by withdrawing the school or schools from Local Authority ownership.  This is where Larkhall fits uncomfortably because, although wanting to do something very different, they do not want to break out of the local structure – they want to be innovative, but within the concept of the Local Authority.  This should matter a lot to BANES.

5 and 10.     Who are the other key players? What Larkhall might attempt to do would be sufficiently novel in England, at a time when many others are thinking of innovation, to attract considerable outside enthusiasm.  There should be several universities interested in studying this, and looking at the implications it has for teacher education.

Not least amongst these groups should be the Anglican Church (question 10) to whom the three schools immediately concerned are all related.  St Mark’s, being a voluntary-aided school, means that the Church largely owns the land and is responsible for significant amounts of capital expenditure.  St Saviour’s Infant and Junior Schools are related to the Church (and were originally set up by the Church) but now the Church has no financial involvement in their day-to-day activity.

Across the community as a whole there are large numbers of people with skills which should be made available to young people – men and women who were once artists, entrepreneurs, engineers, writers, translators, etc., all of whom could provide an invaluable additional resource to young people.  A wise governing body will want to listen very carefully to all of these groups – not only its present parents, but people who might be considering becoming parents.  Which is why, in the constitution of governing bodies, places are given not only to parents, but also to representatives of the community.

 

6.   What understanding is there amongst the staff of the three schools who would need to share these ideas? The simple answer is that no one of us knows that. For so many years the wealth of the new understanding about human learning, which was beginning to flourish around the year 2000, has been swamped by all the administrative minutiae which recently governments have imposed upon schools.  To a considerable extent this has prevented the teachers thinking further about the application of these ideas.  That in its own right is a total tragedy.

 

Suddenly government appears to be offering the opportunity for anybody with a new idea about organising education to have the funds to start a school of their own.     Unless there are sufficient people who really understand that learning is more than just teaching, and that education is more than just going to school, we will have a proliferation of schools which simply mirror the present.  They need to work with the staff, not only of the three schools in Larkhall, but on a much broader basis to ensure that they are in a position to capitalise on this new freedom now becomes a paramount issue.

 

Which leads to the next two questions.

3.   How do you implement your philosophy? This requires a lot of slog.  Slog in terms of governors understanding what this would involve; the community seizing the opportunity to speak in meaningful language to the governors and to the school, and to the teachers in renewing their enthusiasm that the role of a teacher is not simply the transference of today’s knowledge, but the wisdom to help children develop knowledge in the future which goes far beyond anything that can actually ‘taught’ in school.

Which naturally leads on to the next question.

1.    What kind of time scale are we looking at? While these matters are undoubtedly urgent, the truth is that to change perception takes a long time.  That does not mean to say that we dillydally on the way, but it does mean that we cannot rush forward without making sure that the philosophy is genuinely understood by everybody, and that the sense of urgency is maintained as people work through the detail.

It was suggested that a first step should be to ask the three schools to collaborate as fully as possible as they each begin to adjust to these issues.  That is a fine first step, but it is only a first step.

The more individual schools do this the more obvious it will become to governors and staff that it is the present splitting into three segments that makes it impossible to implement across the entire age range the excellent policy already started by St Mark’s of “Stage not Age.”  What is needed is for flexibility between all stages… which currently cannot happen with fixed boundaries of transfer at the ages of seven and eleven. Moreover, and this is as critical, neither can there be any serious reallocation of funds if funding is simply looked at from the perspective of the best interest of the individual school.  With such a narrow way of looking at this there will be no strong urgency to reverse the current funding based on greater generosity to secondary education.

So, what about the time scale?  Starting now, working at all these issues most seriously, it will take up to the order of ten years to bring all this about… almost the entire school career of a five-year-old just starting.  Rather than being put at a disadvantage in any form of ‘guinea pig’ sort of situation, these will be the most fortunate of all children because they will have the enormous enthusiasm of some of the keenest teachers in the country to really make this the new model for English education.

9.  Play Ethos for the Under-Seven. Yes, play indeed is not only desirable, but essential.  All human learning starts with a sense of inquisitiveness and play is, actually, about experimenting in a safe environment.  Play in an educational environment has the additional advantage that adults can begin systematically to support such play with inquisitive questions of their own to the pupils which helps them, in turn, to be still more inquisitive.  The more young children learn to experiment at this level the better prepared they are later to ask good questions.  It is the personal involvement of the child in their own learning that people like me see as the critical issue.  But this is a point of great contention.  Let me illustrate this:

In a most influential book published in the year 2000, “Becoming Adult: How teenagers prepare for the world of work,” which reported on an eight-year study into the skilled development of older children, two key findings emerged:

… students who get the most out of school – and have the highest future expectations – are those who find school more playlike than worklike.

… clear vocational goals and good work experience do not guarantee a smooth transition to adult work.  Engaging activities – with intense involvement regardless of contact – are essential for building the optimism and resilience crucial to satisfying their work lives.

At the time that book was published an interesting letter was published in The Independent by a university admissions tutor.  It went as follows:

“The question Ministers should address is: ‘Why do students from state schools do much worse than those from private schools at A Level and in interviews?  I believe there are two answers: the national curriculum and Chris Woodhead.  The straight-jacket which has been imposed on state schools prevents them from truly educating their pupils.  They are required instead to provide training, but not permitted to provide education.  Pupils from schools not under this duress will inevitably do better.’”

NB.  At this time I was much involved both in public and in private with arguments with Chris Woodhead, then the Chief Inspector of Ofsted.  I will shortly publish some of this correspondence as it is most enlightening.

8.  If none of the schools wants to do this, what would this do for your philosophy? I am not personally involved with any of the Larkhall schools but I have an extremely wide experience of different kinds of schooling both in Britain (the Scots, the Irish and increasingly the Welsh are doing things differently to the English), Europe and essentially across the English-speaking world.

This enables me to observe that what people here are proposing for Larkhall will, inevitably, have to be adopted across the whole country as more and more people accept the need for radical transformation based on an ever better appreciation of what I call “the grain of the brain.”  Humans are enormously empowered by the structure of the human brain, but they are constrained by it as well. Driven to go against its natural inclinations, the brain (and you can see this in so many of today’s teenagers) simply rebels, digs its heels in, and refuses to become involved.

School leaders will have to learn to recognise what every woodcarver has known for centuries: that to produce a brilliant sculpture you have to work with the natural grain – be it of wood, or the complexity of the human brain.  Several countries are already moving in this direction of which the Scandinavian countries are pre-eminent… soon parts of Britain will be doing this as well.  Could Larkhall be one of these?

7.  The quality of human resources. Whatever the structure of the school, whatever the state of the classrooms, or the nature of its examination systems, nothing matters as much as the quality of the teachers, and their individual relationships with pupils.  For twenty or more years most teachers have been taught to deliver the national curriculum in a tightly defined way – which has driven some of them to leave the profession very shortly, and too many of them to lose their zest for a broadly-based education.

Yet there will always be a supply of enthusiastic potential teachers.  Government has recognised this when it urges attention to be given to a programme called “Teach First”, a scheme whereby graduates with good degrees can go into teaching for two or three years before going on to another career.  What bureaucrats have noticed about this is that such sharp young minds are more willing to break away from the conventional model of teaching.  That is a good first step.  Further steps are needed… such as the situation in Finland which has the world’s highest standards for literacy and numeracy where they insist that every teacher has both a three-year good Honours Degree, and a three-year Pedagogic Degree in the understanding of learning and human development.  To pioneer such teachers is what Larkhall could do.

11.  Doesn’t your vision exclude the Valley Schools? Most certainly not.  Everything that has been said about this refers to Larkhall and the greater Lambridge Valley.  There could, and should, be movement in and out between the different schools both to suit the needs of the child and the parent, and of a continuously moving population.

10.  What is the opinion of the Church? Having been invited by the Bishop to address the entire clergy of the Bath and Wells Diocese at their Annual Conference two years ago, the clergy of the neighbourhood are well aware of the issues at stake.  Just how they will organise themselves around this, as the future of one of the few Anglican secondary schools begins to be seriously discussed, should well reflect this.

12.  How do we get the Heads involved? The question is really the wrong way around.  There is nothing that ‘we’ can do without the individual Heads having internalised such thinking, made it their own, and use their present leadership roles and responsibility to look beyond the immediate foothills (which so often preoccupy all of us) and dare to see the Big Picture, the true mountains that need to be climbed.  Immediately we can encourage them to do this but, given the present structure of English education, they really have to be in the lead.  Without their leadership we will be stuck in the disconcerting foothills while bolder spirits scale the heights.

NB.  Over the summer holidays, in discussion with the others who are involved, I would be happy to try and answer on this website other questions that people might wish to ask.

John Abbott

27th July 2010

INSET Priorities from Staff

We radically change the curriculum.

Music in the background when working in class.

Pupils help other pupils in class with work (to discover for themselves – not teacher telling them the whole time)

Have study group lessons/sessions

Create working parties where staff focus in Insets and Monday meetings as well in their own time on key issues about the school;

  • Essential) Cross-Curriculum links made to prevent repetition in other subjects, save time and create a sense of purpose!
  • ‘Out side the box@ team – make links with community for potential projects, start up portfolio’s for each student to add to etc…
  • Reports, word-limit within Union expectation

Get involved in Larkhall community projects – set up community groups to manage this – eg Larkhall Environmental Group (LEG) to a) clear the brook opposite Otago Terrace, to do litter pick in the park etc.

Get into the local Primary and Infant schools more regularly so that coming up to St Mark’s is a natural and wanted progression.

Get John to talk to ‘The Community’: what do they want from St Mark’s?  What can they give to St Mark’s?

Get the pupils who attended to lead feedback (with staff) to the rest of the school?

Major rethink of the structure of our curriculum.  MUST have more opportunities for cross-curricular work, extended projects, out of school learning, private study/independent learning, team teaching, peer teaching, more links with community, linking subjects to the world of work and the world around them, more funding for exciting learning opportunities (overseas trips!!)… I could go on forever!!!

Dare to be different – accepting this as part of our school ethos.  Students AND Staff are frustrated and confused by rigid frameworks, bureaucracy in order to ‘tick a box,’ endless changes etc.  Let’s be brave and be innovative, rather than constantly towing the line.

Set aside a sufficient amount of time to draw up a list of things we can do as a whole school, as subject leaders and as teachers

Draw up a plan and a timeline for implementation having worked out what we are going to do.

Dedicate an inset day for staff to work on cross curricular links as there are hundreds of them but we can’t do anything about it because there is never enough time.

Devise an action plan which has at its core a child centred approach.

To enlist the help of Human Scale Education in implementing and advising on the plan.