Free the schools

Katharine Birbalsingh is a bright young Englishwoman, a teacher by profession and of Guyanese extraction. A short while ago she began a blog about her experiences as a teacher in inner-city secondary schools in England. She was approached by publishers, caught the attention of a Downing Street aide and six months ago she brought the Tory party conference in Birmingham to their feet with her damning portrayal of state schools as Houses of Babel. This portrait was particularly galling for the Labour Party because in 1997 Labour swept to power in England with the mantra of ‘Education, Education, Education,’ and injected a huge amount of capital into education, upgrading school buildings and facilities, training and rewarding teachers and monitoring performance with league tables based on exam results and inspectors’ reports, Yet, despite all of this, nearly half of the pupils still emerge from secondary school without a pass in five subjects at GCSE. Why? Birbalsingh, who has a decade of teaching experience, spoke of rampaging students and cowed teachers and offered up a litany of woes that might awaken the sympathies of teachers in some of our more challenging schools. She described a world in which discipline was non-existent, political-correctness ran amok and students (and their parents) were crippled by the twin shackles of low expectations and an overwhelming sense of entitlement.

Discipline in English state schools occurs in the form of cautions, detentions, suspensions and similar punishments and, in the case of an exceptionally unruly pupil, may culminate in exclusion, where the child is forced to leave the school. More than 6,000 children are ‘excluded’ every year in England. Schools are penalised by the local authority (which funds them) for excluding pupils. They often opt to retain disruptive pupils who then make it impossible for teachers to teach and the other pupils to learn. In some schools there are virtually no sanctions on a student’s behaviour at all (though there are many for teachers) and teachers consequently struggle to maintain order in their classrooms. By contrast, in Guyana we place a premium on discipline but still tend to equate it with corporal punishment. This is equally mistaken and somewhat archaic; there is now a substantial body of evidence to show that other punishments are equally effective and do not run the risk of endorsing (and therefore perpetuating) violence, albeit in institutionalised form. Some teachers still believe that they can maintain control in a classroom most effectively through fear (of a ‘good’ beating). Most teachers, however, here and abroad, realise that an ability to generate respect, not fear, is the key. Without the means or ability to control a class, even the best-educated, best-trained teacher, in the most modern classroom with every technological aide and learning material at his/her disposal, will struggle, and ultimately fail. In order for teaching to occur, there are certain pre-conditions that must exist and an orderly class is the most obvious of these.
There is a strong move afoot to embrace new teaching methods and technologies in education. These are valuable but their role must not be overstated, particularly in a resource-poor region like the Caribbean. We need to consider very carefully not just how we will teach (the opportunities) but how we can teach (the constraints). The older methods, ‘chalk and talk,’ have served many children well for generations. They do not require much in the way of electricity, textbooks, TVs, computers or other props. We must be realistic about what is possible and available locally. In St Margaret’s, one of our best primary schools, there are 841 pupils, 27 teachers and one computer. “Working at the school,” said one senior teacher, “is a very enjoyable experience but challenging because you have to be everything.” The head teacher’s philosophy is instructive: “Education is not only academics. We try to make them fit for society.” Schools cannot be expected to exist entirely in isolation from their surroundings. Schools reflect the wider community. They mirror its strengths and its weaknesses; we still beat our children at school because we beat them at home. However, children only spend about a quarter of their time at school. If their activities outside of school do not reinforce the habits they learn at school they will find it harder to progress. We need to be alive to the constraints and limitations that operate in our societies and our communities. Ms Bovell, an Education Officer, made an extremely perceptive remark in an interview last year: “A lot of parents are doing things for their children. They are buying them books and they are sending them to lessons and summer programmes. What parents are not doing enough is doing things with their children.” The National Development Strategy (NDS) drew attention, a decade ago, to the “absence of a culture of literacy in many home environments.” Early years educators affirm that even the simple act of reading a bedtime story can help to redress this deficit. Put simply, parents need to turn off the TV and do more reading with their children.

Cultural differences are as important as cultural constraints. In Guyana, most formal working environments still operate within a rigid hierarchy of power and the classroom is no exception. Many modern teaching methods presuppose a level of familiarity, a rapport between teacher and pupil which is fundamentally at odds with our conventions. Teachers are being encouraged to make the learning experience ‘fun,’ to use games and technology to spice up the process. Used properly, these approaches undoubtedly enhance the learning experience and may help to engage boys in particular. However their wholesale adoption in Guyanese schools is problematic. This kind of teaching represents a paradigmatic shift in the relationship between the instructor and the instructed which is under-examined and often ignored. To import these new methods without addressing the dynamics of this new relationship (and its fallout) is to court chaos and confusion.

Birbalsingh has a book to promote so it is not impossible that she may have slightly overstated the case. However, there has been enough clamour in her wake to suggest that she has struck a chord. She has indicated that she plans to open a ‘free school’ in south London in the future. Free schools are an initiative of the new coalition government. They will operate outside of local authority control and can be set up by parents, teachers, charities, voluntary groups, educational philantropists or even businesses. So far, many applications have come from teachers wanting to use their skills in inner-city areas. The schools, modelled on US charter schools like the MATCH school in Boston, will have a greater measure of control over their finances, the curriculum and teachers’ pay and conditions but will still be inspected and regulated by the government. At the MATCH school (based in a converted car dealership), admission is by public lottery and a great deal is expected of students. “We have a very long, very structured school day – and we come down hard on things like gum chewing, shirts untucked and swearing, because we believe there is no time to waste. We’ve got high expectations, we truly believe that every kid who walks through the door can get a college degree. But we’re under no false impressions that it’s easy,” says the deputy director. In the UK, with the welfare state in retreat, this move to greater autonomy for schools is viewed with some scepticism.  Birbalsingh’s central thesis though, as summarised in one of her blogs is that “the welfare state has literally obliterated motivation and aspiration in entire communities.” By contrast, in Guyana, the state has been in decline and disarray for over a generation. The NDS observed that, where the state has failed to provide, sub-systems have emerged to plug the gaps with a “parallel system of education” (private courses) and an “out-of-school system of education” (lessons). Our own Education Minister, Shaik Baksh, has pointed out that, with 1000 schools spread over a large area, there is a limit to what a centralised  (underfunded and under-resourced) system of education can achieve. He favours greater decentralisation to the regions. Why not take it a step further and hand more control to the schools and parents? Why not allow schools to cater more for local conditions and to take advantage of local opportunities and community links? Furthermore, why not encourage the regions to treat some of our newly refurbished schools as centres of learning for all ages with literacy programmes for adults and area-specific courses in subjects such as small business management and agriculture? Schools could use the income from these courses to hire additional teachers, pay their current staff better or improve their facilities.

Two things still characterise Guyanese. We still believe in the transformative power of education. We have also, over the years, honed our ingenuity at overcoming the obstacles placed in our paths by a crumbling infrastructure and bureaucratic state. We have high expectations for our children but little sense of entitlement and no real faith that the educational system will deliver. We could use these traits as a springboard to rejuvenate schools in Guyana. An English MP also of Guyanese extraction, noted of Birbalsingh:  “she reminded me of aunts back in Guyana. Hers is a small ‘c’ conservatism of the West Indian variety. It has a tough attitude to personal responsibility, underpinned by a Christian belief in personal salvation.” This attitude has served Guyanese students well. In the face of uneven teaching, absent textbooks and crumbling schools in the last 25 years, some have still excelled. They have obtained an education by any means necessary. We have a lot to redress in our educational system. Happily though, the key ingredients, ‘motivation and aspiration’ still exist and there is complete consensus on the goal: nothing less than excellence for every student who aspires to, and is willing to work for it. As the motto of one of our local schools states: “To be the best I can be.”

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