A Russian Perspective on English schooling
06 Feb 2012 The Teachers' Newspaper (Russia)
A school is like clay
by Peter Polozhevets
“Have you already had lunch?” asked a blonde haired girl as she deftly grated cheese through an orange coloured grater. “Not yet” I replied, waiting for the catch. “I’ll make a cheese sauce, boil some macaroni and treat you to the kind of pasta you won’t even have tried in Italy. Will you come back when I’ve finished? By the way, I always leave a little bit for my mum so that she can rate how I’ve got on.” “I’ll try”, [I replied.
We leave the class where the kids are learning to cook. Cookery is one of the special courses within the subject ‘technology’ – also included are textiles, woodwork, design and sewing.
There are flags hanging around the edge of the assembly hall representing the countries which the pupils are from. The Russian flag is amongst those hanging on the walls.
Why the pupils like this school
After two double lessons, or ‘periods’ in local school speak, the children poured outside. The grounds are big – there is enough space for everybody; nobody gets in each other’s way. I approach a group of boys sitting on the furthest bench. They are discussing rugby.
“I am a journalist, from Russia. Could I ask you a few questions?”
“Fire away” replies a red haired boy. “Only first you tell us: what made you interested in our school?”
“That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you: how is your school different from others?”
“It’s cool here!” replied the same pupil. “Look around! We’ve got everybody here – immigrants from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europeans. But we are like one family.”
“And, it’s safe here” continues another. “And we have some of the best test results in England. We are in the top 15% of state schools in the country. It’s a direct route to university.”
Another boy from the group joins the conversation: “They do teach well here. I used to go to a school where there was hardly any structure, no discipline, there were fights, conflicts and no success at all. Nobody got into university with results from that school. I’m lucky, I moved here and started to go to this school, although Chalvey isn’t exactly the best place to live…”
Why the school displays flags from 45 countries
Slough & Eton School (in English the full title is: Slough & Eton Church of England Business and Enterprise College) is situated in Chalvey. Chalvey is five miles from well-known Windsor – the favourite residence of Queen Elizabeth II. On a small patch of well cared for English land lies on the one part a luxurious castle and on the other a deprived area. There is a British index, IDACI, which shows the number of school-age children from low-income families to the total number of pupils. In Chalvey this index is 0.36 – this means that every third school child in this area is from a low-income family. In Slough (which is situated next to Chalvey) the indicator is better – 0.28, and for the country as a whole it is just 0.22. Approximately one third of the school’s pupils receive free school meals, and this is significantly more than the average in schools across Slough, where only 14% of school children use this subsidy. There are many in this region who don’t simply drink; they are already hardened alcoholics. A second serious issue is prostitution.
There are immigrants from 45 different countries studying at the school. The flags of each of these countries hang around the edge of the assembly hall in alphabetical order. Adjacent is some information about the countries – population and size. When a pupil from a new country arrives at the school, the flags are moved around so that the order is maintained. This encourages the pupils to respect one another and develop an interest in foreign cultures. The Russian flag is amongst those hanging on the walls.
The cultural variety broadens the children’s understanding about the world, but at the same time the ethnic diversity can be a problem for the school – 70% of the children speak their native language, not English, at home. 40% of those entering Year 7 display a level of English one level below the national indicator, and 20% are two levels below. The number of pupils who come to the school but do not complete their studies has gone down in recent years, but there are still quite a number. And only 70% of the current Year 11 pupils have been in the school since Year 7. There are twice as many boys in the school as girls and, in contrast to the national trend, the boys’ results here are better than the girls’ results.
An ‘outstanding’ school.
An HMI Inspector of Schools, Roy Blatchford, told me that Slough & Eton School is now one of the best schools in England. At the end of a recent inspection the school was awarded the status ‘outstanding’. Each English state school is subject to an inspection once every four years by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills). A team of five inspectors, including one HMI, observes 41 lessons, taught by 41 teachers, interviews pupils, members of the governing board and members of school staff. They study the school curriculum, its policies, and management methods and analyse the data collected by the educational institution, including self-assessment forms. During the course of the inspection 270 questionnaires are completed by parents, teachers and other staff. The main aim of these inspections is to determine how well the school is working – and this means: does it satisfy, without exception, the needs of all the pupils? How effectively does the school provide for the individual progress of each child?
At the end of the inspection, the school is awarded one of four levels: outstanding, good, satisfactory or inadequate. According to the results of a recent inspection, 12% of secondary schools achieved the first level, 39% achieved the second, 38% - the third, and 11% - the fourth. What did the inspectors find? High exam and test results which are almost at the national average. They found no problems with behaviour or attendance and for the majority a healthy lifestyle is becoming the norm. There are highly professional teachers working in the school, who know their subject extremely well, are able to set clear goals and make effective use of resources, including information and communication technology. The well-chosen management has helped in achieving these successes.
Just over three years ago, Paul McAteer became head teacher, and two new deputies arrived together with him. Over time he replaced a further two deputies and directors of maths, English, literacy and numeracy. The latter two positions sound very nice in English – Director of Literacy and Director of Numeracy. Paul set himself three major tasks: to ensure that the teachers understood what the school they were creating should be like; to ensure that the pupils wanted to attend this school in particular; and to ensure that the parents studied together with their children, helping one another.
“We always thought about how we could make sure the children enjoyed learning, and got satisfaction from the results they achieve. We made sure that they understood that success in life and completely fulfilling their potential depends on how they study now”. Paul shared his thoughts with a group of teachers from Moscow during their school visit. “In our school all pupils are valued equally, irrespective of their ethnic identity or their parents’ social situation. We teach them to work with one another, to work on problem solving together, thus creating an atmosphere of tolerance and positivity. We want our pupils to be able to think creatively and analytically and to understand the essence of a problem".
How to achieve high attendance
Paul McAteer worked out the following formula a long time ago: poor leadership or management leads to poor discipline which, in turn, leads to poor academic results. The school’s rules on behaviour are strict and written out in detail. Children are not permitted to bring expensive things to school – not only because they might be stolen, but so different levels of income are not displayed. Mobile phones can only be used during break times, and only outside of the school building. They must be switched off during lessons – if not, the phone is confiscated and only returned when the child’s parents come into the school to collect it.
Leather jackets banned
School uniform is compulsory. The school rules state that it is compulsory not only in school but on the way to and from school. The idea is that well dressed school children are good ambassadors for the school. No jewellery is allowed with the exception of one pair of earrings or clip-ons for girls, and wristwatches. Painted nails and make-up are banned. Hairstyles have to be neat and tidy and, if dyed, then only one colour without any ‘highlights’. A black jacket, black trousers or a skirt, a white shirt (tucked in), black shoes and no trainers or shoes resembling trainers. The ensemble is completed with a school tie and a school crest, sewn on to the left breast pocket. The two latter items are provided by the school. The requirements for outer clothing are also clearly set out: leather jackets and tracksuit tops are included in the list of prohibited items.
Parents are asked to ensure that their children arrive at school on time – ten minutes before the start of lessons, at 8.20. If for any reason a child will not be able to attend lessons, the parents are obliged to call the school. But a phone call is not enough – when the child returns to school they have to bring a letter explaining the absence and hand it to their tutor. If parents know in advance that their son or daughter will be absent on a particular day for a valid reason then they must complete a form and leave it for the head teacher. Things become difficult when a pupil has missed 6% of their lessons. The lower the attendance the worse the expected academic achievement. Parents can be fined for their children’s low attendance, taken to court and even sentenced to time in prison. Incidentally, the school has special members of staff to monitor the pupils’ attendance and punctuality.
At the beginning of the academic year, each pupil is given a special planning notebook, the equivalent of our diaries, where he will make a note of all homework and other information linked with to learning process, as well as his awards and merits. This book has to be brought to school every day, and parents sign the book weekly, as do the tutors.
Smoothing the transition from primary to secondary school
Paul McAteer believes that the transition from primary to secondary school is a serious ordeal for the majority of children. The process needs to be made as painless and as comfortable as possible. That’s why a few months before the new school year starts secondary school teachers visit the local primary schools which send the Year 7 pupils to them. They don’t have to campaign for the children to come to them – the year groups are oversubscribed as it is. They discuss with their colleagues the pupils who have already definitely decided to continue their education at Slough and Eton. They try to understand what the children will require in secondary school and any specific needs the teachers might come across. In the summer term all of the future Year 7 children spend one day in their new school, getting to know the structure, rules, traditions, teachers and the curriculum for the next year. It is also possible to sign up for a two-week summer school where consultation on all future subjects takes place.
At the beginning of each academic year there are Maths and English tests for each year. The results are communicated to the parents using ‘gradecards’. Before the summer holidays the children are tested again and the school looks at how their results have changed. And again the parents are informed. As a rule, the results change for the better. This is evidenced by the results of two independent school inspections this year – Ofsted, and the Church of England; the school is under the patronage of the Church of England. There is usually one meeting with parents for each year group per term; these are called parents’ evenings. At these meetings specific problems are discussed and a ‘full school report’ is given.
Educating the parents
Many of the parents cannot read. The school has thought up the following approach so that parents can keep up to date with school news. An audio letter is uploaded onto the school website. The pupils can download it onto their phones and play it for their parents to listen to at home. The school doesn’t only teach the children, but also their parents. Four days a week, from 9am until 8pm a special reception operates for adults who want to continue their education. Cookery is one of the special courses within the subject ‘technology’ – also included are textiles, woodwork, design and sewing.
…At exactly 9.15 the telephone rings in reception. A polite female voice, interested in how much the computer course costs. The woman was told that these courses are free. Mind you, the course is almost full, it’s very popular. But if she signs up today then there is a chance that she will be able to get a place. “Sign me up right away”, said the voice at the other end of the telephone. “Is there anything else I can help you with?” asked the receptionist. “Well, I would like to improve my English”. “In that case you need to get in touch with Sahira Tariq. She’s in charge of those classes. You can choose a group according to your level. Oh, and we have a free crèche so you can come with children, you just need to book a place in advance – a lot of people want to leave their children in the crèche during the lessons.”
The receptionist could tell that the woman was in no hurry to end the conversation and wanted to ask something else, but seemed shy. “You know, we also run a brilliant course for parents with children. ‘How to cook healthy and tasty food’. It’s a ten week course and only costs £5 per family, even if you come with three children –you only pay for the ingredients.” “But I can cook very well. Why do I need to learn how?” “You see, the thing is – you’ll cook new dishes together with your children. What’s better than discovering something new together with your children?” “I’ll think about it. Could you tell me, when I was at home, in my native country, even though it was considered to be men’s work, I made clay pots, dishes, plates and jugs – I really liked it. The clay was ‘alive’ for me. I was calm and forgot about the pain of wasted days and the happiness that might have been. Do you have a ceramics course? I’d go to it.” “Yes, there are classes, and we have a kiln for baking.” “What a happy day” said the caller, “thank you. In actual fact I do have three children, and two of them are pupils at your school. Maybe we’ll all come together to the cookery classes.” The receptionist felt that she could see how the woman, having finished the conversation, smiled, walked over to the window and looked at the fast-moving clouds in the sky…
The day courses are usually spread out over five weeks, two-hour classes are held once a week. The subjects vary, from ‘First steps in English’ to ‘Cake decoration for beginners’. Popular courses include ‘Knitting for fun, ‘Beautiful eyes’, ‘Sewing for beginners’ and ‘Women’s yoga’. The courses cost a few pounds. The evening courses are more advanced; people prepare to take certificates according to their level of English, mathematics and literacy.
P.S. I didn’t try the pasta in the end, and still regret it. In the hands of a talented potter unique things are born out of clay that is malleable and ‘alive’. In the same way, a talented head teacher creates a unique social institution from a school that is ‘alive’, although not always malleable.
Photographs: Pavel Krivousov