N.B. The author is Tim Hewish – my Parliamentary Researcher.
We have just returned this afternoon having visited the Durand Academy in South London.
Researchers spend much of their time reading and studying policy, some policies better than others, but we often do not get to see the practical implementations.Therefore, it was a privilege to see firsthand how the Academy system is flourishing under the stewardship of Director, Greg Martin.
I was struck initially by the neighbourhood. Let’s not try to get away from the fact that the kids who attend are from deprived black communities south of the river that have previously had low educational achievement. The State has failed them in providing these children with a decent education. Therefore, it was time for someone else to attempt to help alleviate some of the plight and hardship many young people face today.
Regarding the school layout, call me old fashioned, but it was the discipline that was clear to see. The word utilitarian sprang to mind. The classrooms were all laid out in the same formation and the blackboard had objectives that were given a set time in which to complete and these were then graded accordingly out of 10 to how the task was performed. This policy was not deviated from one iota. Each classroom mirrored the next.
The classroom sizes were small, all under 20, with the lowest achievers in class sizes less than double figures. The fixed school uniforms, along with the basic mantra of speak only when asked, helped keep the classroom environment ordered and structured.
However, it’s not just the approach the children take, more how the Academy directs the teacher which is unique. The Director is not an advocate of the current teacher training system; instead his alternative is to directly immerse the new teacher into the heart of the school. All new teachers are shadowed by more established teachers from the outset. Their lesson plans are submitted and then scrutinised the Monday before, and the children’s work is sampled to see if the teachers marking and feedback standards remain consistent.
Durand’s educational reforms aren’t just intended for pupils alone. They want to address the misconception that failure is solely the result of rebellious children. Poor teachers also fail children.
This even went as far as headteachers. Greg explained that in every other profession you wouldn’t place a weak and failing person in a position of full control. A poor pilot, for example, wouldn’t be allowed to fly on their own; a co-pilot would assist. The same goes for headship. His idea of weaker heads being paired with stronger ones isn’t an admission of failure; rather it is about raising the standards of teaching and leadership as the focal point of the school.
These ideas were very refreshing. Durand is traditional, yet at the same time radical. It taught the basics thoroughly with discipline and rigor, while also providing a framework that was liberated from national curriculum oversight and over bearing Educational Authorities, trade unions and rigid bureaucracy.
Although, despite all the resistance to change from the Left, Durand’s results have been transformative, not just in terms of examination, but in outlook and horizons.
This is due in part to the business angle provided from Durand’s other ventures. Their innovative use of playground space which is (when you think about it) under-utilised 22hrs of the day; the building of a gym, swimming pool and football pitch for local residents to use generates wealth that is ploughed back into the school. This wealth is not just financial, but social. All the pupils get to use the facilities and this helps to breed healthy competition and sporting co-operation.
This synergy between private business and schooling may ideologically ignite vitriolic consternation from the Left, but when seeing the unparalleled success it is difficult to hold onto those reactionary assumptions.
Education is all about outcomes, not in a financial sense, but a personal journey. The worn out way of teaching is dead. We now have almost three generations of deteriorating standards. The time for lasting change has come. Parents should not put up with State failure. Education shouldn’t be exempt from being reprimanded when failure occurs.
The aim isn’t to standardise like old ideology has dictated to us at present. We should seek to first instruct in the early school years, then to set free. Choices, be they the English Baccalaureate or Academy status, shouldn’t be denied just because they go up against vested educational interests.
Durand wants to naturally progress and expand so they can create a secondary school to provide a smooth continuation of their efforts and cultivate their pupils. I expect an uphill struggle against the unions et al, however I can say without hesitation that Steve will be championing the Academy’s cause.
As for my reflections on my experiences today, I am drawn to my school days, recalling this Shakespearean line:
These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,
Or lose myself in dotage
–Anthony in Anthony and Cleopatra.
Apt for the educational malaise in which this nation finds itself bound.