Towards the end of last summer term, I visited a London comprehensive rated ‘Excellent’ by Ofsted. It’s not a specialist school, or a faith school, or a city academy. It is, however, slightly unusual in being comprehensive in more than just name. Almost a third speak a language other than English at home. Twenty per cent are entitled to free school meals (shorthand for children whose parents receive income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, or financial help in accordance with the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act). Another 20 per cent are from well-off households. And because of this diversity, the school is thriving. Most of the teachers I spoke to agreed that the school’s success was to some extent dependent on the presence of a significant proportion of pupils who’ve been brought up to believe in the importance of education, whose parents support the school and have high expectations of what their children can achieve. Such children are more likely to be found among the better off. A study that Edinburgh University carried out in Grampian in 1996 found that ‘the attainment of all pupils is enhanced if the school has many pupils from advantaged backgrounds. Conversely, the attainment of all pupils in a school is depressed if a school has few pupils from advantaged backgrounds.’ The importance of this cannot be stressed enough: too many ‘failing’ schools are in difficulty because too many parents who not only care about their children’s education but can afford to do something about it will go private, or move to the catchment area of a better school, forcing up house prices, and leading to further social segregation. A free-market model doesn’t – and can’t – work for the education system: there isn’t the clear distinction between ‘consumer’ and ‘product’ that proponents of the market would have us believe there is, since parental wealth is such an important factor in what makes a successful school.

It isn’t the only factor, of course: in the same way that a class entirely made up of disruptive children is too much for any teacher, however brilliant, to handle, so no group of children, regardless of their background, will learn anything without good teachers. Anyone who thinks the unions’ plea for a 35-hour week was unreasonable or ‘unprofessional’ should spend time in a classroom, to get some sense of what the job requires in terms of energy and concentration. The average teacher works a 52-hour week during term.

Year Nine (13 and 14-year-olds) are learning how to check into a German hotel. The lesson begins with a recap of the vocabulary, which they’re supposed to know already. The teacher puts onto the overhead projector a transparency with twenty or so little pictures on it, and goes round the class: ‘Bett’; ‘Doppelbett’; ‘I couldn’t tell you in English what that picture was of, sir’; ‘Frühstück’. There are three boys near me at the back of the class who are obviously quite good, but when they’re not giving the correct answers they’re tipping their chairs and flicking things at each other as if to try to disguise the fact. The real troublemakers are a group of boys at the front, right next to the teacher’s desk. It isn’t long before they’re separated. When the class split into pairs so that the pupils can practise asking each other if they have any vacancies for three nights, and if breakfast is included in the price, the most badly behaved of the boys at the front is sent to sit next to a very quiet girl who’s at a desk by herself, and looks as if she’d rather be anywhere but here. She tries to begin the German conversation but, more interested in hitting the boy at the next desk, he ignores her until the teacher notices and makes him stop fooling about. This is the last lesson before break, and to make the class behave, the teacher starts notching up on the board extra minutes they’ll be kept behind after the lesson ends. Already there are children playing about outside.

Before he lets them go, the teacher tells them he won’t be taking their class tomorrow, because he has to invigilate French oral exams. Immediately there are pleas for one substitute teacher, and complaints about another. ‘He was terrible. He called him’ – pointing to a boy at the front – ‘“Ginger Nut”, sir.’ ‘Yeah sir,’ someone else chimes in. ‘How does that make you feel?’ The teacher has red hair, too. Finding it hard not to laugh, he dismisses the class. It was a well structured lesson: those who wanted to learn could and did (I left confident I could make myself understood by a tolerant Stuttgart hotelier, and I’d never had a German lesson before in my life). The teacher was friendly, but discipline was maintained. The quieter pupils didn’t get enough attention, however. They might have done better in a smaller class, and the girls could have done with not being in the minority (as they are throughout the school, because of the number of single-sex girls’ schools in the borough).

As long as schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, large classes are inevitable. Here, there are fifteen hundred students in an institution that was originally designed for a thousand. The English department doesn’t have enough space for every teacher to have their own classroom. Between lessons the corridors are swarming, even though pupils taking GCSEs and A-levels are no longer in school. The playground at breaktime seems crowded, too; but the children appear to be happy – and safe – enough, under the watchful eye of the deputy head, who patrols the playground in his dark suit and shades. I don’t see any graffiti: there’s a zero-tolerance policy, and any paint that does appear is cleaned off within hours. If spraying a tag on a wall is a way of making a territorial claim, this could be seen as another example of the school’s commitment to inclusiveness.

‘It doesn’t matter where the kids come from,’ a teacher tells me. ‘If they’ve walked to school in a shirt that hasn’t been washed for a week, and eaten nothing but a packet of sweets for breakfast, or if they’re dropped off in a BMW, once they walk through the school gates they’re expected to wear their uniform properly, be polite to each other and to staff, and they know they’ll be treated fairly and with consistency. It’s so important to have high expectations of all the kids.’ If everyone thinks a child will fail, it’s all too likely that he will. But it would be wrong to extrapolate from this when formulating national policy: disadvantaged children benefit from encouragement, but it doesn’t follow that ‘poverty is no excuse.’ It is.

The school could do with more money. Generally, the place is in a decent state of repair, and clean, although there’s a piece of paper sellotaped to one windowpane: do not open. window broken. A teacher tells me what she’d really like is a new, reliable photocopier, so she wouldn’t have to waste time rushing round the school looking for one that works. Another says that they need more non-teaching staff to help with administrative work (the Government recently announced plans to increase the number of support staff in schools, and to remove tasks such as photocopying from teachers’ contracts). A large proportion of the English department’s annual budget had to be spent on a new batch of GCSE set texts because pupils are no longer allowed to take marked copies into exams. But the new books will soon be obsolete because the set texts are being changed.

The head of English has a higher opinion of other Government initiatives: the National Literacy Strategy, for example. Earlier in the day I sat in on a Year Seven literacy hour. Two small groups of four or five children who’ve been struggling in English classes spend half an hour a week (they miss half a foreign language class) having, essentially, grammar lessons. The day I’m there they’re learning about antonym prefixes (‘im-possible’, ‘anti-climax’, ‘un-tidy’ etc). Because there are so few of them, they get the full attention of the teacher, and have to give their full attention to the lesson. They get to learn from their own and each others’ mistakes, and are praised when they get things right. This is what should happen, and does happen, with most pupils in most lessons. The children who get extra help are those who find it hard to keep up and join in: they may have learning difficulties, or behavioural problems, or they may not speak very good English. The teacher tells one of them that he’s done so well he might get to go and see the headmaster at the end of term. The child looks horrified. ‘I don’t want to go and see the headmaster,’ he says. ‘Why not?’ asks the teacher. ‘It’s a good thing. It means he’ll know who you are when he sees you around.’ ‘How can he remember everyone?’ the child asks. ‘I think he’s got two brains,’ another of them says.

In a Year Eight biology lesson, the teacher (who left the school at the end of the year) finds it hard either to keep the children under control, or to keep them interested – the two aren’t unconnected. They’re supposed to be learning about the structure of a leaf. The teacher has drawn a diagram on the blackboard before the lesson begins, and proceeds to give the class a lecture about it. It doesn’t take long for their attention to wander. She shouts at them to be quiet. When they’re not, she tells them that if they can’t be bothered, neither can she. When this doesn’t work, she draws their attention to me, telling them that I’m a reporter, and that I’ll write about how bad they are if they don’t behave themselves. They’ve been ignoring me up till now: they’re used to having people, trainee teachers or Ofsted inspectors, sit in on their lessons. When they all turn round to look at me, and then start to make even more noise, I don’t know what to do. Things improve when the micr0scopes come out – though there aren’t enough for everybody to have one to themselves.

By contrast, in a Year Ten chemistry class on the composition of the atmosphere, the teacher begins by asking the students to name the gases they think are in the air. Right answers go up on the board; wrong answers lead to a discussion of why they’re wrong. The class is fairly rowdy, but at least they’re being rowdy about chemistry. At the end of the lesson they get their exam papers back. There’s a problem here: the majority have scored less than 50 per cent. It’s the bottom set, and most won’t get higher than a D at GCSE. The teacher tells them not to pay too much attention to their percentages: it was a very hard exam, and most of them have done pretty well. But they still look disappointed. ‘You’re not going to read out the marks, are you, miss?’ one of them asks anxiously.

In the current climate of total assessment, when some people resign because targets aren’t being met, and other people dismiss claims of success with counterclaims of moving goalposts, it shouldn’t, I suppose, be all that surprising that schoolchildren who have been learning enthusiastically should be so easily downcast by disappointing test results. Not surprising: but still a shame. Just as it’s a shame that among all the many kinds of secondary school the Government is keen to promote, it hasn’t occurred to them to that the best option, even by their own standards, might be one which hasn’t ever been given enough of a chance: decently funded, fully inclusive comprehensives.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences