Category Archive • Primary schools
September 30, 2004
To be and to have and to have not

Georges Lopez, the teacher and reality movie star whom I wrote about here and here, has lost his case against the makers of the movie he was the star of:

It was a moving portrayal of everyday life in the rural classroom, and became an huge and unexpected French cinema success when it was released in 2002.

And, as the star of the prizewinning documentary film, Etre et Avoir, Georges Lopez felt it was only fair that he should get a cut of the &euor;2m (£1.3m) profits.

The director disagreed, triggering an acrimonious lawsuit which has raised uncomfortable ethical questions about the exploitative nature of fly-on-the-wall film-making.

This week a Paris court ruled that the schoolteacher, who allowed his tiny one-class village school to be filmed in lessons and at play over the course of a year, had no grounds to demand a €250,000 (£170,000) payment.

This was essentially a contract argument. What was the deal? According to that deal, do the film makers owe Lopez any money? No, said the French court.

Lopez himself says that this is an intellectual property argument, which means that tomorrow, I may well be writing about this case in my weekly bit for here.

Personally I think Georges Lopez should have stayed away from the courts, and written a book about his life and his educational beliefs. And it need not have been a long book. That is, he should have turned the massive reputation that the movie bestowed upon him, into a river of cash. It would have sold a bomb, would definitely have been translated into English, and I would definitely have bought a copy. As it is, his saintly image has been hurt by his decidedly unimaginative behaviour. Now, he says, he is going to appeal.

Sad. Everyone knows you make nothing from the movie that makes you into a star. It is your next few ventures that make you your money, even if they flop. And in his case, who says they would flop?

It seems that there are quite a few things about the world and its ways that Monsieur Lopez has himself yet to learn. Yet one more proof of how brilliant people can be in one setting, and then how inept they can then be when they stray beyond that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:20 AM
Category: MoviesPrimary schools
June 17, 2004
Freedom teaches love – unfreedom teaches hatred

Why is adult life, when it is, better than the life of a child? For many adults it isn't, for the simple reason that when they were kids they didn't have to work that hard or struggle that hard, but as adults they do.

But for many adults, life is just massively better then it was when they were kids, and for them, I think that the reason for this is that when they were kids they had to do things they didn't like, and above they had to do things with certain other kids whom they did not like and who did not like them. Simply on happiness grounds, I think "streaming" into different types is a good thing. As an ex-nerd, I recall finding the jocks intimidating and scary. I'm sure the jocks found the nerds like me annoying, and perhaps intellectually intimidating. So why the hell were we forced into each others' company so relentlessly? Why couldn't the nerds have gone to a nerd-school, and the jocks to a jock-school? At the very least, could not the life of a one-regime-fits-all school at least have some slightly different regimes embedded within it? Insofar as the schools I went to did, I enjoyed them. Insofar as I was forced into jock-company and jocks were forced into my company, I would … rather have been somewhere else.

Occasionally, on holiday, I would blunder into some fragment of life where the company was totally congenial and appreciative of me, and where I immediately set about learning the rules of the place, so that I would fit in. Because I wanted to fit in. It was like going to heaven for a week, and it made me a massively better person, immediately. Then it would stop and I would have to go back to school. Then they let me out permanently, and I was allowed to search for places where everyone liked me and where I liked everyone, and where monster-jocks were polite visitors, and life got good and has stayed good ever since.

I know why I was supposed to endure the monster-jocks, and why they were supposed to endure me. That is to say, I know the words people use to excuse this absurdity. Spending time with uncongenial people whom you hate and who hate you is "good for you". You learn to understand other points of view, other attitudes.

No you don't. You learn to hate other points of view and to hate other attitudes. You love what you are allowed freely to acquaint yourself with, dipping into it, and venturing further if you fancy it. That's how you learn to love. I'll say it again because it is so important. Forcing people into each others' company who do not appreciate each others' company teaches not love, or respect, or toleration, or even merely silent politeness; it teaches hatred.

All of which was intended to be a mere preamble to a comment on and link to this, this being a BBC report about how having special jock schools can make jocks less nasty and less unhappy.

I knew that.

Specialist sports colleges could help tackle anti-social behaviour among teenage boys, a report suggests.

The study found boys were more likely than girls to raise their sense of self-worth through specialist sports colleges.

The research by Northumbria University found sports college pupils' confidence was significantly higher than those at a comprehensive school.

They were also more confident about their physical appearance.

Specialist schools are state schools which follow the mainstream curriculum, but have a particular emphasis and expertise in an area, such as technology, science, languages or sports.

The majority of secondary schools in England now have specialist status.

Good. In fact I would go as far as to say that this could be a major improvement in British education that has happened in the last fifteen years or so, to set beside the way that primary school education in the 3Rs etc. has recently changed from being mostly of a derangingly despicable incompetence to being patchily adequate.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:18 PM
Category: CompulsionPrimary schoolsSport
June 05, 2004
Telegraph piece about how to tell it's a Montessori school

There's a useful article in the Telegraph today about Montessori schools, the problem being that there is no central, franchised control of such schools, and anyone can claim to have started one.

I wrote about Montessori, with some links, here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:23 PM
Category: Primary schools
[0]
June 01, 2004
When should they start? – it's how they're taught not when they're taught

I asked a few days ago: When should school start? – in connection with the often repeated claim that children in the UK start school too soon.

Sally had just commented thus, and since the original posting was several days ago, you may miss it:

I used to think UK school started too early, when I lived in Europe and saw how good the early years education of friends' kids was. I've had three children go through UK reception and primary now, and no longer think it's the timing, but WHAT they do in school, that is the problem. The kids are stressed out by inadequate teaching I'm afraid - somtimes not the teachers' fault as, eg the National Literacy strategy is, well, a bit rubbish. When my children have had good teachers it has been like watching a huge weight lift off them, it isn't the reading or writing instruction itself that is the problem, but the way it is done (and some of the teaching is so muddled that older children will be just as stressed). Though the school day IS very long for the youngest children.

One day, I, or somebody, is going to give here a blow by blow (metaphorically speaking) account of exactly what good teaching of the 3Rs actually consists of.

Anyone know of such a piece of writing I could link to?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:21 PM
Category: Primary schools
May 30, 2004
Much cheaper private sector primary schools

I've been waiting decades for this headline:

Cut-price private schools set for launch

Here's the story, which is from today's Independent, in its entirety. I don't want anyone not being able to read this in a year's time, and I particularly want to be able to read all of it myself.

A right-wing think-tank will this week launch a national chain of cut-price primary schools in a drive to open up private education to middle-income families.

The first New Model School will start work in September, charging less than half the average fees of many independent primary or "pre-prep" schools.

Teachers have already been appointed, and tomorrow the school starts advertising for pupils to join the inaugural class of five-year-olds.

The programme has been devised by Civitas, a conservative-leaning policy group, which says that both the state and private sectors are letting parents down.

Surveys consistently show that more than 50 per cent of families would like to educate their children privately. In practice, fewer than 7 per cent can afford the fees.

Dissatisfaction with the state system reaches a peak at this time of year, particularly in urban areas, when thousands of parents find their children do not have a place at the most popular schools.

While the average private primary school charges £7,000-£8,000 a year in the South-east, – beyond the means of most parents – the New Model School is asking £3,000.

The school's founders say they have created a blue-print that can easily be replicated, and could help families to opt out of the state system.

"Our intention is revolutionary. It's a challenge to both the public and private sectors," said Robert Whelan, deputy director of Civitas. "Much of the state sector is failing. The independent sector is also failing a lot of parents by not providing a sufficiently wide range of products."

The school, based in an old Victorian building in the Queen's Park area of London, is promising to have its pupils reading and adding up after just one year. French will be taught from the start, and Latin from the age of seven. Its behaviour policy is described as "firm".

The New Model School is still considering whether or not to adopt a Latin motto, but Civitas insists it will not be a "crammer" and will instead emphasise music, art and PE, subjects that Ofsted inspectors have said are often squeezed out of the national curriculum.

Civitas is not the first organisation to question the high fees charged by private schools. The independent sector is already under investigation by the Office of Fair Trading over allegations that schools have colluded to keep fees high - something that the schools deny.

An international firm called Gems – Global Education Management Systems – is in the process of opening its own chain of private schools in Britain at significantly reduced prices.

The former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead is also said to be planning a similar scheme.

But Dick Davison from the Independent Schools Council said that the criticism is unfair, as most of the fees charged by his members are taken up in staffing costs. Lower charges, he said, would lead to fewer teachers, or a lower standard of teachers in many private schools.

I know Robert Whelan of Civitas. He's a good guy (although that doesn't mean I endorse everything else Civitas is saying and doing) and I wish him and all the others involved in this every success. Here's a link to the enterprise.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:27 PM
Category: Primary schoolsThe private sector
April 23, 2004
Probus progress

There's comment from me over at Samizdata about how well Probus Primary School has been doing lately.

And that may be the lot for today, because I am busy this afternoon and occupied with St George's Day jollifications this evening. I seem to be managing with the at-least-once-a-day routine, and will keep up with it, I trust. But occasionally that means days like today.

Read books and talk quietly amongst yourselves.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:07 PM
Category: Primary schools
April 18, 2004
The Citizen's Foundation schools of Pakistan
The following article, by Joanna Pitman, under the headline "Lessons in hope", which I am taking the liberty of reproducing in its entirety, appeared in the (paper only I think – I couldn't find anything linkable to other than this Citizen's Foundation website) Times Magazine of yesterday, Saturday 17th of April. I hope no copyright toes are being trodden on, but it so impressed me that I am taking that chance.

I have done a posting at Samizdata about this article.

Samreen is a ten-year-old Pakistani girl who lives in Machar Colony, one of the biggest and most desperately poor of the 553 slum communities that are multiplying and choking the port city of Karachi to death. Her living conditions are medieval. On reclaimed harbour land, just a mile and a half from the impossibly remote, high-rise financial centre of the city, she shares a small, dark, dirt-floored room, no more than a box, with her mother and four brothers and sisters, hidden away down a narrow, stinking alleyway swarming with people and vermin. All around, as far as the eye can absorb, is a sea of filth, shimmering beneath a hot brown fog. In open sewers, rats,
playful as baby rabbits, mingle with malnourished children struggling to get through the day, labouring for miniscule wages, listlessly scrounging for food scraps and minding the babies, often their own. Generation follows generation quickly here, men and women as easily replaceable as the hovels in which they live. It is a special kind of human waste that comes with this sort of established destitution. And for the hundreds of thousands marooned in Machar Colony and other slums like it, cruelty no longer has a meaning. It is life itself.

Samreen's father has abandoned the family and disappeared, but she works alongside her mother and siblings, earning one penny for an hour's work peeling tiny, slimy shrimps. Every day they share some tea for breakfast. At lunchtime they have a piece of roti bread, made from flour and water, and in the evenings they usually manage to put together a meal of sorts - more roti and a few lentils, perhaps some vegetables if they've earned enough during the day.

Samreen is one of the lucky ones. On weekday mornings, after she's done her first two hours peeling shrimps, she puts on her school uniform and walks proudly to school. Built and run by the Pakistani educational charity. The Citizens Foundation (TCF), her school is an astonishing oasis in the middle of this desert of utter degradation. Entering the school gates she crosses a neatly swept playground planted with ornamental trees, and goes into the purpose-built primary school building equipped with six light and spacious classrooms, a library, an art room, a computer room, clean washrooms and staff quarters. She shares her classroom with 19 other children, roughly equal numbers of boys and girls, each of whom has his or her own desk and chair, exercise books and pencils. On the walls are colourful tissue paper pictures of rabbits, horses and cows made by Samreen and her classmates, the letters of the alphabet and a range of educational posters about volcanoes, dinosaurs and the solar system. Oxford University Press textbooks are piled neatly on the shelves and a string of numbers, cut out and coloured by the children, is pegged to a washing line strung jauntily across the sparkling window. The classroom would not look out of place in one of London's top private primary schools.

At school, Samreen has learnt not only Urdu and English, but also how to use a loo, wash her hands properly, brush her teeth and plait her hair. She can read and write, recite her times tables, work out complex percentages and compose poems that make her teachers laugh. She studies science and uses the school's computers every week. Each term she has three sets of assessment tests, and her mother - who had never seen a school before - attends three parents' evenings to discuss the results. Samreen's grades are excellent.

Samreen is, understandably, thrilled with her school. She adores her teachers, all of whom are women specially trained by TCF, and she enjoys all her subjects, particularly English. One day, she says, her eyes bright with excitement, she wants to become a teacher. To her mother, this is a concept as ungraspable as owning her own home. but instinctively she is proud of Samreen, and endures the beatings she gets from her brother-in-law who is opposed to the idea of education for girls. Although they miss the income Samreen would bring in during the mornings when she's at school, her mother is happy that her daughter is being given a chance in life. "When she grows up," she says shyly from behind her veil, "she won't have to do shrimp-peeling like me. Something better will come along and I can feel I've done my best for her."

samreen.jpg

Samreen's is just one of thousands of such heartbreaking stories that pour out of the hellish slums housing the dispossessed of Pakistan. Her school, Machar Primary School 1, was among the first of the 180 schools that have been built by TCF since 1995 in 17 cities around Pakistan, each one of them a small drop of hope in the middle of these parched and blighted communities.

The problems TCF is addressing are, of course, immense, but TCF is a remarkable charity. Raising funds through the donations of wealthy Pakistanis at home, through the expatriate community in the oil-rich Gulf region, in the UK and North America, and through corporate sponsorship, it has proved so successful that it now opens new purpose-built schools at a rate of one a week; and last year it received donations totalling £2 million.

There are many reasons why we should be interested in TCF,but one in particular will strike a chord with those in the West concerned about the rise of Islamic militancy. TCF schools offer an alternative to the most extreme of the madrassahs - the religious schools - that often target poor areas and become breeding grounds for Islamic extremism. These schools only came to the attention of the West after September 11, but in many Karachi slums it has long been normal to see walls plastered with graffiti calling for volunteers to join Taleban-style Islamic organisations. Over the past two decades, madrassah schools have sprung up across Pakistan, offering the incentive of a free education. Some of them also offer the prospect of a wage earned through activism for a hardline group. Today, evidence indicates that madrassah schools are not operating in areas where there are clusters of TCF schools.

TCF was founded nine years ago by six wealthy Pakistani businessmen living in Karachi, who had become increasingly disturbed by the level of begging on the streets. "The divide between rich and poor was getting wider and a large proportion of the population was becoming isolated from the mainstream," says TCP chairman Ahsan Saleem, an entrepreneurial industrialist, whose Crescent Steel group has interests in banking, engineering and textiles. "It was a burning issue and a fashionable topic for pious talk at expensive dinner parties. One day, a group of us were coming back from such a dinner and we just felt nauseated. Either we continued to sit back and watch the place decline or we would do something about it We knew the solution had to come from within Pakistan."

The six of them - all highly successful top-level managers - met in August 1995 and began to think seriously about the problems. They addressed poverty, health, intolerance, population, education, water and sanitation, and concluded that the solution to all these issues was education. In Pakistan, education remains desperately, stupidly low on the list of government priorities. The state schooling system, riddled with corruption, has been either non-existent or on the point of collapse for many years. The result is a massive intellectual deficit: out of a total population of 145 million, the country has 28 million children entirely unschooled and 41 per cent of adult men and 70 per cent of adult women illiterate. Ironically, in some areas, the first parents queueing to send their children to TCP schools rum out to be government schoolteachers.

The six businessmen decided to set up a corporate-style charitable organisation to build and run schools offering high-quality education to both girls and boys in the poorest areas of the country. Within four months, the ground had been broken to construct the first five schools, paid for out of the pockets of the founders, and by May 1996 all five were operational. Only once the schools had been running successfully for a year did TCF begin to expand – not through advertising or asking for funds, but simply by taking people to see the reality and letting them spread the word.

Its target is to build 1,000 primary a secondary schools by 2010, which will cater for 350-400,000 children at a time, offering them a high-quality, secular education that is the envy of most government schools and comparable to the country's elite private schools. "We want these children to compete with our own children," says Saleem, whose four teenage children are being educated at the best Pakistani private school and at the American School.

TCF stands out from other non-governmental organisations because it uses modem, professional management techniques. "TCF is one of the best endeavours in the private sector to compensate for the total decay in the government system," says Imran Khan, whose constituency is one of the most backward in the Punjab region. "There is an apartheid in education between the rich elite and the masses and TCF is trying to bridge that gap."

From the donors' point of view, all the boxes can be ticked. TCF has a clear vision, a set of rules, transparency and longevity. No one individual fronts the organisation, and none of the six founders has a role in its management. Just 5 per cent of funds are spent on administration. The rest goes into the building and running of the schools, providing equipment, uniforms, books, milk and biscuits for the children, and specialist training for the teachers, which is done from a central teacher training college in Karachi. All the teachers are women, which in a Muslim society makes the parents more comfortable about sending their daughters to school; and they are transported in TCF vans to and from their schools, which placates their parents. Every teacher is evaluated during the year and attends a refresher course each summer.

"It takes real courage for these women to teach in schools surrounded by this level of poverty," says Neelam Habib. TCF's manager of donor relations. "Their commitment is very high. They all have clear objectives and the results they're getting are wonderful - of the first batch of students to take the Class IX Board Exams, 92 per cent passed and 25 per cent got A grades."

Each school employs at least two women from within the community who are trained in hygiene. Part of their job is to convince parents to send their children, especially the girls, to school. Although many of the schools have huge waiting lists, their task has not been easy. Many men are opposed to educating girls, and it is not unusual for mothers or older sisters to be beaten by male relatives for sending the girls to school. A child at school also means the loss of valuable income. As a result, most of the children work before and after school, often well into the night. One ten-year-old boy, who has no father and whose mother is blind, is responsible for five younger siblings. Every morning, after a breakfast of water, he works two hours before school and then again after school. With his earnings he buys food in the evening for the family. He puts a plate in front of his mother, and she asks him if they have all eaten. When he tells her they have, she eats her fill, and only then does he allow himself and his siblings to eat, sharing whatever leftovers there are.

But despite individual difficulties, the value of these schools is immeasurable. At a cost of £6 per month per child, TCF schools are giving these children the chance to have a real childhood, at least for a few hours of the day, away from the horror of their home environments, as well as the potential for a future outside the slums. Although it is still relatively young, TCF is already providing a model for a professional, privately run system that could be replicated in other developing countries - there is talk of establishing a similar organisation in Brazil. And it has also set up its own support chapters across the world. "Since 9/11, around half of our UK supporters are of non-Pakistani extraction," says Tariq Hussain, a Trustee who helps run the UK chapter of the Friends of the Citizens Foundation, a UK Charities Commission registered charity. "That's a real boost for us."

The professionals who run the UK Friends of TCF on a voluntary basis, are typical of those who have set up TCF chapters around the world. Its trustees, Hussain himself, Khurram Jafree. a successful City investment manager and Dr Azhar Aslam, a Harley Street surgeon, formed the chapter in 2001. Hussain was born in Stranraer, the son of Pakistanis who moved from the Punjab to Scotland in the Fifties. His father, a self-made entrepreneur, built a successful apparel wholesale business primarily to support his children's education. Tariq went to Glasgow University, qualified as a chartered accountant with Arthur Andersen, completed an MBA at IMD international business school in Switzerland, and is now a managing director in the corporate finance department of a global investment bank in London.

"Every summer holiday we used to go to Pakistan to visit family in Lahore. I hated it at first The country was so poor. But it has so much charm that seeps into your blood and you want to give something back. Many years later I was hunting around for an educational cause to support in Pakistan and I found TCF on the internet. I'd never heard of it, but it had been given a UN award. It was transparent, apolitical, and not fronted by any single personality. The more I saw, the more impressed I was. Khurram, Azhar and I asked TCF if we could set up a UK chapter and we currently raise roughly 20 per cent of TCF's annual budget through corporate and individual donations and special fundraising events. Because we come from professional backgrounds we believe donors should be able to see a professional structure and modern teaching methods. TCF likes to be judged by its actions rather than by spin. Donors are encouraged to visit the schools to see how their funds are spent"

And the children themselves are contributing funds, too. To give them a sense of dignity and to encourage pride in their education. the families of all students make a nominal contribution to fees and to the costs of uniforms, books and stationery, depending on their income - anything from 5p to £1 a month. At times, the results are amazing. Two years ago, a TCF boy won a Unilever sponsored international art prize and had his work exhibited at Tate Modern.

There are many incredible stories of these physically stunted, undernourished children who struggle so hard, taking on the responsibilities of adults to make ends meet, so they can attend these schools. There is the 14-year-old girl from a rural community outside Lahore who, working late at night last year, lost all the fingers of her right hand in a food cutter, but went straight back to work and has also, with help from her teachers, learnt to write again. There is nine-year-old Samina who peels shrimps for six hours a day in return for 6p and attends TCF school along with her brother and sister. Her father spends his meagre earnings on drugs and beats their mother for allowing three of their five children to go to school. And there are so many more like them. It is humbling to see the spirit of these children, their palpable energy and purpose, their enlivened hopes. But it is also humbling to witness the compassion and dedication of their more fortunate compatriots who are providing them, against all odds, with life's most valuable gift.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:51 PM
Category: IslamPrimary schools
March 13, 2004
Mrs Kent the music mistress

Michael Jennings emails with the link to this, and comments that outing her was a bit unfair. Indeed, unless she outed herself, which seems unlikely. Anyway, too late now, so …

Quote from the BBC story:
mrskent.jpg

Pupils at a Hull primary school have just learned that "Mrs Kent" the music teacher is in fact the Duchess of Kent.

The Duchess has secretly been giving music lessons at Wansbeck Primary School, Longhill, east Hull, for the past eight years.

After a visit in 1996, she offered to help boost the school's arts teaching.

Head teacher Ann Davies said: "Her enthusiasm with the children brings out the best in them and thanks to Mrs Kent music is now a strength at the school. …"

Interesting, and impressive. I hope that the BBC reporting of this doesn't somehow derange it and make it impossible to continue with.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:35 PM
Category: Primary schools
January 26, 2004
Georges Lopez says his goodbyes

On Saturday evening BBC4 TV showed Etre et Avoir, Nicolas Philibert's documentary about Georges Lopez, the French teacher in a primary school in the farming country of the Auvergne. It has been a huge surprise hit in France and is now being given award nominations and awards over here, and you can entirely see why.

There was one of him and about twelve of them. The children all got to know him well, he got to know all of the children well, and we got to know all of them, him and the children.

eeakids.jpg

If there is to be orthodox, compulsory education, then this is clearly the kind of thing it ought to consist of. Georges Lopez was firm, fair, kind, attentive, and clearly loved his charges in just the way that you would want a teacher to do. He taught the 3Rs with care and certainty. He socialised with them and taught them manners, and was never himself anything but polite and respectful. He took them on trips in the surrounding countryside.

When one of the boys was distraught about his father's severe health problems, there was Georges, talking him through it, offering salient philosophical advice and comfort. ("We try to stay healthy, but then illness comes, and we must cope with it.")

I tried to sustain all my usual objections to educational compulsion, which this most definitely was despite the kind and considerate manner in which it was being administered, but honestly, I couldn't sustain them. Given the alternatives offered by their actually existing environment, this was the best deal that these children were going to get, by far. I couldn't blame Georges for the rules of his culture and the times he lived in. He was doing his best, and his best was very, very good.

eeajojo.jpg

There was one rather scatter-brained and mischief minded little kid with a splendidly photogenic face (he is now a celebrity, you can bet) called Jojo, who wasn't naturally bookish or logical, more your imaginative, romantic type. There was a lovely scene where Georges got Jojo to understand that there was no limit to how high numbers can go. ("Can you have more than one hundred? Can you have two hundred? What about three hundred? A thousand? Two thousand? Three thousand, … ten thousand, twenty thousand, … a million, two million, three million?" Jojo dutifully supplied the answer that Georges was looking for, which was "Yes you can", but was rather bored by it all, and would clearly have preferred to be talking about the interesting little human drama that was happening over the other side of the room. And eventually, George did defer and switched to talking about that drama. But not before he had stretched Jojo's brain like a piece of chewing gum. And of course, in the final scene, when they were all saying goodbye, Jojo was among those most sorry to be leaving. He loved Georges more than almost any of them. At least Georges, although firm with him, was also kind and gentle. I bet lots of others weren't nearly so patient when they were telling Jojo what to do.

eeafami.jpg

The other scene that stuck in my mind was when another kid was filmed doing his homework, surrounded by his entire family. Mum, Dad, a brother, and an uncle I think it was. On and on it went, with Dad in particular sweating away at the mysteries of higher arithmetic. The camera stayed absolutely still. It looked like a Rembrandt. Boy and family doing homework. Beautiful.

A particularly pro-French thought. When they were all saying their final goodbyes, they all said goodbye with the ceremonial three-times-over left-right-left French kisses, boys and girls alike. My own bit of culture contains no such ceremonial interchange. This one was peculiarly appropriate for this particular moment, and very flexible. It could be distant and correct, like getting a medal from the President, or affectionate, as between members of a family. You could see Georges adapting the atmosphere to suit each child, with the last boy being particularly formal and distant. ("Au revoir Monsieur!")

There was one girl to whom Georges made a point of not saying a final goodbye. She was due to go to another much, much bigger school, and she was distraught. She was seriously bad at communicating, with anyone, but was just about okay with Georges and the small classroom with its small number of other children. She sat with Georges, rocking with repetitious grief and fear at the horrors to come. Georges did most of the talking, combining firmness and gentle concern as best he could, expressing confidence, while offering the poor girl the chance to come and visit Georges and tell him how she was doing. Okay? "Oui."

With a little bit of luck, it helped. And quite possibly this talk made all the difference to her entire life to come. It wouldn't surprise me.

Georges himself is (and I guess it's was by now) to say goodbye to teaching soon after this film was in the can, and when he told his kids about that they were not best pleased. A lot of the appeal of this film is the feeling you have while watching it that this is a fast vanishing world. This kind of kindness, politeness and personal attention may soon be a thing of the past.

After the film was so successful, there was then a huge row about how much of the money that the film so unexpectedly made ought to go to Georges Lopez himself. A lot, was Georges' opinion. I don't know how that all finished, but in any case that's a different story.

I'm glad about the pictures decision. I can feel it working already.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:24 PM
Category: How to teachPrimary schools
January 03, 2004
Rachel Boutonnet

This is interesting:

The playground at the Jacques Prevert primary school, beneath the flight path of Charles de Gaulle airport, is typical of many in the Paris suburbs. There are Turkish and Chinese children, Laotians, Senegalese and Algerians. A minority are white.

From her classroom, Rachel Boutonnet can see them chasing each other round as she writes out grammar exercises on her blackboard. "Some of their parents say I'm a bit too serious," she says. "But I'm not here to amuse the children. I'm here to teach."

"Grammar," she writes. "Articles and nouns. Cut the words into syllables."

She doesn't look trad, but she is, very:

… with her best-selling book, Secret Diary of a Teacher, she has lit a fire under France's educational establishment. In it, she describes her year at the main teacher training college, where she found a culture so intellectually vapid and soul-destroying that many trainees became depressed or lost their vocation.

I strongly urge reading the whole article, because picking out the "most interesting" bit has already been done, by the writer and the editor. Forced to pick only a couple more paragraphs, these would be the ones:

"We were constantly taught that the important thing was to give children the desire to learn," she says. "I disagree. I think all children want to learn. The important thing is to give them the desire and capacity to work."

She believes this is even more important with immigrant children who need all the help they can get in a new culture. "They need a grounding in the basics so that they can move up in society," she says.

As the report notes, all this is highly relevant to the argument about Muslim headscarves.

As I say, read the whole thing.

The idea that freedom works best in a shared culture, where what everyone wants to learn is much more automatically what they will end up being most glad to have learned, but that, where there is no shared culture to start with, the heat of a shared melting pot should be switched up by an old-fashioned pedagogue is one of those basic education propositions I'm always on the look-out for.

Were I faced with a similar teaching problem to Ms. Boutonnet, I would prefer to think of it as hard selling rather than pure compulsion, but in practice it might well amount to the exact same thing. That's if I was up to it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:10 AM
Category: Primary schools
December 11, 2003
Primary education – why the improvement and why the levelling off in the improvement?

I struggle to get a sense of whether primary education is getting any better, and if so whether any improvement that has happened is anything to do with government policies.

John Clare, in the Telegraph (linked to admiringly by Melanie Phillips), doesn't really explain why things have turned out as they have, but at least he says what the story is:

… For the past three years, the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the expected levels in English and maths has stalled. Not only does that leave one in four ill-equipped to cope with secondary school, but it offends our national expectation that standards will continue to rise as relentlessly in the future as in the past.

Almost worse than that in the Government's eyes, there's now not the slightest prospect of primary schools reaching the literacy and numeracy targets it originally set for them next year and subsequently shifted to 2006.

So, an improvement, but then a disappointing levelling off in that improvement. Things have got as good as they are soon going to. That's what's happening. That's the picture, as painted by Clare.

But why? Clare attacks progressive-creative education, and lauds chalk-and-talk. But that doesn't explain anything about the pattern of (a) improvement and then (b) slackening off in the improvement. Melanie Phillips echoes Clare in trashing progressive-creative, but the same complaint applies to her. (They both join in denouncing Ofsted's interpretation of its own findings.)

I mean, if the government's policies (which are not necessarily the same as Ofsted's) are so bad, how come there was any improvement at all?

Suppose that primary school doctrine can indeed be classified into either progressive-creative or chalk-and-talk, either/or. Crude, but maybe that'll do. And suppose that our present government has switched from neutrality and trusting the teachers and the educrats and the teacher trainers and basically worrying about other things (my take on the attitude of the previous government towards ) to being semi-strongly inclined towards chalk-and-talk, and semi-hostile to progressive-creative. Maths hours, literacy hours, a semi-serious move towards phonetics, etc. An effort, but still quite a bit of confusion. Again, that's a simplification, but there has been something of a shift, some way towards chalk-and-talk, but not the whole way.

Suppose further, as I do, that Clare and Phillips are right that chalk-and-talk works better than progressive-creative. What I see is an educational world in which whatever good the shift (such as it has been) in government policy has now done pretty much all it can. Those teachers and educrats and teacher trainers who are willing to change their ways have now changed them. Those who aren't willing to change their ways aren't going to, unless they are subjected to a whole lot more pressure than this current regime is willing to put on them. Hence the levelling out in the improvement.

Well, that's my story and … I'd be very happy to change it in the light of further evidence.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:52 PM
Category: Primary schools
December 06, 2003
Small is beautiful at Tetherdown Primary School

This sounds like something's being done right.

A small London primary school with a "village-style" atmosphere was celebrating last week after achieving its best ever results. Tetherdown Primary School, in the leafy hill-top suburb of Muswell Hill, was one of only 142 schools - out of more than 20,000 in the country - to be awarded a perfect score in the national tests for 11-year-olds this summer.

Every 11-year-old reached the required standard for their age for the first time, and a proportion of students achieved at a standard expected of older children. Put together, these results meant that the school was ranked as the joint-highest-achieving "community" – or non-faith – school in the country.

Personally I think this is a model for primary education in a lot of other places. And if a lot of schools were this small, then in places like London they could be quite close together, and that means people could, if the system allowed, choose between them in a way that would really count. Choosing between a very local school and a faraway school, is not nearly so real a choice.

As a generalisation, there should be more schools in Britain, and smaller schools in Britain. And small has another advantage besides opening up choices for people. I recall reading a management book many decades ago, which said that six hundred was about the upper limit of how many people you could know. That's how big a Roman legion was, and a modern regiment. In a school of six hundred or less, strangers will immediately be spotted. The place will be an order of magnitude safer than a school with, say twelve hundred pupils.

Oddly, this Independent story doesn't seem to say how many children attend Tetherdown. And I can't find this out anywhere here either. But it's a whole lot less than six hundred, that's for sure.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:21 AM
Category: Primary schools
August 19, 2003
When people ask Brian's Education Blog: "Brian's Education Blog, where can we get cut-your-own snowflakes on the Internet?", I tell them ...

I don't know if it's education, but it's fun. The site calls it snowflakes, but I think they mostly look more like paper table mats. This is a kind of internetted version of what people complain about children doing in primary schools instead of having the three Rs pounded into them.

Where would the world be without Professor Dave Barry?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:49 PM
Category: Learning by doingPrimary schoolsThe internet
July 17, 2003
Primary improvement?

Today I did a posting on Samizdata, quoting from this guy's article in the Guardian. And buried in among his piece is this little educational snippet, which I am starting to hear from lots of sources, New Labour and otherwise.

Although Blair sounds like a Tory more often than not, his government's policies have been more redistributive than they admit to being. Yes, too much of this money is raised through indirect taxation; but still, the general trend is positive. Ditto for the belated increases in public sector spending. In one area I have seen at first hand - primary education - there has been a marked improvement; secondary schools and hospitals are harder to fix, but still, throwing money at them is a good way to start. As for foreign policy... here we come to the nub of the anti-Blair problem. …

And of course foreign policy – the WMDs row – is the point of the piece.

Nevertheless, I'm intrigued by that reference to primary education. "In one area I have seen at first hand …" That definitely counts for something, and it helps that the author comes across in general as an honest person.

David Milliband, the "Schools Standards Minister", has been popping up on the television lately, and he never fails to boast about how much better primary education has been getting lately, and the implication is that soon they'll be moving on to secondary education, and to university education, and then to adult education, until everyone in the entire country has become tremendously clever.

Well, the later stages of all that may come unstuck, because as people get older they have a way of asserting themselves and not doing what you want, but in the meantime, has there actually been an improvement in primary schooling?

Thinking about it, it does make sense to me that of all the kinds of teaching, the teaching of the 3Rs to young and pliable children is likely to respond best to state centralism, and to be least screwed up by it. After all, it's a basically pretty straightforward procedure, and if you're a teacher and you just do what London says, that is quite likely to be an improvement. And this would be true even if the rigmarole being imposed is rather unsatisfactory, provided what it is replacing was shambolic enough, as in many cases it surely has been.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:17 PM
Category: Primary schools
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