October 7, 2008

The Schools That Simply Do Not Believe in Failure

By Dominic Lawson

I wish I could have spoken to Andrew Adonis before writing this article, but he seems unable to return my calls. It's just that the removal of the Schools Minister to the intellectual backwater of the Department of Transport is - how should we put this? - a bit puzzling.

Michael Gove, who shadows Education Secretary Ed Balls for the Tories, is not puzzled at all. He declared that "Ed Balls has kicked Andrew Adonis out of the education department" and that "Everyone who believes in the integrity of the Academies programme will be disturbed".

That second remark is certainly true: Lord Adonis was the only begetter of the Academies programme and promoted the idea of state schools independent of local authority control with an intensity and fervour that won him admirers across the political divide: yesterday the Liberal Democrats' schools spokesman, David Laws, said that his removal was "a disgrace...the real losers here will be thousands of children in some of the poorest parts of the country who were being targeted by the Academies programme."

As it happens, I spent a day last week visiting two of the newest Academies in the most difficult inner-city areas. The first was the Globe Academy in Southwark, which three weeks ago took over the troubled Geoffrey Chaucer Technology College and the Joseph Lancaster Primary School. The second was the Evelyn Grace Academy, an entirely new school in Brixton, which also opened last month. Both are sponsored by the charity ARK - "Absolute Return For Kids" - which hitherto has specialised in work for deprived children in India, South Africa and Eastern Europe. The problem in Southwark and Brixton is not absolute poverty on the scale experienced in some of those countries: it is a social rather than economic deprivation, but one which has the power to destroy children's prospects just as surely.

The Evelyn Grace consists at the moment of just 180 11-year- olds: it is growing organically and will not achieve its full complement of 1,500 pupils until 2015. Its principal is Peter Walker, who has previously been head of a number of secondary schools, a school inspector, an assistant director of education in a local authority and most recently head of the Government's Secondary National Strategy. In other words, he's been around a bit.

Mr Walker says that the "most important thing for children who live in disadvantaged circumstances is providing the mindset and infrastructure that helps them succeed. I increasingly believe that great teaching alone will not do it." This explains a lot of what I saw at Evelyn Grace. The school day is much longer than that of most standard Secondaries - it ends at 5.30. The extra time is largely given over to English and, above all, Mathematics: one of the distinctions of the Academies is that they are not bound by the National Curriculum, so have the time to concentrate more on literacy and numeracy - the vital skills which, scandalously, almost half the nation's children leave school without mastering.

In fact, both the classes I attended were studying William Blake's Jerusalem - not, one might have thought, a straightforward piece of work, especially for children whose first language is not English. The pupils all seemed to be concentrating hard, and were sitting up straight in their chairs. The Evelyn Grace has very strict rules about behaviour: the pupils are required to move around the building in silence, walking on the left side of the corridors only. They must look the teachers in the eye when addressing them. They must sign their names to a list of such rules, which ends with the ominous warning "I understand there will be consequences if I do not observe the code of conduct."

I told Mr Walker that I found all this draconian, and stricter even than the rules which I had been required to observe at the same age as a pupil in a traditional prep school. He agreed with the word "draconian" but added, "You have to understand where many of these children come from. They have been given no boundaries at all and in fact desperately need the order we bring to their lives."

Indeed, it is not just that the Evelyn Grace's catchment area is a particularly problematic patch in South London: it gives highest priority to applications from "children in public care." The other week, in fact, one of the 11-year-olds had gone home to get a knife after a fellow pupil had insulted him. I asked someone from ARK whether the boy had been excluded from the school. "No. That's not what we want to do." I was shown a door which led into something called "The Reconciliation Room."

The Globe Academy is run along similar lines by its head Keith Sharp. When I asked what the biggest difference would be between his approach and that which prevailed at the school before he - and 46 new teachers he has handpicked - took over, Mr Sharp said: "We have the highest expectations of our pupils. We believe there can be no excuses for not achieving acceptable standards."

This, it seems to me, pinpoints where the old left in the teaching unions and some thinkers on the right, such as Charles Murray, have formed an unholy alliance. Both have argued, from very different standpoints, that there are economic and social reasons why many children in the most deprived areas can never aspire to the standards which middle-class parents would demand as a right.

A few weeks ago the Observer journalist Geraldine Bedell asked the branch secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and an organiser of protests against the setting up of an Academy in his area, if he thought that such a transformation might not boost the results of the children who currently attend the town's least successful school. "You have to ask yourself why some children aren't getting five Cs or better at GCSE" he replied. "Some are just not capable of doing that." When Ms Bedell put the arguments of the anti-Academy teaching unions to an English teacher at the Mossborne Academy in Hackney, she responded: "Teacher friends of mine say it's elitist. But we take children of all backgrounds and have very high expectations of them. We don't make excuses on the basis of background or culture." Ms Bedell observed: "Regardless of who I was, or where I came from, I know who I'd rather have teaching my kids."

Just so - and it's no surprise why Andrew Adonis has a passion for this message. He came from an immigrant single parent family, living on a council estate: he managed to get a rare academic bursary to a private boarding school, which led on to a dazzling career at Oxford. He says he wants the "Educational DNA" of our most successful private schools to be "imprinted" on the Academies programme - to the fury of Labour's educational old guard.

They are now rejoicing at Lord Adonis' removal: the Anti- Academies Alliance, which is affiliated to all the main teacher unions, declared: "We welcome the news that Lord Adonis has been moved from the Department for Children, Schools and Families." As I say, I would have welcomed a chat with Andrew Adonis. Instead Ed Balls' office has sent me a statement on his behalf, in which Lord Adonis is quoted as saying: "I am delighted to be given this great opportunity as minister of state for Transport."

Sure you are, Andrew. Good luck with the North-South Rail Link.

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