Earlier today I wrote a post about ‘Educating Essex‘, a Channel 4 fly on the wall documentary about a secondary school. Whilst I was quick to point out the editing bias towards showing bad behaviour rather than learning, I was very critical of head teacher Vic Goddard‘s approach towards a boy who approached him for some time to do some creative writing. A conversation with him on twitter has shown that my interpretation of this was influenced by editing, and unfair to his supportive approach to his students.
In this clip on the C4 website, year 7 (12 year old) pupil Ciaran visits Mr Goddard with a well prepared request. He had been working on a novel, but having written two chapters already was finding it hard to fit in the time to reach his ambitious goal. With a written speech prepared in his bag, he asked the head if he could have ‘one period every one or two weeks’ to progress on his novel.
Mr Goddard’s answer?
“You need to focus on being in school. Your novel can take a little longer, but right now we need to make sure you are settled and doing well… because we are expecting As and A*s from 7P1 in their GCSEs.”
This came across in the programme as a quick dismissal, whereas what actually happened afterwards was Mr Goddard bought Ciaran a computer to work on the novel at home, and has been helping him out of school time.
It appears I took account of editorial bias on one side whilst making no allowance for it on the other, and the reality is another example of this headteacher going above and beyond for his students. I must therefore apologise to Mr Goddard for unfairly criticising him.
However, to look at this more widely I think there are some issues to discuss. My opinion that Ciaran should have been allowed to have some time to follow his passion in school time was met with some surprised comments on twitter. The implication was that this was being totally unrealistic. Whilst the specific comments may have been unfair, the idea that following a passion for learning like this is unthinkable in the school systems we have seems very sad to me.
Vic brought out the practical implications, citing examples of how he could be inundated with requests for young people to study all manner of things. Undoubtedly some of these would be young people ‘trying it on’ to get out of doing any work. I wonder if this is just what young people are like or if the curriculum in this country allowed more real choice, and therefore more relevance, that they might be more likely to feel invested in their education and have less desire to get out of it.
It seems to me our school systems in this country are very much about making people the same. With targets for GCSE pass rates, inspection pressure, and the turmoil caused by difficult backgrounds it is no surprise that there is little room for bringing choice to learners. However, just because the systems are set against such things doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question them and try to make the changes young people need, big or small.
Vic Goddard’s dedication is far from selling his pupils short, but I can’t helping thinking that for many the system is; by making opportunities for following passions for learning in school time so unthinkable and so impractical.
5 thoughts on “‘Educating’ Essex?”
I agree the system at the school, purely in its nature, holds back certain pupils who could achieve more; leting low achieveing students still get their grades. Its a very difficult line though, for who are we to say that we should give up on some, to let others strive. It has to be all about balance, but it’s such a difficult issue.
It’s a very good series though, & have enjoyed each throughly.
Thanks for the comment Lloyd. Im not sure I agree with you, I think the nature of school can hold back those with low academic performance, those with high, and those in the middle.
I am not suggesting giving up on the more challenging’ students in order to let the higher achievers fly, far from it. I actually think that being more learner centered and allowing learners to make choices could actually benefit learners of all abilities for many reasons, not least that it makes their learning relevant to their own lives and instills in them a sense that things in their life happen due to their own choices and plans.
It has certainly been a thought provoking series, but I do think it is a shame that the editors have chosen to focus so strongly on behaviourally challenging students that make good drama, and not look more deeply at the wider ranging issues in our secondary schools.
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Hi Oliver, just found your blog and thought this was a particularly interesting post. When I was about nine years old, I starting writing a “novel”. I spent all my free time on it and my very progressive school let me spend as much time on it as I wanted. I got a huge sense of accomplishment from doing this, felt really responsible for my own learning, and enjoyed it enormously. The rest of my education didn’t suffer in the slightest and learning how to be a self-directed learner has served me well.
What you’ve flagged in this example is what I find worrying about the way we teach kids in our schools. They don’t make choices about what to learn or how to spend their time. They are doing what they’re told (well, some of them are) and often they’re not that enthusiastic. School is a series of hoops to jump through to get that qualification at the end, rather than the start of a lifelong journey of learning and developing new skills.
Until we can come up with an assessment of learning that isn’t based so rigidly on exam grades – or perhaps have exams that aren’t so rigidly focused on a body of knowledge – we’re never going to allow schools to be the learning experiences we want them to be.
Thanks for the comment Anne, and what a great story to share, thank you!
I really agree with you that assessment is a key issue for this. So much seems to be drive towards exams that don’t seem to motivate many students beyond getting the piece of paper that (used to) serve as a ticket for a job.
Making sure assessment is aligned to the learning that young people actually value and will find valuable later in life is something we need to think broadly and deeply about- urgently!