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Our Fifties-style ‘chalk and talk’ schools clearly aren’t working


Originally published in The Independent on Saturday, 10 October 2009

In his 1930s bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie argued that success was 15 per cent technical knowledge and 85 per cent the ability to express ideas, assume leadership and arouse enthusiasm in people. He could have also added that grit or persistence also helps. If that’s the recipe, how best do we supply those ingredients in the classroom?

The answer matters more now than at any time in decades. Britain isn’t broken but our education system certainly is. It is stuck in the 19th century. David Cameron says he wants the “best” schools for the poorest pupils. Michael Gove, the shadow Education minister, insists it is “chalk and talk” that counts. Learning by rote, strict discipline, blazers and boaters. He wants parents to have more freedom to choose (a good thing) but he also seems to be saying: “And let’s hope they choose to go back to the past.” But retreat won’t work.

As Carnegie pointed out all those decades ago, how much you succeed depends upon your frame of mind. A child from a stable home, in which people talk to each other in a civilised fashion, in which there is praise for effort, and affection, will obviously come to class in a fit state to learn. Many thousands of children don’t and won’t. They need what Gove dismisses as the unnecessary “extras” – help to develop self-discipline; to learn how to work with others; how to think for themselves and control their emotions. A child from a chaotic background will behave in a chaotic fashion.

Education was a Wild West before Labour’s arrival, with erratic standards and often mediocre teaching. Now, many schools have subversively achieved miracles. We have some superlative heads and teachers but too many others are constrained by teaching to the test and a “one size fits all” approach that extinguishes the creativity that Cameron is seeking to revive.

Private schools have long understood the importance of producing “good all-rounders”. That’s why JF Roxburgh, the first headmaster of Stowe, announced that his goal was to turn out young men who would be “acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck”. International research confirms that addressing the capabilities of a child is more likely to allow that pupil to develop to their full potential.

“Chalk and talk” also fails to take account of the real world outside the classroom – the digital world in which so many children who are labelled “dim” in school shine brightly. At the Handheld Learning conference in London last week, James Paul Gee, the American academic, dismissed the “skill and drill” approach. He asked why some young people were at university level in physics, maths and graphic design in their home lives via their computers, but were expected to sit mute in the classroom. Old-style passive education, he said, is like giving them the manual without the game.

In his party conference speech, Cameron praised “setting by ability”. He should talk to Carol Dweck. An American academic, she has studied motivation in children for more than 30 years. She discovered that 40 per cent of pupils have a mindset. If they are clever, they don’t push themselves harder for fear of losing that status. If, in the bottom groups, they believe they are “dumb” and give up.

Cameron also said: “I see a country with entrepreneurs everywhere bringing their ideas to life.” Earlier in the conference, a real live entrepreneur was applauded. Sandy Campbell, 53, is where he is in spite of his schooling, not because of it. Sandy runs Working Rite. It matches a craftsman working as a one-man band with a young person in danger of becoming a Neet (not in education, employment or training). It’s a six-month work placement. The young person earns a basic wage; it costs the tradesman or woman nothing. Often, the result is a permanent apprenticeship. The Conservatives like Sandy. If they want to see more social entrepreneurs like him, they need to accept that a diversity of approaches to learning is what will bring out the best in children. And that’s all that really counts.

Okonedo’s understated masterclass in criminality

Watching television for the past five nights has been a bit like tightening a barbed wire belt a notch or two every evening at nine. The second series of Criminal Justice has focused on psychological and sexual abuse, also known as domestic violence. With relentless accuracy it has shown how ignorance of the way in which a perpetrator of domestic violence psychologically imprisons his victim leads to further injustice, not least for the children in the family.

Years ago, when there were only three television channels, Criminal Justice, finely written by Peter Moffatt, might have had the same impact as Cathy Come Home had on the recognition of the plight of the homeless. But not today.

The acting has been superb. Maxine Peake, who plays Juliet Miller, accused of murdering her husband, is tipped by a number of critics for a Bafta. Good as she was, she always seemed to me to be “acting”. In contrast, Sophie Okonedo who plays Jack Woolf, a driven and caring solicitor, gave her character a lifetime of experiences, and all without saying very much at all. That’s a masterclass.

Authors’ tales from the dark side of the office

Why is it always the women who are required to read the “how to” guide books, while the men just get on with doing it, the way they’ve always done it? Claire Damken Brown and Audrey Nelson have written yet another instruction manual on how to be a woman in a man’s world. Code Switching: How To Talk So Men Will Listen is intended as a “travel guide … to another country with another culture” (i.e. the office).

According to Brown and Nelson, embracing the stereotype, women play the role of “office mother” while men are more likely to tell the jokes. Miss Nelson says the biggest complaint she has had for 30 years from all professions of women is, “how can I get men to take me seriously?”. She says her book is there “to build a bridge in that credibility gap”. That’s odd. The favourite question of most of the women I know is, “how can I get him to disclose how much he really earns?”

According to Brown and Nelson, women let men talk over them and hijack their best ideas. The two suggest “certain phrases and body language” (half-nelson and a gag?).

“Part of our goal in this book book is to make women more self-conscious,” says Nelson. More self-conscious? Now I’m really beginning to think they’re working for the other side.

A few too many missed steps on the dancefloor

On the dancefloor, contrition is proving to be a bit of a wobbly three-step. Anton du Beke calls his over-tangerined dance partner, Laila Rouass, “a Paki”. Bruce Forsyth says it’s a big joke. Then he says it’s not. Then he says, it is really – and we all need to “get a sense of humour”. Racism is not funny. The word “Paki” carries more baggage than Ryanair.

What’s also not a laughing matter is Bruce’s other ‘ism – his habit on Strictly Come Dancing of constantly joking about his own alleged senility. He might think it’s worth a laugh but plenty of other 82-year-olds want to keep their jobs at B&Q, thank you very much. Ageism isn’t a help even when it’s camouflaged in sequins.

Article by: Yvonne Roberts

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