Gervase Phinn: Home is at the heart of a good lesson

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BILLY the taxi driver, met me in the grand entrance of the Europa Hotel in Belfast. He was to take me to Stranmillis Teacher Training College where I was to address principals, education advisers, school inspectors, teachers and classroom assistants. This was my sixth visit to Northern Ireland to spend another week lecturing, running workshops and visiting schools.

Ever the school inspector, I quizzed Billy about his children’s education. You see, I was intrigued to know why Northern Irish students achieve the best academic results in the United Kingdom and the schools judged to be amongst the very best.

“Ah sure,” he said. “My son young Billy has brains to burn. He’s at the Methody College, grand school so it is, doing five A-levels and off to St Andrew’s University next year to study medicine. I don’t want him to end up driving taxi cab around Belfast all his life.”

At the end of the day, I was collected by Jimmy, another Belfast taxi driver. He had two daughters Roisin and Grainne. One was studying at Trinity College in Dublin, the other training to be a teacher at St Mary’s. Both had attended the Sacred Heart College and came out with a string of “A” grades. Like Billy, he was fiercely ambitious for his children and saw education as a means of betterment.

Perhaps it is obvious why young people here do better at school: good parenting.

There are, of course, other reasons for the academic success in Northern Ireland. The principals I met were strong academic leaders who worked with their staff to ground the curriculum in the reality of their students’ lives, their intellectual needs and the requirements of the school system.

Furthermore, teachers in Northern Ireland seem to be accorded a higher status than their colleagues in England. To gain entry to Stranmillis College to train as a teacher, the students have to achieve grades commensurate with those who wish to train as doctors. The average entry requirement is two “A” grades and a “B” at A-level.

Parents like Billy and Jimmy and many to whom I have spoken to on my visits had a great respect for their children’s teachers. “If he gets into trouble at school, he’d be in twice as much trouble at home,” Billy told me. Here was an echo of my own father.

One evening I spoke at the Summer School dinner which was attended by school and college principals, the Chief Inspector of Schools for Northern Ireland, members of the Library Board, governors and politicians.

Those high up in education also had a high regard for the teachers. Teachers need to be told they are doing a good job and one should never be sparing in words of appreciation when they are deserved. Given this, I welcome the changes Education Secretary Michael Gove intends to make in giving back to teachers the power to exert discipline in the classroom. Strict rules about the use of physical force to control disruptive pupils will be relaxed, teachers will no longer have to give 24 hours notice of a detention and will now be able to search children and confiscate mobile phones.

Parents will be held more accountable for their children’s behaviour and receive stiff fines if they allow their children to truant. Any member of staff accused by a pupil of assault will be given anonymity.

The teachers to whom I spoke in Northern Ireland were not bombarded with ridiculous amounts of paperwork: directives, guidelines, policy documents, development plans, statements of intent, risk assessments and expensive strategies. This Government’s commitment to scrap much of this paperwork is, therefore, to be welcomed too. Morale seemed to be higher in Northern Ireland while there was good investment in resources for the early years.

Principals and governors, in consultation with staff and the local authority, seemed to have a greater level of autonomy in devising their own curricula based on a National Curriculum. Teachers appeared to enjoy a greater degree of independence and be involved to a much greater extent in decision-making.

Furthermore, the expertise of successful managers and leaders who worked at the chalk face was utilised. Frazer, a principal of a large primary school, talked of his vision. He wanted to create an atmosphere in the school at which he was the headteacher where pupils and teachers bloomed; he sought to provoke thought, welcome change but not for the sake of it and revel in the achievements of others (children and staff). He had a clearly thought out philosophy, paid attention to details and believed that all children mattered.

He wanted every child to leave the school with courage, a sense of humour, conviction, energy and a lively enquiring mind, with the ability to question and argue. The voices of headteachers like Frazer need to be heard and their advice acted upon.

There are few independent schools in Northern Ireland because the state schools are deemed by parents to be so very good. This means that there is a strong presence in the state system of children and young people from professional backgrounds and who are high academic achievers.

There is no 11-Plus examination but there are grammar schools and many account the academic success to the selective educational system which is in place. I have no problem with grammar schools providing that the secondary modern schools provide the best education possible, recruit enthusiastic, committed and talented teachers and have clear, decisive leadership and management.

When I was at school in the 1950s, secondary modern schools never came close to achieving the parity of esteem with the grammar in any way. In many secondary modern schools, the expectation of the students was often low. I have met so many “11-Plus failures” who believed themselves, on the strength of a test taken when they were 11, to be on the educational scrap heap destined for the menial jobs in society or at best going into apprenticeships. Certainly, higher education was not considered an option for them.

Fortunately, times have changed and students at the very good secondary modern schools I have visited over the years receive excellent teaching, an appropriate curriculum and are given the opportunity of continuing their studies should they so wish.

One should not forget that there are thousands of children from loving homes in the care of dedicated teachers. I have met many polite, good-humoured, hard-working and ambitious young people who achieve excellent academic results.

Such achievement, however, depends so much on home background and how children are reared. A child is surrounded by the formal fabric of the home but also by the informal fabric. He sees his parents smoke or not, drink or not, take drugs or not. He hears them shout or not, swear or not. He watches the television they watch, read the newspapers they read and hears their opinions. He is also aware of the value (or not) which his parents place on education.