John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector who has written two books on the teaching of reading and spelling.
20 years ago, an English couple living in Munich brought their daughter to Cambridge so that I could teach her to read. As usual, the key was to explain the areas in which phonics didn’t work as well as those in which they did, and the problem was turned round in two sessions. I now asked if they could help me. A member of my extended family was attending a comprehensive in Lincoln that, academy or not, fitted Lord Adonis’ model of the “secondary modern comprehensive”.
I’d been teaching her German over the internet, and she’d missed out on the school’s trip to Berlin. No great loss, apparently, as her schoolmates had spent all day on their mobile phones – a parallel universe – had no contact with German people, and had spoken no German. When I expressed my horror at this, Susan, as we will call her, told me it wasn’t the half of it. The teachers spent most of their time on their phones too, and did so in school. One teacher would give his class a worksheet to copy out while he sat at the front listening to music through his earphones. I asked my friends if I could bring Susan and her mother to stay for a week, and perhaps meet some of her German neighbours’ children? A big ask, as cricketers say, but no problem. When would we like to come?
We chose the first week of the holidays – or perhaps the second, as most teaching, including German, had been cancelled in Susan’s school during the last week of term, and the children had spent their time watching films – not, of course, German ones. The school had received a good rating from Ofsted, including the comment, “Students’ behaviour is good. They enjoy being at school and have a very positive attitude to their learning.”
Susan’s view was different. Some lessons, particularly in science, were subject to continuous disruption, and pupils saw being kicked out of a lesson as “cool“, with few, if any, consequences. Complaints from parents had been ignored. Same day detentions did not apply, and there was only one after-school detention per week, on Fridays. When I said that anyone rude to a teacher should go home one or two hours late the same evening, and that I would not allow a phone on the site, Susan and her mother said it wasn’t possible. It is, and Ark and Harris academies are able to function properly as a result.
Our hosts lived in Augsburg, a medium-sized city half an hour from Munich. Using public transport in a new country, reading notices and menus and visiting attractions, all reinforce basic vocabulary and give insights into the way things are done. Trains and buses run on time, but you have to read timetables carefully – we were caught waiting for one bus on Friday evening, when it only ran from Monday to Thursday.
Susan had been having two hours of German a week, one of which was often cancelled for other events, and was expected to take GCSE in Year 10, after four years rather than five. The two girls introduced by our hosts had five hours of English a week, and were, unsurprisingly, much more fluent and accurate in English than Susan was in German. Fortunately, the three were soon “new best friends.” The girls attended the local Gymnasium, or grammar school, which offered an eight-year course leading to the Abitur – A levels. Our pupils would take A levels after seven years in secondary school, so that the Germans are in effect operating a third-year sixth form for all of their grammar school pupils. Some gymnasia offer a nine-year course, which is popular with parents, as it increases their children’s chances of passing the Abitur.
The downside lies in the other schools. In our hosts’ area, entry to the Gymnasium depends on the recommendation of a child’s primary teacher, a system that gives rise to charges of favouritism. They described the alternative Realschule, to which most children who do not speak good German are sent, as “a way of keeping children off the streets.” Their children had received poor teaching and learned very little, though they were able to train for work using the “ausbildung” apprenticeship system. Within the Gymnasium, a strong emphasis on grammatically accurate German continues, and Susan’s friends said that their German lessons were much more difficult than their English ones. German grammar and vocabulary are more difficult than those of other European languages, and this needs to be recognised in teaching – it is not at all a good idea to cut German courses short.
Our hosts’ daughter was working in Nice, and had been on the promenade during the night of the atrocity. She was unhurt, but suffering from shock. Education in France has long benefited from general agreement across society on its purposes, but this is changing. Ten years ago, a film (La Classe) was seen as showing that the behaviour problems we had in many of our schools were not unique. Reading the book on which it was based (Entre Les Murs), shows that this is too simple. The conflicts between the class and its teachers are a clash between the Napoleonic culture that is still the basis of French education, and a large group of people, almost all Muslim, whose lack of competence in French leaves them with no chance of succeeding in it. The pupils are in France, but not of it. They and their teachers do not understand each other’s thinking, dislike each other, and openly insult each other whenever possible. It is not hard to see links between this massive school failure, subsequent unemployment and petty crime, and that dreadful night in Nice.