John Bald on the lessons from the Channel 4 series about Passmores Academy in Essex
There is not much to like about Passmores Academy. The pupils’ work rate in lessons we’ve seen has been far too slow, and their lack of commitment to or interest in their work pretty much constant. There is too much petty bickering among pupils, who should never have been allowed to have mobile phones in school, and the head sets a poor example with his slack tie, crumpled collar and occasional designer stubble. The antics between him and the deputy, Mr. Drew, Mr. Drew’s niggling sarcasm to pupils, and the utterly inappropriate language used by the teacher dismissing his class as “scumbags” are quite unacceptable – no wonder pupils leave the room by walking over a table.
The tables are part of the problem. A pupil’s attention should be on his or her work or on the teacher – this does not happen if they raise their head and see another pupil opposite them, as this invites interaction between pupils rather than work.
And then the standards. The poor girl who did not understand Pi is in the top set for maths in Year 11. “What is Pi, and where does it come from…I hate Pi,” were understandable expressions of frustration. The teacher had, he tells her, explained it in a previous lesson – we don’t know what the explanation was – and yet she did not understand it. Not that Pi, an indefinable but constant number that allows us to make interesting calculations involving circles, is a particularly easy concept to understand, but this is the top set. Ofsted found teachers “persistent and probing, often requiring students to think and analyse what they know, rather than simply repeating recently taught facts.”
That did not apply to these maths lessons, where the top set was reduced to simple repetition of basic formulae. Science is no better, with pupils, again in Year 11, making drawings of their teacher instead of working and thinking they’re being clever by balancing textbooks on top of their heads, as well as making sneaky use of their mobile phone in lessons.
What really brought this disaster home to me was Elizabeth Truss MP’s brilliant article in The Telegraph about our “hourglass economy” – jobs at the top and bottom, not much in the middle – and education as a factor in it. Messrs Goddard (HT) and Drew say that their goal is to make children employable, and they may even be doing so – but it is employment at the bottom of the hour glass. Three per cent of Passmores pupils reached the Ebac standard last year.
Most of the pupils at Passmores do not hate school or education, or even dislike them. They are just indifferent, and see school work an interference with their social life, which revolves around cliques. Come GCSEs, and one says “she might as well listen”, but not with any interest or enthusiasm. She needs the GCSEs to get to college, where social life can continue.
Ofsted failed Passmores pupils by rating this school as outstanding, despite evidence of significant weaknesses in the demands made by teachers (the teaching was somehow rated as good, but not outstanding). The inspectors, who were in school for just two days, judged that pupils were “friendly, polite and helpful to each other and to visitors. Their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development is good. Students behave well in lessons and around the school, this is helped by a system of rewards as well as by students' clear understanding of what is right and wrong.”
Just how wrong can an inspection team be? It did not help that they were in school for only two days, and had only four inspectors for such a large school. We don’t know how many lessons they saw or what was the basis for their judgements, but an important factor may well have been that very disruptive (I am fed up with the word vulnerable applied to perpetrators rather than victims) pupils were kept in school rather than excluded.
But the real importance of Passmores does not lie in the school itself. Mr Goddard feels he is a good headteacher, and Ofsted have rated him outstanding. Amid all the criticism of the programme, a substantial number of commentators and teachers have praised the school and its leadership. The head and deputy are sincere and conscientious. But how effective are they? The deputy head, carrying out his daily task of supervising detentions said to one pupil in last week’s show that he had “done nothing to improve this school in the last three days” because of her problems. The difficulties were real, but should they be allowed to dictate the way he uses all of his time? Is he the person on the staff best equipped to deal with them? And should anyone, even a deputy head, be expected to soak up abuse in order to spare other people from it? Mr Drew comes dangerously close to being an Aunt Sally.
Yet the school crystallises what is wrong with society. Mossbourne, in Hackney, has a more difficult task than Passmores in Harlow, and it tackles it by simply not letting anti-social and anti-educational attitudes through the gate. Be rude to a teacher and you go home at 6 o’clock that night, with plenty more detentions to follow if you persist. Teachers at Mossbourne work very hard indeed, and Sir Michael Wilshaw is right to draw pupils’ attention to this and to demand that they respect it. Pupils do not use mobile phones in lessons, and desks face the front so that pupils can concentrate on the lesson and not on each other.
As Sir Michael becomes HMCI, he will face the problem that a substantial number of headteachers – probably at least a third, but maybe more – actually agree with Mr Goddard rather than him on the purpose of education, and will do anything in their power to defend their view. I was able to make just one small contribution to the fight during a train journey between London and Harlow, where a parent asked me for advice on choosing a secondary school for his daughter. He was going to visit Passmores that evening. I hope I put him right.