December 13 2013 Latest news:
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
With television viewers hooked on the tears and tempers on display in Channel 4’s series about a Yorkshire high school, education correspondent MARTIN GEORGE spends a day as a student at a Norfolk comprehensive to see how life as a student today compares to his memories from two decades earlier.
Reflecting on the differences between his own secondary schooling, and education today, Reepham High headteacher Mark Farrar said there had been huge improvements.
He said: “I went to a comprehensive in Yorkshire in the late 70s and the quality of education young people receive today is of a far superior quality.
“When I was at school, so much time was copying from the black board and writing down dictated notes, and lessons were incredibly boring. I was an academic child and could cope with that, but there were many who were not academic and it was disastrous for them.
“I think teachers today are far more enthusiastic and have far more skill. They get much more variety into their lessons and manage students better. As a result, the quality of teaching is profoundly better than it was.
“When I was at school, discipline was gained purely through fear. It is not like that in this school today. Teachers are fair, sympathetic, humorous and kind. But they are also clearly in charge. As a result behaviour, as you saw in your day with us, is far, far better than it was.
“There’s far less bullying than there was 30 or 40 years ago. They are still teenage children and can get things wrong and have to be well managed, but I have no doubt that their behaviour is far better than when I was at school.
“What has changed is the demands of the economy. Thirty or 40 years ago there were hundreds of thousands of jobs which required no literacy or numeracy skills, and it was not apparent to society that many children did not have those skills.
“I think today those non-skilled jobs have very largely disappeared and the economy requires young people with much better literacy and numeracy and relevant work skills, and we have got to strive to do better and better to provide for those children.”
When I was a high school student, teachers’ finger tips were white with chalk dust, school dinners were something to be endured rather than enjoyed, and the Internet would have sounded like science fiction.
Fast forward two decades and many people’s impressions of high school life come from the selective gaze of Channel 4’s cameras as they film Educating Yorkshire at Thornhill Community Academy.
The series, screened to coincide with the new academic year, picks out dramatic moments of rebellion, bullying and grief, while leaving out the less exciting things that happen in schools, such as teaching.
So what is life really like for a high school student in 2013? To find out, I spent a day at Reepham High School, a rural comprehensive similar to my own, taking registration, assembly, lessons and lunch with a range of students aged 11 to 18.
The day started with registration. All the students stood behind their chairs until Ms Teillet told them to sit, and she took down attendance electronically, dealing briskly with excuses for lateness.
Assembly was the most familiar part of the day, with students led in and watched over by stern-faced teachers, whispering quietly while waiting for Mr Farrar, the headteacher, to take the stage.
He presented me with my clip-on school tie in front of the amused year 10 and 11 students, and gave the Talk With A Message, familiar from my own school days. The moral was that while many teenagers are currently preparing for their gap year travels, everyone should make the most of the much more important journey they are already on – the journey through life.
And so to lessons. Before arriving, I had expected technology and computers to be the biggest change since 1993, and so it proved.
In my days, it seemed that the most distinctive thing about teachers was their complete inability to operate a video player. Not so now. Teachers have interactive white boards, and flick confidently between different worksheets, diagrams and video clips, and annotate them as necessary according to their students’ questions and comprehension.
In my year seven food technology class, where students were about to prepare food for the first time, Mrs Gibbs used video clips to demonstrate the claw and bridge techniques for using a knife, skills I was never taught. They were much better than a class of students crowded around a desk and craning their necks to see what the teacher was doing.
But although new technology was the most noticeable difference, it seemed like a useful rather than a transformational change. What impressed me more was how well some of the teachers taught.
In my year 10 maths lesson, Mr Beale explained how negative numbers work to a group of middle-ability students. Some things had not changed – I was told off for not using a pencil and ruler when drawing diagrams, and was advised to check my work more carefully.
Mr Beale had good a metaphor using people on a date to explain how negative and positive numbers combine, and a variety of differently-paced activities to keep students engaged and gauge their understanding, before moving onto textbook work.
Indeed, the most effective piece of technology I had not seen before was also the simplest – mini-whiteboards for each student to write answers on and hold up, allowing the teacher to quickly identify common mistakes, and make sure no-one was left behind.
Having never studied Spanish before, I was apprehensive about my third class of the day. I need not have worried, as it was only the third lesson for the year eight students.
But while my old French teachers had threatened, but never really delivered, immersion in the language by the time I started GCSEs, these kids heard almost nothing but Spanish from day one. And with appropriate gestures from Mr Hayward, they understood, and with games to get them listening and writing, they even seemed to enjoy. I don’t remember as many smiles and laughs in my language lessons.
I do not have particularly fond memories of school dinners. Healthy options were available, but unappealing, and the unhealthy options were not particularly tasty either.
When I arrived at Reepham High, a teacher told me I was in luck – one of the staff favourites, Hunter’s chicken, was on the menu. And it was good. Even the vegetables were lightly cooked, rather than the over-boiled mush of memory.
By the time I had completed my period four ICT lesson with Mr Villarde, where students explored the inside of a computer, and period five A-level chemistry lesson with Mr Derrett, which was so far over my head I could not even try to summarise, I was pretty exhausted.
Thinking back, I do not remember the teenage me being so tired after a day of study, but as an adult the sheer variety of subjects and concentration required seemed pretty demanding.
As I pulled off my tie as I left school grounds, I reflected on a reassuring day.
Reepham High has bustling corridors and a crowded dining hall, but there was no hint of bad behaviour. Some students found lessons challenging, but they spoke up if they did not understand. And teachers taught with a sense of humour, and worked hard to make sure no-one was left behind.
If my day was anything to go by, school life may not have changed out of all recognition since 1993, but it has improved.