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Achieving equity with excellence and integrity

13th September 2021

It was the late 1970s and I was in my first year of teaching at Burlington Danes School, Acton. The school – a large, split-site comprehensive – was in its third year. Previously, there had been two schools – Burlington High School for Girls and Clement Danes Grammar School for Boys. The melding of the two names was probably the most trouble-free part of the new venture. Otherwise, things were edgy. Or at least they felt that way to Graham Tuck, fresh out of university with his shiny degree and naïve PGCE but, in essence, teaching from his school and university notes in a style that he remembered from his own relatively recent school days. Graham’s most successful teachers then (the ones who could keep control and were therefore respected) had been strict. So, he was strict – fierce even. Or, at least, he tried to be.

Things were at their “edgiest” in that first year with a class of Year 11 boys (I can still remember Marcus and Jose who seemed to orchestrate all-things-chaos from their graffitied desk at the back of the room). They were smart, disaffected, angry. Warning me of their fearsome reputation, the Head of English described his experience of teaching them modern poetry as being like “casting artificial pearls before real swine.” It wasn’t entirely motivating to hear this hardened veteran of thirty years say these things (inhaling deeply – as he did so - on his roll-your-own cigarette whilst its tobacco dribbled onto the common room carpet): even more alarming was his tone of voice – weary, resigned – as tired as his favourite staffroom chair. The best course of action, he counselled, was - at the first sign of trouble – to send the ringleaders to the deputy. He would sort them out. Despite this fall-back, things didn’t improve and I do remember some sickening occasions when the behaviour of the group seemed to be slipping away from me. I think I remember the young Graham, at his wits’ end, yelling “Why is it every time I open my mouth some idiot speaks?” Silence followed by a storm of student laughter.

Well, that was over forty years ago and things did improve for me over the next few years. I found that I could hold a group’s attention, even entertain them. At parents’ evenings I would hear from some that their sons and daughters enjoyed coming to my lessons. A number of these children even grew to like poetry … and Shakespeare. Some even wanted to become English teachers themselves. But what strikes me looking back at those early years is a total deficit of three things that – whilst they might have come too late to rescue Marcus and Jose from my attempts to teach – would nevertheless have shaped me into a much, much better teacher.

The first, and most important is a clear understanding of what we teach and why: the second, is how we teach, so that young people are supported in knowing more and remembering more. And third, the training that can help bring these things about: the chance for teachers to practise and develop the skills of teaching. It is with those things in mind that our Trust’s Curriculum Statement was developed with school leaders and Trustees last year. In this statement we set out our determination as a Trust to provide a curriculum that is designed to enable our learners to thrive, achieve and flourish. We also express our commitment to evidence-based pedagogy paying attention to how the brain and memory works and to supporting this commitment through Trust-wide systems for teacher professional development and quality assurance. In summary, the statement speaks of “our schools’ determination to achieve equity with excellence and integrity: where we bring advantage to the disadvantaged, where barriers to learning are successfully overcome and where there are no limits to the achievement and ambition of all our learners.”

This year, it will be a privilege for me to work with leaders and teachers in the fulfilment of this ambition.

 

 

Graham Tuck, Director of Secondary Education  Athena-GEP

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