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15 January 2024

The Monday Briefing: Sanctuary

“Redundancies. Lack of funding. A pandemic. All have contributed to a huge rise in children missing from class.”

“Redundancies. Lack of funding. A pandemic. All have contributed to a huge rise in children missing from class.”

So began an article in the Guardian yesterday, entitled 'Why 140,000 pupils are ‘severely absent’ from school in England – and what we can do about it.’ The piece made for extremely grim reading, detailing a loss of motivation, investment and confidence in the current systems we have in place nationally. It concluded not only that the current apathy towards education is contributing to the astounding drop in student attendance, but also that the only way to rectify matters was a complete rethink, and considerable funding to reverse the decline.

Vic Goddard, Principal of Passmores School in Harlow, who became renowned due to his engaging performances on the TV programme ‘Educating Essex’ summed it all up rather well by acknowledging the limitations of the current state of play, by stating that ‘We are doing the best we can, not the best we can be,’ in an interview linked to the article. It is clear that an outstanding educational leader, known for such ebullience when he started his role, now feels cornered. “If there isn’t a change in approach, I’m done,” he states - and it is not difficult to understand such a state of mind, given the difficulty of the role. His parting question: “When are we going to realise that something [change] far more fundamental has to happen?”

The figures above, combined with the drop in funding have brought much consternation from headteachers up and down the country, and the measures in place seem to be bringing little in the way of inroads in terms of a solution.

“Rewards for attendance, parental fines for absences and too little flexibility for children with neurodiversity, special needs and those who have experienced trauma means that while 100% attendance has become the obsession of all the political parties, what that distracts from is the issue of whether education – and the environment in which it operates – is fit for purpose.” The author of the article raises some pertinent points.

This came hot on the heels of a similar post the previous week, where Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins made clear his thoughts on the situation, in his article ‘England’s secondary schools are Dickensian. No wonder children are staying away.

It wasn’t just his own assertion that “It is reasonable to conclude that children avoid school because they find it hostile, disturbing and largely pointless” which provided a damning indictment of the current approach, the below the line comments, almost universally in agreement, gave similar perspectives:

“We're obsessed with uniform infringements, silent classrooms, conformity (obviously you need a fair bit of that for classrooms to function) and very prescriptive teaching methods.”

“The reason that children are not going to secondary school is that those institutions have become huge impersonal places with punitive discipline and a financially driven refusal to identify special needs.”

“[Schools] should challenge children, inspire positivity and aspiration, confront poor-behaviour and performance, ask questions and demand - and reward - both thought and effort. But they must also strive to deliver all children a safe, happy and rewarding experience, given that we all only get one go at it.”

Since I read that article last week, I’ve been thinking about how we do things at Ealing, and how we differ from these standpoints. Earlier in the academic year, we conducted student and parent surveys, and we read this feedback intently to try to identify potential areas for improvement.

Not once was the environment at the College described as either hostile or pointless, and nor would I accept that our educational approach is Dickensian or old fashioned. In fact, the freshness and lack of rigidity which we employ acts very much as a counterpoint to such ideas.

We do not obsess over uniforms (we don’t have one) and conformity (to help one another be the best we can be) is borne out of mutual respect between staff and students. Teaching is never prescriptive at the College. In fact, teachers are directed to teach their way (they are all fully trained professionals after all) with only minimal guidelines, one of which being to encourage student empowerment through the improvement of their questioning techniques, in order to ‘let them truly shine.’

The College, made up of 120 students, could never be described as impersonal - every single student who enrols at Ealing is treated as an individual, and we seek to support all of their needs, however wide or varied they may be. We don’t shy away from SEND (in fact, we welcome all students who consider us) and we always seek to instil reasonable adjustments where we can, going above and beyond normal standards of expectation in making this happen.

We are relentlessly encouraging, transforming the initial effort of a trickling stream into a raging torrent, helping our students, many of whom were utterly down and out before they came to us, to turn positive futures from long lost dreams to realities. We do not tolerate poor behaviour, and we will not stand for poor effort. It is in application that we find reason to reward as opposed to aptitude, and this approach, for our students, inspires them to give of their best.

Of course, this can only happen in a climate of safety - and that 100% of our parents who answered in the question ‘my child enjoys coming to school and learns in a safe environment’ recent survey either agreed or strongly agreed, brought affirmation that this most important aspect of school life pervades Ealing Independent College. We also don’t think that we all ‘only get one go at education’ given the success we’ve had with retake students both at GCSE and A Level over the years.

A response to Jenkins’ piece, published on Wednesday really caught my attention, and, again, validated a great deal of what we do. Emerita professor Catherine Burke of the Faculty of education at the University of Cambridge raised the importance of a survey conducted by children almost 25 years ago - which could be referred to as a Children’s Manifesto. The pleas on it are quite interesting for someone who only started teaching in 2004:

The Children’s Manifesto, 2001 - With how Ealing measures up below

The school we'd like is:

- A beautiful school with glass dome roofs to let in the light, uncluttered classrooms and brightly coloured walls.
Though we don’t have glass domes roofs, we certainly have a professional, business like learning space which is lighted painted, clean and uncluttered.

- A comfortable school with sofas and beanbags, cushions on the floors, tables that don't scrape our knees, blinds that keep out the sun, and quiet rooms where we can chill out.
This space is in our Reading Room, and students, once they gain an exemption card, are trusted to work either here or in quiet rooms on their own or in small groups.

- A safe school with swipe cards for the school gate, anti-bully alarms, first aid classes, and someone to talk to about our problems.
We have swipe cards to ensure safety, and a modern approach to mental, as well as physical health.

- A listening school with children on the governing body, class representatives and the chance to vote for the teachers.
We have a student leadership team for Year 13 who work with the College on our priorities, a student council, and we always involve students in staff recruitment.

- A flexible school without rigid timetables or exams, without compulsory homework, without a one-size-fits-all curriculum, so we can follow our own interests and spend more time on what we enjoy.
Students do not have to take the optional subjects they find are too much of a challenge, thus providing more time for them to pursue their own interests.

- A relevant school where we learn through experience, experiments and exploration, with trips to historic sites and teachers who have practical experience of what they teach.
We have increased the emphasis on practical learning, particularly in the sciences, but also increasing the amount of trips across subjects at the College.

- A respectful school where we are not treated as empty vessels to be filled with information, where teachers treat us as individuals, where children and adults can talk freely to each other, and our opinion matters.
Students are always seen as individuals at the College and we take time to get to know them, their likes and dislikes. We listen and we take notice of their views. In fact, with communication taking place on a first name basis, this seems to be easier.

- A school for everybody with boys and girls from all backgrounds and abilities, with no grading, so we don't compete against each other, but just do our best.
We are distinct in terms of our tolerance towards students of all faiths and none. We are fully inclusive and if a student tries their very best, to be the best they can be, then they are a great success in our eyes. We take students of all abilities and all backgrounds, with funding support in the way of bursaries and scholarships, as well as having many students funded by the local authority.

At the school we'd like, we'd have:

- Enough pencils and books for each child.
Students just need to ask for these at reception. They receive a textbook for every subject which is their own to use as they wish.

- Laptops so we could continue our work outside and at home.
A bank of laptops is also at reception, with almost all of our work set through Google Classroom which enables students to work at home as well as they do in College.

- Drinking water in every classroom, and fountains of soft drinks in the playground.
Students certainly have access to all of the water they need.

- School uniforms of trainers, baseball caps and fleece tracksuits for boys and girls.
Students could absolutely wear these things - as long as they have the right attitude to learn and make progress, that is key at Ealing.

-Clean toilets that lock, with paper and soap, and flushes not chains.
Though the toilets could do with improvement (planned work in the summer of 2024), students have access to everything they need in there, including air fresheners, as requested by the student council.

- Fast-food school dinners and no dinner ladies.
Students have the ability to either bring packed lunches or buy what they wish on Ealing Broadway for lunch.

- Large lockers to store our things.
Yes - available on request.

- A swimming pool.
Erm, we’re not quite there yet!

This is what we'd like. It is not an impossible dream.

And it needn’t be an impossible dream. Ealing Independent College is largely student-centric, because we feel that it works best that way. It makes for happy, valued students who enjoy coming here. Not everyone is a ‘high flyer’ but we treat all of our students as individuals who can be, in whatever they wish to pursue.

If you are getting towards the end of Year 11 or you know someone who is, and this sounds like the sort of place that would be a good fit for A Levels, then the College is running its annual scholarship competition a week on Tuesday (23rd January 2024) where 1st prize is a fully funded two year A Level course, and 2nd prize is a half funded two year course. You can apply at https://www.ealingindependentcollege.com/scholarship.

 

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