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2011: The Year for Being Bolshie
Geoff Barton


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Perhaps 2011 is the year we need to get a bit angrier.

I don't mean whipping ourselves into a hoodied frenzy and hurling some sofas through the windows of Millbank Tower. Nor am I suggesting we barricade ourselves in the staffroom and wield hastily-scrawled placards protesting at cuts.

Instead, I'm proposing that we should get angrier about our apparent collective failure to ensure that every child leaves school with a handful of decent GCSE grades.

It surely can't any longer be acceptable that after 11 years of compulsory teaching fewer than half of our 16-year olds finish school without five GCSEs at C or higher, including English and maths.

Then there's our dubious performance in the (to some, perhaps also dubious) international league tables. In science we came 16th, in reading 25th and in maths 28th out of 65 countries in the 2009 PISA tests. And whilst some may question the whole notion of whether we should be participating in this form of educational Eurovision, the final scorecard undoubtedly suggests an education system that is flogging itself into a frenzy of stasis.

Doing more of the same simply isn't working.

Now, because we're in education we're often over-sensitive and unduly defensive about such comments. We take them personally. We clutch for excuses or demand higher funding for schools.

But maybe we should become more bolshie and insist the real problem is being expected to do too much. Our heads spin madly with the rash of accountability measures that are placed before us. In trying to do everything, we end up losing our perspective on the things that matter.

That's why it's time to focus with laser-like zeal on the need to make sure that the literacy and numeracy skills of our seven, 11, 14 and 18 year olds is our overarching focus.

This doesn't mean grinding through more centrally-produced lesson plans and more strait-jacketing national strategies. It doesn't mean giving up the other stuff that matters in school – the music, the extra-curricular activities, the fun.  But it will mean saying no to wacky wheezes proposed from outside the school gates. It will entail being less tolerant of ineffective teaching and of being more insistent that good teachers are in their classrooms, not on courses or in training. It will require us to be prepared to ask tough questions of ourselves and our colleagues about why a ten year-old still isn't, after six years in a primary school, able to master something as basic as writing words in sentences and sentences in paragraphs.

It's time, in other words, to be more irritable, more intolerant, more agitated – with those who distract us from our mission and with those who aren't serious and urgent enough about the need to raise our game.

It's time to get angry with ourselves. And in doing so we may just discover, as Leonard Barry puts it, that 'excellence is more fun than mediocrity'.

Geoff Barton is Headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, and a NET Leading Thinker.

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