Melanie Ehren about tackling educational inequality - structure, no excuses and relentless discipline

Docu teamOn 3 and 4 July a delegation of school boards, policy-makers and researchers joined Marjolein Moorman, deputy mayor of Amsterdam on a visit to London to learn about the ‘London effect’ in tackling educational inequality. The ‘London effect’ was first highlighted by Cook (2013) in a series of articles in the FT. He showed that pupils in London scored higher, and that the difference was greatest for more disadvantaged schools and neighbourhoods. What can Amsterdam learn from successful programmes and approaches? underpinned our discussions with teachers and head teachers in Angel Oak Academy and Saint Thomas the Apostle; a primary and secondary school in South London with 32% and 24% of the students on free school meals. The delegation was joined by Ester Gould who is making a documentary on educational inequality for Dutch national t.v. 

During the visit we were presented with many heartbreaking stories of children in poverty and how this is affecting their school career. Laurence Guinness (CEO of the Childhoodtrust) showed us a photograph, made by Katie Wilson of a room, filled with a cot standing next to an overflowing kitchen sink, yellowing mouldy walls, a used mattress lying by a washing machine and bags of clothes. Here lives a single mother with her newborn baby, a towel under the door prevents polluted air from skunk smokers next door to enter the room and damage the baby’s lungs.

Katie WilsonSource: Katie Wilson 

Laurence told us how the summer holiday is often the most scary time of year for many London children. As their school closes for a period of at least six weeks, they have no safe place to go to and are faced with endless days of boredom where gangs roam their neighbourhood for new recruits and their house is empty of food or things to do. The narrative and pictures offered a distressing insight into the lives and experiences of children living in poverty across London. 

The head teachers and teachers we met all worked to the best of their abilities to offer these children the best education to overcome these challenges. In their narrative, one key message came across quite clearly: a relentless focus on high academic outcomes with a culture of no excuses and a very strict structure of order and discipline. Miss Cathie Hewitt (Headteacher of Angel Oak Academy) explained the behavioural code when touring the school: every child has to shake an adult’s hand and look the adult in the eye when meeting him/her in the corridor, there are no displays on the wall to prevent students from getting distracted, children are taught Mozart and Animal farm and are required to speak full sentences. According to the head teachers, students, who are from a wide range of minority ethnic backgrounds, need to learn this to be able to succeed in white middle class English society. Home cultures (e.g. rap) are purposefully not incorporated into the teaching and school curriculum as ‘children already get this at home and there is no need for the school to offer this’. 

On the second day of the visit we got to see structure and behavioural policy in action during the morning line up of students in St Thomas the Apostle secondary school. Every morning, students gather on the school grounds to form a line of two, headed up by their form teacher (ie class teacher) before entering the first lesson. During the line-up their school uniforms are checked and teachers check that students have no mobile phone or knife in their possession. When walking in line to the first lesson, all talk is prohibited. The strict policy works well according to the head teacher as it ensures a safe school where all energy is focused on teaching and learning. The phrase ‘no excuses’ for high outcomes was uttered repeatedly by teachers and the head teacher. The results of the school mirror this message: an ‘outstanding’ judgement from Ofsted, the English Inspectorate of Education at their last inspection. 

Discipline

Would this relentless focus on discipline and order work in the Netherlands? Should Amsterdam schools issue the same strictness to prevent inequality and drive up standards? In our reflections at the end of the day we concluded that in the Netherlands there is more emphasis on pleasure in learning, well-being of children and development of individual talents. Integration of students from minority and native Dutch background into one school community and providing children with opportunities to forge bonds with peers from other backgrounds and classes is also much higher on the agenda as an important condition of a good school and inclusive society. School segregation was never mentioned as something problematic by our English colleagues, as long as academic outcomes are high. As Marjolein Moorman concluded: ‘when learning about ways in which to improve our schools, we should not lose the strengths we already have, which is that our children are one of the happiest in the world’. Given the number of children who have health issues due to exam stress this seems an important lesson to remember.