I am sure that most teachers recognise that in every class or group there is a “tipping point”. This occurs when the majority of the students are keen to learn and to work well with one another and any who are less willing and cooperative become side-lined and a minor irritation to their peers, rather than ringleaders.
As a young teacher in a state school many decades ago, I experienced this transformational process with a tricky year 9 (then third form) class. This same phenomenon can be seen in the wider world.
Just imagine that instead of the media and politicians constantly referring to the minority of students who do not behave well, who have limited literacy and numeracy skills and low aspirations, they celebrated the achievements and attitudes of the vast majority of students who are committed to their education, work hard, aim high and achieve well.
How long would it take to make the public realise that there is much good going on in schools and that the current generation of young people have much to recommend them? The same is true of teachers – good news seems of little interest; failing or lazy teachers, those who break child protection laws, these attract vast amounts of media time and space.
But the majority of teachers in this country work extremely hard, are incredibly committed to their students and passionate about what they teach. They work long hours and yet are always ready to go the extra mile for charity events or offering individual support and advice to their students. Similarly, most schools are doing a good job, but it is the ones who aren’t that are always highlighted and discussed.
Within most of our schools, particularly those in towns or cities, be they state or independent, young people work happily alongside their peers from a variety of different ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds. They are not racist, homophobic or such like, but global citizens who are open to new experiences and ideas. Yet a whole panoply of monitoring processes has been set up to focus on the small minority who may be prejudiced, followed by punitive measures against any school found wanting, rather than expending resources on supporting schools and communities to promote harmony.
Recently, we held our annual student-run multicultural evening. Families, including grandparents and toddlers, from Asian, African, South American, Caribbean, European, British and often mixed backgrounds, watched with pleasure as students sang songs and staged mini-plays in a variety of languages, played music from different cultures and performed dances and other routines. Many students were taking part in performances not from their own culture.
The event raised funds for a project in a Ugandan slum, with which one of our teachers is deeply involved. Our students regularly Skype the students at the school that we are supporting and we are helping them to set up a chicken farm to feed themselves and provide income, as well as sponsoring some teenage girls to undertake skills training rather than working on the streets and risking AIDS. Such activities go on in many schools – our young people really do care and want to make a difference.
I am not suggesting that we pretend that all is well with the world of young people and education and attempt to bury any bad news, but we need to restore the balance and regain a sense of proportion. The major parts of our education system, our schools, teachers and students are not broken and in need of rescue – we need to recognise that the balance is in their favour and those which are failing or in need of attention are only a small minority. Good news and success stories should become the norm and “horror stories” about young people and our schools should be recognised as aberrations. I can live in hope!
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.