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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 19:42 GMT
Tough talking on standards
Geoffrey Samuel says schools should be 'ruthless' in their ambitions for pupils

An unrelenting emphasis on standards, competitive sport, a no-nonsense approach to discipline, strong communication with parents ...

These are claimed as the ingredients in the success of the London borough with the best primary school results in the country.

But if all this had to be distilled into a single attitude of mind, the strongest impression given by the education head at Richmond-upon-Thames is a policy of "no excuses".

Geoffrey Samuel, cabinet member for schools in the south-west London borough, keeps returning to the theme that there is no reason why a school should not be expected to deliver a decent level of education for its pupils.

"You can go to some boroughs where the first thing you'll hear about is the poverty and social problems that their pupils face .. and I think that's a misjudgement."

Education in London has gone through an appalling 25 years, in which it has been subordinated to a social agenda. ... It it will take another 20 years to reverse."
Geoffrey Samuel, Richmond-upon-Thames council

A former comprehensive school head teacher, Mr Samuel says that schools should not allow the social disadvantages of their pupils to continue a cycle of educational failure.

"It can allow a tolerance of underachievement, where schools say 'what else can you expect from pupils with problems like that'. My reaction to that is to say 'tough'."

"You have to be ruthless in your ambition for your pupils. They only have one life. If a child wants to be a vet, and they go to a school where there is no record of getting good academic results, their chance of getting what they want can be lost forever."

'Lost direction'

Richmond might have more than its fair share of leafy streets and affluent homes, but he says that for poorer areas to allow their social circumstances to be used as an excuse for poor academic results is a great disservice to those who most need a good education.

Now deputy leader of a Conservative council, Mr Samuel, who was also once a Labour councillor, is scathing about the state of education in the capital in recent decades.

Richmond-upon-Thames
Fourth 'least deprived' area in the country
14% pupils from ethnic minorities
Spending per pupil close to English average
High proportion of schools 'good' or 'very good'

And he says that the extremes in differences between authorities in the capital reflect an era when many schools lost their sense of direction.

"From the late 70s, standards dipped phenomenally. Schools were unfocused, untargeted, filled with unclear waffle.

"Education in London has gone through an appalling 25 years, in which it has been subordinated to a social agenda.

"It was a betrayal of education, and that's the reason why there are such extremes in London schools. And it will take another 20 years to reverse."

'No short-cuts'

The length of time it takes to make a difference is emphasised by Mr Samuel, who criticises successive governments' pursuit of quick fixes and headline-grabbing initiatives.

There are no short cuts, he says, progress has to be measured in decades. And throwing money at the problem won't deliver immediate results.

"It's not just a question of more money. It's easy to say we need to pour in more money, but that's simplistic and it won't necessarily lead to improvements.

"Issues such as good discipline and a clear structure can be more important."

Parents are also a vital part of the equation, and he says they are often very traditional in their expectations of how a school should be run.

"If parents and schools are on different wavelengths it can be very difficult. But it's a challenge that many schools duck.

"When I was a head, most of the pupils were from Indian families, and their parents wanted a traditional education, with a strong sense of discipline.

"Parents respond to a very clear value system and schools have to make their intentions absolutely clear. Even if they can't control their own children, parents want the teachers to."

Parents also like team games and competition, he says, and the borough supports the idea that competitive sport is a good thing.

It's like a business, where everyone from the cleaner through to the managing director know what the company is about
"It develops a mental toughness that can be transferred to other parts of life."

Schools benefit from a shared ethos and sense of purpose, he says. This has contributed to the success of faith schools, he says. But this sense of distinctiveness can rub off on specialist schools, where he says, schools gain their own character and "flavour".

"It's like a business, where everyone from the cleaner through to the managing director know what the company is about. That translates into results."

And too often in the past, he says that too many London schools didn't really know what they were for.

House prices

In the case of Richmond's primary schools, this tough message has put the authority at the top of the league table in successive years for the tests taken by 11 year olds.

This makes places in the authority's primary schools highly sought after - perhaps adding 50,000 to the price of houses in the right catchment areas.

It might be expected that the triumphs of the borough's primary schools would convert into similar success at secondary level. But it's not that simple.

Because compared to the national average for GCSEs, the borough's secondary school results are struggling.

And many of the social factors of affluence and motivated parents that contribute to the borough's success in primary schools exert a pressure in the opposite direction at secondary level.

Put simply, if parents can afford a big house in a leafy part of the borough, they can also probably afford to send their children to a private school.

And more than a quarter of pupils in the borough do that.

There will be other parents who then send their children to schools "over the border" in neighbouring boroughs - so that only about 60% of pupils in Richmond's secondary schools are from the borough.

In practice, this means that many of the brightest children from middle-class families opt out of the borough's secondary schools, creating some of the problems stereotypically associated with more deprived quarters of the capital.

And as with the most deprived boroughs, schools with poor results won't attract the motivated parents who can help drive up results - and such cycles are difficult to break.




SEE ALSO:
Richmond holds on to primary lead
05 Dec 01  |  Education


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