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Didactics - 21 : Schools that work


A : Recap

We have seen that, when we look at the educational system as a whole, it tends to reproduce already existing inequalities. Working class children are more likely to fail the system than are middle-class children, even at equivalent levels of knowledge and measured intelligence. These failures can, in part, be accounted for by differences in culture, knowledge and attitude towards educational success. However, the school system itself also functions in such a way as to ensure the differential success rates of different social groups. 
There is nothing inevitable about the processes involved. We have seen that internal school processes, such as streaming and banding, may affect the behaviour and attitude of both pupils and teachers. The production of an 'anti-group', as described by a number of sociologists, is not a simple mechanical process, but a complex series of interactions shaped by the meanings which the different actors bring to bear upon it. 

While the attitudes of pupils are important, the behaviour and attitudes of teachers are also crucial. If they reinforce the negative labelling that streaming and other forms of differentiation can result in, they will go far to ensuring that the process has negative consequences. If, on the other hand, they maintain high expectations of all their pupils, they can help their pupils to succeed in their school careers.

B : The good school

While the analyses of Christopher Jencks, Pierre Bourdieu and others left the impression that individual schools could do very little to alter the system of distribution of positions within a society, recent work, concentrating on the individual school, and on concrete classroom processes, has shown that some school do work better than others, and that some teachers get better results than others. Let us look first at the factors that create a good school. 
A large-scale enquiry in the United States, dating from the mid-60s - Coleman, 1966 - discovered that material factors made little or no difference - the fact that black pupils were educated in poorly fabricated and poorly maintained buildings was not a factor in their lack of educational attainment. Coleman found that the ethnic mix of a school was far more important - black students succeeded better in schools where there were more white pupils. It seems that when there is a larger number of children from homes where education is highly valued, and where success is expected, this affects all the pupils. In Europe, schools with a larger intake of middle-class children have a positive effect upon working class children. Inversely, middle-class children who go to predominantly working class schools are less likely to succeed than are their peers who go to middle-class schools. 

However, this rule is not absolute. A school with an underprivileged intake can help the students to succeed. Different factors have been identified as having some importance in this matter 

- the character and attitudes of the head - the head needs to be a vigorous leader, good at delegating responsibility, who strives to include the whole staff in decision-making. He needs to be both a good administrator and a professional teacher.

- a united ethos - a feeling among both staff and pupils that they share goals

- a stable teaching staff

- a concentration upon teaching and learning, with well-organized teaching based on clear objectives

- high expectations and self-esteem both amongst staff and pupils - and amongst parents

- a clear system of rules, stressing positive rather than negative sanctions

- open performance measures that allow both teachers and pupils to know how well they are doing. These should be used as the basis for action.

- responsibilities should be given to the pupils, and they should have clearly defined rights and duties, encouraging them both to play a part in the life of the school and to take responsibility for their own learning.

- a close relationship between the home and the school

As we can see, a great deal depends on the head. A school may change quite rapidly from a good one to a bad one, or vice versa, when the head is replaced for one reason or another. However, the teaching team may nullify the effects of the head, and some schools appear to be capable of maintaining their ethos over a long period even while both head and staff are replaced. Once certain school traditions are in place, they may prove stronger than the individuals who fill the role positions. 

Let us now look at the teachers at an individual level. What is it that makes a good teacher? 

The children themselves have their idea of what a good teacher is like. If you ask them, what they want they will say that it is a teacher who is strict but fair. It seems that they want the teacher to be clearly 'other' than themselves. Younger children tend to demand an affective investment on the part of the teacher, but older pupils clearly accept that fairness is more important than love. 


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Timothy Mason

IUFM de Versailles

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