Education: 'Teachers at difficult schools should be paid Eton salaries'

In the fourth of a series of personal articles on the key election topics, acclaimed head Marie Stubbs reveals what life is like in urban schools, and calls for more imagination
Click to follow

Eleven million people watched the television dramatisation of my book about the turnaround of St George's, the inner-London comprehensive school that had gone into steep decline after the 1995 murder of its headteacher, Philip Lawrence. OK, a lot of them tuned in because it starred Julie Walters (as me), but the film did raise serious issues about the state of some of our schools.

Eleven million people watched the television dramatisation of my book about the turnaround of St George's, the inner-London comprehensive school that had gone into steep decline after the 1995 murder of its headteacher, Philip Lawrence. OK, a lot of them tuned in because it starred Julie Walters (as me), but the film did raise serious issues about the state of some of our schools.

If you went into St George's in Maida Vale today, you would see a huge cultural mix of young people, almost all wearing their uniforms, busy and focused on what they're doing, getting to the next classroom in time for their next lesson. It's not quiet - the air is full of voices chattering in more than 50 different languages - but there is no sense of threat. The current head, Philip Jakszta, has said how determined he is to take the school forward.

You wouldn't believe it was the same school that I walked into March 2000. Then, the whole place had a defeated, dreary air. The playground was an ugly, pitted tarmac yard. I was told that some teachers were too afraid to go out there at breaktime. Sadly, violence and a gang culture had taken hold of the school, and it was up to me and the staff to change things.

St George's is now on the way to being a good inner-city comprehensive, and it's important to remember that most schools in this country are good. But it is a sad fact that some urban schools (probably not more than about 10 per cent) have major problems such as chronic absenteeism, violence, bullying and theft, and so are under-achieving.

None of the parties seem to have any policies to deal with the particular challenges of urban secondary schools. Why do these schools have more or less the same levels of pay and staffing as other schools? We should be giving extra help where it's needed.

Difficult inner-city schools should have the same pupil- teacher ratios as Eton and Harrow. The teachers should be paid the same, too. I'd like to see the Government encouraging staff into difficult schools with extra pay and a diploma to recognise their experience - maybe even exchange programmes between St George's and Eton, Harrow, or Cheltenham Ladies' College. If I were Secretary of State for Education, I'd be considering such radical and imaginative proposals.

Many of the children at these schools have been dealt a difficult hand in life, but with a judicious use of funds and an imaginative programme, I believe we can really help them. Even in a school that's bleak, you can bring hope.

It is important not to get the problems out of proportion. At most schools in this country, children are happy and doing well. And things are improving; the number of schools on special measures is falling. Over the past decade, in the main, my experience is that the fabric of schools, the buildings, equipment and numbers of teachers has improved hugely.

There has also been an improvement in teacher salaries. Unfortunately there isn't one solution to inner-city problems - the history of Hackney, for example, is very different from that of Toxteth or Moss Side. Whoever comes into power should be encouraging a diverse response - a city academy may be an answer in one area, a church school in another.

Everybody is worried about discipline and bullying, but we need to get them in perspective. Good teachers know how to deal with children, but where there are seriously disruptive pupils, society has to support teachers, through legislation if necessary.

The Conservatives have come up with the idea of Turnaround Schools for troublesome pupils. It can be very helpful for children to sometimes have time out, a breathing space, but this facility exists already within schools - skilful teachers have been doing this successfully for a long time. For some pupils it can take just a matter of days.

Teachers should have good leadership training. I'd like to see potential heads having time out, working in industry placements, for example.

As for bringing in a new examination system, it is my feeling that the people at the chalk face would not welcome another big upheaval. I don't agree that exams are being devalued. The expectations of teachers and everybody else are higher now, and I think that should be celebrated.

That's not to forget the inner-city pockets where change is desperately needed. Whoever gets into power must address the problem urgently, not just because these children have a right to education but because we need them for the future.

I said once, to the children at St George's: "I need you to pay for my old people's home." They laughed, but there's a serious point to be made.

As a nation, we can't afford to miss out on some of the terrific talents that young people have, which are possibly not being developed.

Lady Stubbs is a writer and speaker, former primary and secondary school teacher and board member of the Teacher Training Agency

Comments