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Fear on the front line

2011 will be a year of seismic change to our public services. A teacher, GP, lawyer, social worker,

7.15am First day back. Snow gone, thank God. Prepare for day's teaching and meetings.

There is nothing quite like the exhilaration of being surrounded by 1,700 teenagers who are desperately, frenetically, trying to get along, grow up, discover their interests, develop their personalities. Since leaving No 10 - where I led Tony Blair's strategic communications unit - seven years ago, to become first a teaching assistant and then a teacher, I have worked in three very different comprehensives - one tough, one outstanding, one good and improving - and I still get a buzz every day.

However, this year will be difficult for all schools, faced with the twin challenge of dealing with the coalition cuts and an education white paper containing a mishmash of initiatives ranging from the sensible to the silly.

8.35am Staff briefing: 150 bleary-eyed teachers listen to a blizzard of announcements about the "big push" for GCSE results. I inform them of deadlines for inputting data and the parents' evening coming up for Year Elevens, and give them reminders of how to use the new sanctions system in the classroom.

GCSE results went up 19 per cent last year at the mixed comprehensive where I teach in Southall, west London. Why? Because of strong leadership, a learning culture that is overwhelming the street culture, a focus on consistently high-quality lessons, intelligent use of data to intervene where students are falling behind, and a lot of hard work from teachers.

What politicians who look for headlines, for momentum, for a sense of "radical reform" often fail to realise is that those on the front line are in a different game. They are not waiting for the next initiative.

One of the biggest rebukes for me, moving from 10 Downing Street to the classroom, was realising just how irrelevant or annoying most micro-initiatives from central government are. Public-service reform is still a blunt instrument - applying to all 17,400 primaries or 3,400 secondaries in England - as if every school were equally in need of the same policy solutions. Utter madness.

Most schools spend their time subverting, adapting, ignoring and repositioning the initiatives to make them relevant and meaningful, while getting on with what they know makes the difference - improving the quality of teaching and strengthening the school's ethos. The slow and patient grind, 20, 30, 40 small things done well - that's what counts.

Book battles

9.50am Drop in to literacy lesson in the library. One angelic-looking 11-year-old looks up from her book and smiles. "I've read ten books since September," she says. Our new reading programme may just be working.

Eleven-year-olds who arrive with a reading age of seven, the 14-year-old I mentored at my first school who was trying to get to grips with Macbeth without basic knowledge of phonics, the brightest 15-year-olds at my current school who hate reading. All point to the same challenge: how to get a generation of students to leave school not just knowing the basics, but becoming avid readers, fluent writers and confident speakers.

The biggest inequality in Britain today is between the literate and the illiterate. This is the fundamental class divide. It is between those who can articulate their ideas and those who can't get beyond street slang. Those who can write with sophistication and those whose writing remains a jumble of unconnected ideas. Those who read for pleasure and enrichment and those who take pride in never reading. Too many children find reading a chore, writing a bore and speaking in front of others excruciatingly difficult.

That's why cutting reading programmes is short-sighted. It is also why cutting schemes such as Creative Partnerships - which brings theatre companies, storytellers and authors into schools - snuffs out some of the inspiration that turns the humdrum and mechanical into something magical, enthralling and inviting.

Sometimes - weirdly, in my view - those who believe in proper teaching of phonics, grammar and fluent writing are pigeonholed as traditionalists. But for me and, I believe, for anyone on the left, striving for high levels of literacy is a moral imperative. Our greatest challenge in education is to ensure that the children leave school with high-quality communication skills.

10.30am A crestfallen sixth-former approaches me, his mentor, to give a post-mortem on his Oxford interview: a bright historian, hard- working, oozing potential - rejected by Oxford after a three-day interview process. Spent the three days with public-school candidates "who made me feel like a commoner".

There is still a huge lack of confidence among many students from comprehensives applying for top universities. The statistics remain startling. Only 0.8 per cent of the students at Oxford and Cambridge were on free school meals at secondary school.

To increase tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 per year, and in one go, is too much too fast. With interest and living costs, it may put off exactly the kind of students the coalition wants to support. The scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance - the £30-a-week grant to encourage students to stay on at school after 16 - which has been shown to work, is a further unnecessary blow that will hit more than 60 per cent of our students.

If this government is serious about social mobility, it needs to do far more to open up top universities to state schools. As a start, those
on free school meals should get special guidance and lower grade offers from universities in order to go some way to counter the huge inbuilt advantages of a private-school education. We should also consider quotas, as well as wider use of aptitude entrance tests to measure potential rather than past achievement.

10.50am-12.30pm Ninety students in a stifling, confined space. Team leaders glowing yellow in high-visibility clothing. One by one, the students are transferred to an oil rig, ready for their first day's work as riggers, machine operators and foremen. They begin diligently on routine tasks
. . . until the explosion hits.

An ear-splitting bang. Evacuation procedures implemented. The scramble for life rafts. All have a tough task, working in teams to call for help, rescue colleagues and deal with the aftermath. Afterwards, each survivor needs to write a personal account of what has just unfolded.

This is a thinking skills lesson for 12-year-olds. I am not sure the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, would approve. It does not conform to his romantic view of the 1950s "grammar-school" education - students sitting in rows in pristine school uniform, learning facts from the all-knowing teacher.

Instead, students were taking charge of their learning, engaging in a real-world scenario, prioritising options, questioning assumptions, using knowledge to make fine judgements, working under pressure in a team, developing literacy skills to write a detailed account, and having the confidence to perform that account in front of an audience.

Students will remember the lesson. It will not wash over them. It touched their emotions, involved them, excited them. The learning was connected and concrete rather than abstract, and so will go deeper and result in greater reflection. It was one in a series of lessons looking at the impact - scientific, environmental and political - of the BP oil spill.

This lesson, and many like it around the country, are part of an attempt to give students a broader and deeper education, to develop skills and attributes so that their knowledge can be deployed with precision. It is part of an informal movement from teachers and heads who ask themselves, in a way that politicians do far too infrequently: "What sort of students do we want leaving our schools aged 18?"

The Tory answer is "students who know more facts", but the answer from most teachers, students and employers would be "students who know how to apply their knowledge, who love learning, who are creative, analytical and flexible; students who can work independently and show resilience, who are moral and kind to others; students who are high-quality written and oral communicators".

We don't know what the jobs of the future will be, so we need students to be ready to change, react and adapt. And we need learning in the classroom to be based less on an outdated notion (disciplinarian teacher at the front) and more on what the neuroscience is telling us: that students learn best when their learning is active (not rote learning or overuse of textbooks), experiential (hands-on), in longer periods (not broken up into 50-minute chunks), developed over a sustained period, and connected to a big picture (making connections between subjects and to larger ideas).

The assessment system, in turn, needs to start measuring more than one very narrow skill - the ability to remember and write down pieces of information in two-hour exams. In short, many teachers believe that we are currently educating children for the middle of the 20th century, not the start of the 21st century.

While the world changes at a bewildering speed, teaching methods and curriculums edge forward at a glacial pace. This goes for all schools, private, state and grammar. In each sector, go-getting head teachers are rethinking what they offer their students. They are also, like many national governments and regions around the world, from Singapore to Queensland, demanding that students have a far bigger toolkit when they embark on adult life.

Labour didn't do enough to modernise the curriculum. The Tories' big idea so far is the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) - to be awarded to students who achieve grades A* to C at GCSE in five subjects chosen by Gove. This has the potential to send Britain's education system back 50 years.

Rather than providing a menu of subjects that Gove believes are rigorous in addition to English, maths and science (following proper consultation), he has decided that history, geography and languages, including Latin and Greek, come above all else. In today's world, is it really more important to learn ancient Greek than economics? Is it really more civilised and cultured to learn German than art or music, which appear nowhere in the EBacc? Is it right that geography has a higher priority than studying three sciences?

What's more, even the most traditional of heads I have spoken to believe that, for 20-30 per cent of students, a high-quality vocational course is not a soft option, but the best way of building success and confidence and preparing them for work and apprenticeships.

Military precision

12.45pm Dining hall scuffle. A student who has only just returned to school after several days' exclusion for a fight has another boy in a not-quite-friendly bear hug.

I try to use my much-practised raised-eyebrow "please desist" look, to limited effect, and then sling him out of the hall.

The government believes that head teachers need more powers to discipline students. They don't. They've already got them. This is just one of several prejudices that play to the Tory faithful. Other dotty bits of bias that have found their way into the education white paper include the idea that British history, our great island story, is not taught in schools. It is. I know. I teach it. Nearly one thousand years of it, beginning in 1066 in the first year of secondary school and culminating in Churchill by Year Nine.

Then there's the idea that soldiers make good teachers because they are tough. Wrong. Soldiers make good teachers if they are good at teaching. One of the worst teachers for classroom behaviour I have seen was an ex-army officer. Why? He could not understand why 30 12-year-olds would not obey orders.

The worry - as seen already from the U-turns on school sport and the funding of reading programmes - is that hasty decisions, often based on half-baked ideas, spew out without coherence or consultation.

This masks some good things: the refocusing of Ofsted on teaching and learning, the support for excellent training programmes such as Teach First and Future Leaders. What the last Labour government often discovered the hard way was that good intentions and new ideas are not enough. The policy detail is crucial.

3.30pm Head teacher's office. Meeting of senior leadership team. Item three: implications of government white paper. Lot of concern about big reductions in sixth-form funding and the uncertainty on the pupil premium.

The "pupil premium" - an extra £430 in funding for every child in the school whose parents earn less than £16,000 a year - will count for little if it is just recycled money, top-slicing the schools budget.

In addition, for schools like mine, with a big sixth form, major cuts are on the way with reductions in per-pupil funding. For many other communities that have had the refurbishment of their schools scrapped because of the ending of the Building Schools for the Future programme, there will be cynicism.

If the government really was being bold, it would give the pupil premium as a grant straight to each student on free school meals - to spend on the books, enrichment and tuition that might help them achieve better results.

The coalition's other big idea is "free schools", set up in response to demands from parents or teachers' desire to improve schooling. These are, in fact, an extension of the academies programme. They have the potential to allow motivated teachers to innovate and try out new ways of improving inner-city education. That is why Labour would be misguided to oppose them. However, safeguards are needed, including thorough accountability, fair funding and guarantees on admissions.

If free schools become schools for promoter parents to send their own children to, we won't get the change to the system that is possible. However, if free schools are there to innovate and to tackle often entrenched disadvantage - as happens with the best charter operators in the United States - then they will pass any progressive test.

5pm After-school GCSE study club nearly finished. Ninety minutes of homework and revision for those at risk of falling behind. Run by a formidable head of year. In the dining hall. Juice and apple provided. Revision books at the ready. Student enthusiasm on a spectrum from "I wish I was out with my mates" to "I suppose this might make a difference to my final exam results".

Most of these students are playing catch-up. They learned to read and write too late and still find it hard to get into good learning habits. In a way, they are a metaphor for our entire system. We are still playing catch-up in our cities, trying to remedy generations of underachievement. Now is the time to be more ambitious.

And yet it seems that, driven by often outdated notions of their own grammar- or private-school education, the leaders of our government might miss the opportunity to build a 21st-century curriculum and style of teaching that equip our children for the future.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency