Gina Davidson: Times are tough at the chalk face

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SO THAT’S another milestone passed. The first evening of homework for my daughter who is now in primary one and it descended into the same vexing, aggravating annoyance that it has generally been with number one child.

Homework is a disaster in our house. I think where I’m going wrong is expecting them to do it, to think for themselves and just let me take a look when it’s finished. Apparently I’ve got to be more involved. To actually listen to them read or something. Doesn’t the school know I’ve got, like, “stuff” to do?

What’s more it seems I should be thankful the school wants my involvement. Sorry, demands it. Which doesn’t seem to be the case in every school. In fact, it’s only when you have children in the state education system that you realise that while all schools are equal, some are more into equations than others.

Joking aside, the curriculum is supposed to be the same across the country, but the way it’s taught obviously isn’t. Which is why teachers don’t like comparisons with schools around the catchment area corner.

Parents are also different, so you end up with schools at polar opposite ends of the education equality act. Those which are stuffed full of middle-class kids have got parents who insist they do their homework, who see the benefits of consistent attendance, who have a future mapped out for their children which includes yet more education. Those which are sited in more deprived areas tend (and I’m aware this is a sweeping statement) to have parents who feel less warm towards schools, perhaps having had a poor time of it themselves. They see no reason to insist on attendance, or having homework done, and so their children don’t see the point either, and a vicious cycle continues.

It’s most apparent, of course, at high school level. While that’s still a long way off for us, already I’ve been looking at exam league tables, to see just which secondaries are performing well. Of course such tables don’t tell the whole story about the success of a school – and there’s much emphasis placed on a more holistic approach to turning out all-round good human beings – but from a parental persepective, it’s all about the exams, stupid.

It is too for headteachers, though they would vehemently deny it. Otherwise there wouldn’t have been such an outcry in England and Wales at the idea that the goalposts had been moved with the English GCSEs, leaving many youngsters who expected to pass with a D instead of a C.

Nor would there be such delight and excitement at the fact that in Edinburgh, one of the poorest performing high schools in one of the most deprived areas has – for the first time in its 34-year history – seen 21 per cent of its pupils sitting five or more Standard Grades at credit level actually pass their exams. Just three years ago not a single pupil at the Wester Hailes Education Centre managed that. And every year when the exam tables were published the WHEC was fighting it out for bottom place with Craigroyston and Castlebrae – also sited in notoriously poor areas of the city with high absentee rates, exclusions and a large number of pupils on free school meals.

From its opening, the WHEC has had a lot to deal with, particularly when the area it served became swamped with drugs in the 1980s. And, perhaps as a result, it has long had a more liberal approach to its pupils who, in the main, have very hard home lives. It’s also renowened for extending a welcome to teenage mums, giving them a chance to attend school, get their exams, while knowing their babies were being cared for on site. It’s an idea that has gone nationwide.

But despite that approach and despite having at the helm Alex Wood, reputedly one of the best headteachers in town, results remained poor.

However over the last three years – two of them Wood’s last at the school – and now with a new head in place, the WHEC finally seems to be making a mark academically. And why? Because it’s been allowed to do what it knows will work for its pupils, and that’s forgetting the middle-class touchy-feely approach which might work when there’s plenty of parental involvement at home, and instead giving that support in the school instead.

There are reward schemes for good attendance – it’s now up to 90 per cent – and an emphasis on wearing school ties. But most importantly, there’s been a mentoring scheme where every pupil is assigned to a specific teacher with whom they can discuss difficulties they’re having in classes, with homework and their targets at attainment. And this happens first thing every day.

It’s the kind of conversations most parents have with their children after school, during homework, over dinner – but given the chaotic nature of the home lives of many WHEC pupils, that just wasn’t a part of their day. It is now, and unsurprisingly it works.

Next year those kids who got their five credit level Standard Grades will be going on to do Highers. The WHEC looks like it will be making it’s way up those league tables – which can only inspire the other schools in Edinburgh to adopt its methods.

And for all those who believe that teachers have an easy ride, they should perhaps look at the hours and the dedication they are giving to the children at the WHEC and think again.