It is time to give schoolchildren what they want

Posted on: 06 Nov 2012

By Jonathan Taylor, Headmaster, Bootham School

‘What they want’, according to Jonathan Taylor, Headmaster of Bootham School, is inspired teaching by inspirational teachers. With the help of a public-private partnership which is already bearing fruit in York, here Jonathan explains the wider meaning behind this partnership and its potential for further development in line with children’s needs and aspirations. Is this partnership a model for the future?

Ask anybody about schools, schoolchildren, and how we get the best out of both for future generations, and I guarantee they will have an opinion. You won’t be surprised to hear I also have my own ideas and thoughts about the future direction of education in the UK and I’m not shy about speaking out. If there is one topic we all feel knowledgeable enough to discuss and debate, it is education.

Of course the possessor of opinions is no more deserving of special attention than anyone else. Unless, that is, they belong to another group which often expresses its wishes and desires but is usually ignored in the rush to pronounce on education –the schoolchildren themselves.

I know schoolchildren are very clear about what they want: committed, expert teachers who are enthusiastic about their knowledge and so passionate about passing it on that their lessons are fast-moving, disciplined and exciting. And how do I know this? I see it every day at Bootham School – and I am becoming aware of similar developments at the York Independent State School Partnership.

Set up in 2007, the York ISSP Project involves 10 schools (five local authority-maintained, two academies, three independent) which now jointly fund the scheme after national funding was withdrawn. The emphasis from day one was on teachers teaching to their passions to bright schoolchildren looking for academic opportunities they might not have had before.

From an original focus on science, the York ISSP broadened its scope to include opportunities for able pupils to study Russian and Latin to GCSE level and Thinking Skills to AS level. In fact the range of possible opportunities now includes such diverse topics as astronomy and robotics.

The Project even developed an international dimension when 24 students from 10 state and independent schools visited Berlin to study issues around the fall of the Wall, funded by the Imperial War Museum.

Five years on and the project is starting to reveal some remarkable results. As part of the project, my own school pioneered a course in GCSE Latin for state school students from across the city, for whom Latin is not otherwise available. Twenty 13-year-olds accepted the challenge of learning the subject from the start to GCSE in two years. They were taught for a single two-hour session by the inspirational Head of Classics at Bootham, James Harrison.

They mastered syntax, vocabulary, declensions and inflections, and they studied the Aeneid (the legendary story of Aeneas, the Trojan who travelled to Italy) in the original. This is Latin poetry - at the age of 14!

On finishing the course at the end of year 10, the students took GCSE and achieved high grades – and, more importantly, a sense of achievement. One girl said that she had never been so moved by a piece of literature; another commented on how Latin helped with all her other subjects. One boy spoke for all the students when he said that he put in a lot of work to achieve a result he was really pleased with. They had been able to move along at pace, with real excitement and challenge, and commented on how different the experience was from their normal classes.

To date the York ISSP project has offered 2776 opportunities to students, of which 83% are from state schools and 17% independent schools. As you have seen, the project offers opportunities which simply would not have been available in a different era. More importantly, schoolchildren took these opportunities with both hands because they could see the benefits and advantages of hard work and effort for themselves.

It is time we started to ask our students what they want: they know instinctively that good teachers have ‘teaching and learning’ engraved on their hearts, as through a stick of rock. And hearing what they want, we should make sure we give it to them.

Jonathan Taylor, Headmaster, Bootham School

6 November 2012

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