James Wetz’s last two jobs were as head of large comprehensive schools in the South-West of England, and the book essentially lays out his views about the ways in which secondary education should be changed. His ideas are presented as a consistent package and, although he says repeatedly that there are other ways of putting his thinking into practice, the impression created is that he is offering a job lot, with all his ideas rolled into one. The book was published in 2009 but the ideas are still highly relevant, especially in view of developments in school planning under the Coalition Government.
There seemed to me to be four main linked ideas underpinning the book.
1 James Wetz argues for secondary schools being much smaller, so that teachers and students can get to know more or less everyone in the school. This is intended to reduce anonymity and offer the chance for both teachers and pupils to relate to each other more. I recall a story from the USA in which a new head in a large high school asked the staff to write down the names of all the students whom they knew. The high achievers and the miscreants tended to be well-known, but it emerged that there was a surprisingly high percentage of children whom no-one on the staff really knew, drifting through their education unnoticed.
2 So that teachers get to know children better, James Wetz wants subject teaching abolished so that teachers spend more time with fewer pupils and there is less switching between classrooms. He advocates team teaching on broad themes and projects which encompass the material covered by subjects in a different way, allowing for longer periods of time to be spent and less switching between classrooms, with all its associated problems. Although he does not advocate it, he quotes the Danish system of having class teachers who stay with the same cohort for their whole schooling, providing much greater continuity of oversight of individuals’ education.
3 His subtitle is “Putting relationships at the heart of secondary school organisation and design”, and he suggests ways in which this can be done in the internal structure of the school through timetabling and the creation of social groupings to which students can belong, and he includes architectural plans to show how his ideas can be achieved within current UK guidelines.
4 He emphasises the need for closer relationships between students and staff, especially where children are not being well parented. He focuses on the sizeable minority of children who are not engaged with education, and the need for teacher training to concentrate on child development and attachment theory. In particular he quotes four disaffected children at length, wanting to develop a system of which they can be part and from which they can benefit.
James Wetz argues his case clearly, quoting a lot of research and the views of people in the field, and his arguments are persuasive. The drawback with the book is that he was writing to encourage the powers that be to develop schools from where we are now. There is an argument that we need a much more radical review of education, as we have a system built up over hundreds of years, and it is questionable whether it is suited to the twenty-first century.
To give just two examples, James Wetz notes the stress caused for quite a lot of children on moving to secondary school, and that many children who were successful in primary education fail to settle to secondary schooling. If so, why have the split? Why not consider the Danish model? Why not link schools to local communities, reducing the travelling time and enabling closer links to be made with the children’s families and greater long-term continuity over their education.
Again, he argues for schools to be no bigger than 375 pupils, but why that big? Using modern technology to provide specialist teaching, why do schools have to be in the hundreds? There may be arguments for helping children learn to socialise, but the question needs asking. We no longer need to prepare children to work in their thousands in shipyards, mills or coal mines, but to run small innovative businesses. Small schools might do the job better.
The book is shortish – just over 100 pages, and a quick read. Being a teacher James Wetz has laid out clear summaries both at the beginning and with every chapter, so that you need to read only a few pages to get the drift. But it is worth reading properly too; we recommend it.
Wetz, James (2009) Urban Village Schools
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Central Books, London
ISBN 978 – 1 – 903080 – 11 – 5