Mrs Beasley's Blog

Learning from a tutor's perspective

Jamies’s Dream School, Have Your Say!

Have you been watching Jamie’s Dream School? (9pm, Channel 4, Wednesdays) I have been avidly following it since the first episode, two weeks ago. Strangely enough, nobody else I have spoken to has seen any of it, but, as a teacher, I was glued to the set from the start.

It is about Jamie Oliver’s attempts to motivate and encourage back into learning, a group of twenty young people, average age seventeen, by providing them firstly with a building, made into temporary classrooms, but, more importantly, inspirational people – not necessarily teachers – in an attempt to inspire the students. The criteria for choosing this particular group was that none of them achieved the requisite five GCSEs, and neither did Jamie, of course, a fact which has spurred him on to help these students.

The team working with the students has so far included David Starkey, Rolf Harris, Alistair Darling, Robert Winston, Simon Callow and Alvin Hall. There is also a real headteacher, John Dabbro, in charge of the day to day running of the school.

My initial response to the programme was, quite literally, shock and horror. I have never witnessed behaviours such as these, and I felt profoundly depressed. There was no attempt by any of the students to exercise any form of self-discipline. Indeed, I doubt whether any of them know the meaning of the word, let alone be able to practise it. They talked incessantly amongst themselves while the teacher was speaking, they chewed gum, they insulted each other and they constantly used their mobile phones to send texts, completely ignoring the lesson which was going on around them.

Halfway through his first lesson, David Starkey walked out. He had insulted a boy by calling him fat, and described the whole class as ‘failures’. This did not go down too well with the students, and they responded in kind!

It is interesting to watch the way the experts handle the pupils, some of whom, admittedly, come from difficult backgrounds. Their behaviour is enough to try the patience of a saint, and even the headteacher rounded on one girl last week, and excluded her. Her diatribe against him, in which she loudly and vociferously denounced him for what seemed like five minutes without pausing for breath, was unbelievable. Even her own mother, who initially took her part, was appalled when she watched the recording, and told her daughter off for her rudeness and dreadful behaviour.

This programme raises some interesting questions. How do children in school get to this stage? Why do secondary school pupils think that this is acceptable behaviour? David Starkey described them as ‘feral’ and many people would agree with him. When the camera focuses on a particular student, they actually come across as pleasant and sensible. It is just that, when they all get together in the ‘classroom’, the pack mentality cuts in, and the behaviour becomes obnoxious. Some students do, admittedly, come from difficult backgrounds, but not all: one boy comes from a home where both parents are working professionals, but they have, as they admit, “given up.” The students have had a very rocky three or four weeks, and their behaviour has been appalling. They think nothing of getting up and walking out of the lesson if they feel like it, either because they are “bored” or because they want a smoke. They yell at each other across the room, carrying on their private squabbles, despite the fact that there is a lesson going on, and this week (23rd March), they reduced the very capable headteacher to tears, and almost caused him to quit.

However, there does seem to be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, whose first class ended in utter chaos, tried a different approach, and it worked. He spoke to each student individually, explaining how he could not teach in an environment where he couldn’t make himself heard, and offering the students the chance to stay away from his lesson if they wished – only two did. When the others turned up, he made it very clear that he expected silence and attention, and he got it.

Another success was Alvin Hall, teaching maths. He, too, was able to engage them, and ended up with at least two of the students choosing to do extra maths in their own time.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? Yes, in my opinion there is. Several, in fact.

Firstly, we need to impose discipline and structure within the classroom at a very early stage, because, as these students demonstrate, when the classroom situation descends into chaos, nobody learns anything, and pupils become disaffected.

There is a strong case for banning mobile ‘phones, which were constantly being used during lessons for texting (and chewing gum!).

Secondly, the most successful lessons so far have been the ones which relate to “real life”. For example, Alvin taught maths from the point of view of going shopping – how much things cost, giving change, etc. All the lessons which identified with the students’ lives were successful. However, by becoming more engaged in one subject, they became more engaged in another, and so, gradually, a new understanding of, and respect for, learning is growing.

I will have much more to say on this subject after this week’s programme.

How to Pass the Grammar School Entrance Exams

Where Do I Begin?

How can you help your child prepare for the exam?

As a parent, you will know how bright your child is. This, obviously, is the starting point.  You need to be thinking about taking the entrance exams when your child is in Year 4, and be ready to begin the preparation when he/she enters Year 5.  There are lots of things you, as a parent, can do.

Buy the Bond Assessment Papers. You can get these online at,  from Amazon, Waterstones or W.H. Smith.  Make sure that you get the right level for your child, and don’t start him/her on one that is too hard – you don’t want to put them off! The tests are all age-graded, from ages 5 to 13, and children enjoy working their way through them, particularly the Verbal Reasoning ones, as these contain little crosswords and codes. If you read the information on the first page of the Bond books, it explains how the tests practise a wide variety of skills and question types, so that the children are always challenged to think. The answer sheets are in the middle of each book, and are designed to be removed, so that you can keep them separate from the questions. Bond will even send you a replacement copy if you lose yours!  Get your child to work through about four papers in a week. They don’t take long, and help children develop their skills.

Many children nowadays do not read for pleasure.  This is a problem but it must be addressed.  Children who do not read struggle with comprehension and understanding texts.  They also lack a good vocabulary and this can make an enormous difference.  A good vocabulary is vital to writing interesting stories but also in understanding verbal reasoning questions, saving valuable time in the test.  Try to encourage your child to read and learn new words.  Make a game of learning one new word a day and give them their own little dictionary to look up unfamiliar words.

Grammar and punctuation
This is another problem which I frequently encounter.  Children do not remember parts of speech and punctuation, especially the use of the apostrophe.  These skills are important as written English and presentation are sometimes overlooked in busy schools!

Strong mental arithmetic skills are very important.  Quick, reliable arithmetic can make all the difference in maths and reasoning tests.  All entrance exams are timed and children need to be able to answer questions quickly and accurately.  Mental arithmetic sharpens these skills and helps the brain develop.  Make little games out of the weekly shop, encourage them to add up the bill and work out the change, etc.

The other side of the coin
Not all children are grammar school material.   If a child does not have the intellectual ability to do well at a grammar school, then even if they “scrape through” the exam, will they benefit from the education if they are constantly at or near the bottom of the class.  Children need to be happy to be able to learn and to be always lagging behind the other members of the class is a very dispiriting experience.

Children can also suffer from over-tutoring.  The concern is that children can miss out on having fun, playing sport, socialising with their friends and so on.  These things are important as a young child develops.  If tutoring time goes above a couple of hours a week, then it is getting too much.  I have had children arrive for their lesson who are too tired to put in the effort that is needed to pass these exams or who do not even have the right personality or skills to sit the exam with or without extra help.

The benefits of a tutor
Tutors have knowledge of what the schools are looking for.  They are able to assess the children and give parents an idea of whether the child will be successful in the exam or not.

A lot of children can do maths, but when the problem is presented in a slightly different way, as a problem, for example then tutors can help the child to solve it.

Tutors can also show children how to manage their time in the exam.  It can take a few months to get the child to the point where they do not spend too much time on one question – tutors can help the child to fine- tune their exam technique.

Over the months before the exam tutors build up a strong personal relationship with children and can encourage and support them through the process of working towards the exams.

Of paramount importance is that a good tutor will help a child to understand that learning can be fun and that knowing and understanding different subjects is an asset that will benefit them throughout their lives.  A good tutor’s aim is to enthuse their pupil, to encourage them to want to learn and to make that learning fun.  The result is a child that can pass the exams but who has also learned how to learn and how to manage their time effectively.

PLEASE have a fall back plan!  I have seen families devastated because their child only sat for one school and did not pass.  Children only get one chance at this and it is important to put your eggs in as many baskets as possible!  If you have any doubts, queries or concerns, ring me and I will be pleased to discuss these with you.

Above all, good luck!