Tom Bennett

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Monthly Archives: September 2011

Educating Essex, episode one: Things can only get worser

Is it exam results day already?
I rejoice, and the civilised world rejoices, because Thursdays have given me a reason to turn on the television in the barren,  Apocalyptic dystopia that exists between Holby City and Extreme Nursery Cage Fighting on Channel 5. Educating Essex, Channel 4’s latest fixed-rig Panopticon, started this week, and from the looks of things I now have another perfectly serviceable excuse not to mark anything for the next four weeks (not that I ever need an excuse; today’s justification was ‘had to hide from falling satellite in pub’). 65 not-so-hidden cameras, 900 kids, a fruity deputy head who should be playing Mother Goose in panto, and a cast of chummy, eternally patient desperados ready to deliver their punch lines on cue. It’s masterpiece theatre.
It’s easy to sneer- my God, it’s easy- so I won’t. EE is a fly-on-the-wall, detention-setting, parent-phoning record breaker of a program. If they had a little sister program called Educating Extra on immediately after it on E4, I’d have Tivo’d the crap out of it. By the end of it I was hugging myself with the kind of abandon that only an educational blogger can feel; like a shark that’s just swum into a seal hospice. Where do you even begin?
For a start, the school was called Passemores- PASS MORES FOR GOD’S SAKE. Who built it, Charles Dickens? John Bunyan? It was chosen by the program makers because- and I’m quoting- it was ‘representative of the average school’. Which is interesting, because Ofsted gave it a bill of Outstanding last time they popped in, and It gets an A*-C rate that many schools would sell their janitor for medical research to achieve. So it’s hardly a typical school, unless we want to describe tachyons as ‘quite fast’.
Talking of underestimating things, to say that filming in schools presents ethical issues would be to describe Tuliza from N-Dubz as ‘a bit lucky’. Bertrand Russell and David Attenborough would find it hard to circle the square dance of delicacy required to do something like this without bulldozing over countless issues of child exploitation and the seduction of the innocent. The honey trap of instant celebrity/ notoriety is a powerful perfume for anyone, and by that I mean the teachers as well as the kids. One TV producer I worked with a while back asked me for help putting him in touch with schools prepared to be filmed. He called such Heads ‘telly tarts’. The implication was clear.
Talking about the ethical and practical dimensions, the producer, Hannah Lowe said:

“Around 20 or 25 were on our radar and my job was to get under their skins and get their trust,” says Lowes. “It was a very important time in their lives and they were going through some big changes.”

Yep- you had to gain their trust, just like teachers do. So you can turn them into telly! Brilliant. That’s what trust is about; convincing people to open up to you, so you can carpet-bomb them on the box. Memorably the crew were careful to tell the kids that this wasn’t a fast-track to ‘being the next Jade Goody,’ and if that doesn’t make the blood freeze in your veins a little then I suggest you are a cadaver already.
Let’s be clear- the first imperative of projects like this, is to make compelling TV; apparently they filmed 150 hours of footage every day for seven weeks. Ask a grown-up work out how much that is, and then boil it down to the most entertaining four hour programs. Every day, the TV producers had 22 microphones, which would be allocated to the most promising ‘narratives’. They spent months in the school observing lessons and school life to get a feel for where the cameras should be placed. And- holy smoke! – one or two of them ended up in the detention room. Who would have guessed? One of the intended aims, stated by the makers and the Head alike, was to show the public the ‘real side’ to school, an unvarnished image of what really goes on. But we all know what the road to Hell is paved with. This is no more realistic than the toothless stage wrestling of the judges’ desk in X-Factor, or the ‘will-they-finish-it-lawsamercy– anxiety of Grand Designs. It might be kitchen sink, but it’s still drama.
But, as Salvador Dali memorably said, ‘Art uses lies to tell the truth,’ and even the artifice of fable can be used to teach us something useful or even true. And that’s what I think TOWIEE does, even more fabulously than its genetic ancestor Jamie’s Dream School, which made a star of John D’Abbro and…well, no one else. Where that was a laboratory disaster, a homunculus of a man pretending to be a school, Passmores has the benefit of being a genuine bona fide comprehensive, with some exceedingly fine looking teachers in it.
This week the star of the school show had to be Deputy Diva Mr Drew, and I’ll pre-empt your anxiety by announcing him as my Educational Hero of the Week right now, in case you can’t bear it. It was going to be the hero, glimpsed only briefly like a Unicorn, who dismissed his class with the devastating and Olympian line, ‘Get out, scumbags,’ delivered deadpan, cold as the icy tomb of Judas. That man should be teaching the next generation of PGCE students, not wasting his time with a few kids. He mopped up a few predictable brickbats today in the more bilious sections of the middle-brow media, simply because, on the surface, such an address appears the very soul of unprofessionalism, and the first word in an industrial tribunal.
What these humourless rentagobs fail to see is that- even in the microclip offered- his kids seemed perfectly at ease with his comment, and he delivered it with the masterful unconcern of a Jedi master of classroom relationships. Someone who has no idea about modern state secondary teaching might pinch their raddled sphincters in mock disapproval, but they have no idea about education, and teaching, so we can safely ignore their opinion. Frankly, I couldn’t give a thin shit what people who have no experience of teaching think of such things, in the same way that I imagine Brian Cox isn’t worried what Carol Vorderman thinks about particle physics.
”I’m handsome,you’re pretty.’
So, this chap Drew. You can see why the producers were drawn to him- he’s Mr Saturday Night. When they saw him, they must have thought, ‘Looks like we can order that champagne after all, boys.’ Normally when you describe someone as a character, we mean a hacking basket case who wears novelty jumpers and cries a lot when they get home to their empty, echoing houses. But Mr Drew has character like Simon Cowell has mannish girlfriends with large hands and Adam’s Apples- in spades. Like many gifted teachers, there’s a drop of obsession about him, an absolute determination that his way is right; not for his benefit, but because he believes his relentless, eternally dogged pursuit of good behaviour and manners will result in the very best  education for the kids.
And you know what? He’s absolutely right. The monotonous, repetitive drone of him saying, ‘Take the hoodie off; take the hoodie off. Take. The. Hoodie. Off…’ ad inifinitum is exactly one of the ways that teachers can constructively deflect the equally inane and irrational ardour of many teenagers attachment to their own whims and possessions. It looks like a waste of time; it’s a Herculean response to the problem of having to clean out the Aegean Stables every day, with every kid, forever. The minute a kid reckons he can out last your stubbornness with their stubbornness, they realise that they can do whatever they like if only they’re tenacious enough. And teachers need to have the guts and the chops to show them that when it comes to endurance races, we’ve got more wind than them. A blessing, then,  on Mr Drew and his house. His earnest, believable sentiments about giving every kid in his care a good education comes from the heart; and it’s a sentiment shared by the majority of teachers I have ever known- behave, listen, learn, and I will give you something valuable that can help you in your lives. Amen, brothers and sisters.
Miss Congeniality
That said, there’s a big discussion to be had about the wisdom of their no-exclusion policy. It’s admirable as an ambition, but as a strategy it is doomed by its own premise. It’s the opposite of justice; a product of compassion unrestrained by considerations of utility and need. There will always be a confused, angry minority of students who reject the opportunity of twelve years of free education. And every time one of them cusses a teacher, makes a scene, flaps and howls and moans, a teacher is taken away from teaching, and the class is put on pause while some bitter narcissist has their ego bathed in gore and glory. Every second a teacher spends on them is taken from thirty others. Of course, we give chances, and we try to prevent exclusion. But sometimes, it’s not just the regrettable, last option for us- sometimes, it’s the right thing to do; the just thing to do. Mr` Drew’s claim that excluded children frequently end up in prison, relies on a false syllogism:
P1: Excluded children often go on to prison after exclusion
P2: If I do not exclude them, they will not be excluded children
C: Therefore they will not go to prison.
This is, I imagine, the logic that informs the drive for later and later compulsory education. But it confuses cause and effect- they don’t go to prison because they were rejected by school, but rather the type of people who find themselves facing frequent exclusions are probably the same people who find the life of robbing and mischief equally alluring. Just a thought. Keeping these kids in an education system they apparently despise long after their educational sell-by date might convert a few bad eggs into…well, curate’s eggs at least, but my God, the damage it does to the mainstream body of students. They sit, and they wait, and they wait, and they wonder why the grown-ups haven’t, or can’t seem to deal with the naughty kids, and why they seem powerless to teach.
That said, kids like Charlotte, seem easily within the grasp of a school to contain, if they simply apply the right pressure and loving boundaries, leavened with a healthy dose of internal exclusions. Beyond the cameras, I’m sure she’s the essence of charm and academic vigour- telly adds ten pounds to your ego. The TV version of Carmelita, at least, did her best to appear charmless, witless and mannerless (and succeeded) in this first episode. 
But with some students, who persist in their self-destruction, there has to come a point at which a school says, ‘OK, we’ve tried. Cheerio.’ People who howl at this as some symptom of faithlessness are invited to consider this: do you realise what the cost to the other students is, by allowing such people to remain? I’ll tell you for free: it means that the other kids learn half as much. I promise you this. You can have one or the other. Take your cat calendar aphorisms and your rainbows and ponies about every child being a bundle of dreams and fairy wishes, and stick them up your arse. We teachers have no time for your fantasies. The children have no time for your fantasies.
‘Quick, one of them’s about to set fire to the place- zoom in!’
And no self-respecting, obsessive blog about this would be complete with a mention of the charming Carmelita, who, for the sake of spite and malice and the God-given right to wear a hoodie (guaranteed, no doubt, in the Geneva convention on Child Rights *checks* oh sorry it isn’t), was prepared to go along with an allegation of assault on the dapper Mr Drew. That’s right, a career –ending allegation that could lead to criminal charges and penury for the man. I think every teacher in Christendom rejoiced when the egocentric shrew had her story pulverised by the cameras. And every teacher leapt from the sofa at the sight of the earnest, professional English teacher call her mother in an attempt wrestle some sort of resolution out of the situation, only to be told by the parent of the year that he was ‘licking the Deputy’s arse.’ It was pure comedy gold, as his smile turned to a frown, the phone went down, and the positivity morphed into disgust. There’s something desperate when a phone call gets to that point, but as every public servant knows, at least it finally gives you the moral high ground you need to slam the bloody phone down without fear of reprisal.
If this program does any good- and I don’t care if it does, it’s certainly done me some good- then it’s to show how restrained teachers often are by process and bureaucracy, and how often we have to deal with misbehaviour, contempt, rudeness and challenge. We aren’t looking for the compliance of automatons; we’re trying to teach children. The sad fact is that the allegation made against Drew is neither uncommon nor exceptional; kids say things like this all the time. Some of them know exactly how to play the system, demanding Dragnet levels of evidence before admitting guilt, and knowing that in reality there is very little that a teacher can do if the pupil wants to be defiant and aggressive. Call home? And speak to Supermom?
Next Thursday cannot come quickly enough.
Last thoughts:
  • Their senior leadership meetings look a riot. I’d like to think that, instead of discussing behaviour and observations and the like, all SLT are instead exchanging parcels of magnetic pubic wigs and other humour-free trinkets of pointlessness.
  • Throwing a snowball at kids is a VERY BAD IDEA; it simply tells them ‘OK, kids, throw ice and rocks at me…and EVERY OTHER TEACHER, EVER, UNTIL THE END OF TIME.’ Children often lack subtlety. Do not provoke them to assault you with weapons. Seriously.
  • The Telegraph didn’t let anyone down, as it simultaneously ran a snooty ‘schools have gone to Hell’ story accompanied by…yes, fruity school girls in cabaret make-up. Perhaps someone should tell the picture Ed that these girls are in year 11. Not so funny or fruity, eh?
  • Twitter spiked like a Geiger counter in Bruce Banner’s saddle when this was running. Every teacher in the Western Hemisphere appeared to be watching.

And who can blame them? This is fantastic telly. In the next few weeks, come with me *puts on Jacques Cousteau voice* as we find out if it’s something more. I have high hopes.

The Death Penalty and whole class detentions

Every now and then I am asked what I think of whole class detentions. And I always answer the same way- I abjure them; they are abhorrent in mine eyes, yea, even unto the Last Days. There are a number of perfectly sound reasons to employ them, because no strategy is perfect, and no imperfect one is perfectly so. Every option, no matter how righteous or fallen, contains germs of its own salvation or damnation. Plato averred that the realm of the ideal was transcendent, and so we find. Nothing in this world is flawless, or flawlessly flawed.

Why would you want to keep a whole class behind? The answers are so obvious that it is fatuous to ignore them, so let us face them manfully:

  • It guarantees that the unjust are skewered, even if the ones you want are obscured by the noise and smoke of the classroom (the Fog of Wah!, as I call it)
  • It lays your vengeance upon them, as Mr S Jackson would agree. They can’t say that you didn’t punish the guilty.

So certainty and the need to sanction against are both satisfied. But what is lost?

Justice. The whole class detention is a carpet-bombing, a daisy-chain detonation that flattens the just and the unjust. It destroys what you work hard to create- the classroom relationship. Every child, guilty and innocent is treated alike, and the good realise, silently and certainly, that there is no reward in this life for kindness, compliance, dedication and application. Might as well, you can hear them think, go rotten. Good luck to you after that.

This reminds me, strangely enough, of the cavernous cement-mixer of moral reasoning that accompanies every debate on capital punishment, as another soul- a murderer, or not- receives the ultimate state sanction in Georgia. To ignore the obvious attraction of the death penalty, to claim that it is ‘obviously’ wrong, is to commit the sin of certainty, which is a death of a more abstract sort: the death of reason. The very human thirst for vengeance can’t be simply dismissed as an aberration of character, or the unsettled aspect of a mind speckled by sadness, grief and outrage. Not one of us would calmly forgive a monster who took some loved one away from us in the gruesome ways that such events inevitably happen. Not one.

But this very human, very understandable response cannot be sustained in the macrocosm of civil society; it cannot. The contradictions are too enormous; the weight of evidence almost unachievable. And even if they were, there is the prospect, however remote, that the guilty would dangle alongside the innocent, like Calvary. And mistakes there are, many, many over the years. Justice, we must remember, is not a utilitarian equation of cost versus benefit- it is an absolute, if it is anything. We do not achieve justice by razing the sinner with the saint; we do so by sparing them all from the irreversible terminus from which nothing returns. We build mercy into our vengeance, and allow ourselves to be imperfect. Because we know we are.

Christopher Hitchens, in a discussion of the Death Penalty, makes this point:
‘I used to debate these questions with the late Professor Ernest van den Haag, a legal scholar of the William Buckley National Review school. He was always admirably blunt and concise. In the case of an execution of an innocent person, he once said to me, the necessary point had nonetheless been made: the state and the community had shown that they were prepared to kill. It did not especially matter if they had or had not taken the “right” life: the demonstration had nonetheless been forcibly made. (You might remember the scene in Doctor Zhivago when Strelnikov says that the peasants understand who is boss once their village has been burned, whether they had been harboring the enemy or not. “Your point: their village,” is Zhivago’s.[……] reply.)’

Christopher Hitchens, From Lapham’s Quarterly

The hangman’s noose: the whole-class detention. As far apart in severity as the abstract concept of sanction can sustain without snapping. But both illustrating the same premise.

Your point: their classroom.

OfSTED puts Waterloo Road into special measures: grades it Outstanding.

School Bullshit Bingo™ ! The game for all staff! Ages 5 and up.


Back at school? Got too much to do but not enough time to do it all? School helping by giving you lots of meetings to go to?

You need Bullshit Bingo™! Just draw up a handy scorecard, photocopy and circulate to your friends, if you have any, and cross a square off every time one of the words or phrases are mentioned. When you cross off the four boxes in the corner, cough loudly while saying ‘House!’. If you get all the squares, show everyone you’ve won by coughing ‘Bullshit!’ For bonus points, stand up, raise both hands in the air, and turn the cough into a barbaric whoop. BULLSHIT!!! Watch as the whole room breaks into applause, including the hard-on at the podium. Possibly.

Depending on how fashionably awful your school is, this game can last from five minutes to an eternity. Play again and again! Livens up the dreariest staff meeting!

There are no failing children, only failing teachers
Thinking skills
The research proves that…
Head Learner
Life-long learners
Be the guide from the side
21st Century learners
Sharing best practise
Catch them being good
Tailored Learning styles
Every child matters
Inclusion for all
All hail the Great Satan
Independent learning
Group work is the best way to learn
Multiple intelligences
OfSTED will be looking for…
The ark was built by amateurs, the Titanic by experts!
Thinking hats
Blue sky thinking
Student voice
Evidence of learning
‘Hey! You sunk my Bullshit!’

Warning: playing Bullshit Bingo™ can seriously reduce your chances of internal promotion. 

The Battle for the Educational High Ground: how deep is your love?

‘Do you have any fantastic SEAL resources for me?’  

WARNING: Contains references to Bunny-Huggers.

There is a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. If you’ve seen it, I will anticipate your attempts to recite it verbatim; and if you haven’t, the example is redundant. All that needs to be said is that in one scene a small group of ultra-activist politicos pour scorn on the revisionist, repellant views of their former colleagues. One is, of course, the People’s Front of Judea, and the other is the Judean Peoples’ Front. Both are splinters from the same branch; both are anathema to each other. Both seem, outwardly, to be identical apart from in ways that would require Brian Cox and a very big microscope to discern. Perhaps not even then.

I’m reminded of this every time I wax down my cyber surfboard and catch some wwwaves in the edunet (apologies if neologisms make you sick a little bit in your mouth *heaves* it’s ok, I’m fine), especially at the beginning of the school year. When I started teaching, the geography of the profession was so alien to me that everything looked the same. Now that I am a man, I can tell accents apart, as well as dogmas. You know how they’re always telling you to be a reflective practitioner? What they really mean is ‘I want you to agree with everything I tell you.’ Which is funny, because the last time I checked that was the opposite of being reflective.

So I followed the opposite of the advice in every teacher training manual, and tried to become a reflective practitioner. Those of you kind or sympathetic enough to read my columns, blogs or books will be familiar with some of my more frequently visited tropes- bad educational science, the commodification of learning, and the behaviour crisis, to name three. I’d like to pick up on another, which I’m going to call..

The Great Education War for the Moral High Ground.

(If I can boil that down to one word, I can sell it to Michael Gladwell and we can go to print with it. Anyway.)

This is something I frequently see in any online discussion of education, in the badlands of Twitter, and most conspicuously, dripping from the pages of commercial educational websites. In the style of all good philosophy teachers, I’ll define and illustrate with an example. Or was it exemplify with an illustration?

‘The belief that one’s own approach to education is the most positive, compassionate and moral. Often accompanied by the unshakeable belief that unbelievers are cruel, tyrannical child-haters who would be happier grinding preschoolers into strawberry jam and catching truants with a crossbow.’

A child’s dreams, yesterday.

I only say this, because I find that in every village of the enchanted Kingdom of Education, there’s a well-meaning crier in full throat, shouting stuff like, ‘Every child who leaves school without succeeding is my personal failure,’ or ‘There is a rainbow inside every student, and our job is to let it out.’ Or, my personal favourite, ‘The job of the teacher is to learn from the students.’ I’m serious, I’ve seen all these turkeys.

Smurf Spoiler Alert!

Now, on the face of it, it rather paints one as a bit of a meany to be critical of such sentiments, as if one were standing outside the cinema before The Smurfs started and shouting that Gargamel gets slotted in the end. But there is a danger in tacitly accepting this kind of babble, as if you were some kind of Teacher-Santa, indulgently messing the hair of a child and saying, ‘Oh, you kids.’ Because behind every platitude, there rests an enormous tangle of assumptions about the aims of education, how children should be educated, directed, and led. If you, for example, believe that ‘Every child is a butterfly’ or some flannel, then you’ll have a very distinct approach to setting targets and discipline, than if you had the belief that every child was, say, composed of fire ants or tsetse flies.

So when I read something else on Twitter like ‘If you catch them being good, you’ll surprise them into learning’, I feel like I’m reading a Cat Calendar, or the memoirs of Liberace or something. Yet inevitably if you challenge the integrity and authenticity of such comments (which, I might add, worryingly get about a million thumbs-ups, likes, retweets or however cyber appreciation is expressed) you get scowled at for being a downer. But this is the problem with platitudes; because they are broad, vague, poetic and ambiguous, they can be read in so many ways. And they certainly don’t require any experiential support or evidence- their strength lies in their musicality, or the chord of emotional resonance that it rings in the reader. In other words, they rely on rhetoric rather than reason.

Is this you? I can see you.

It’s almost as if many in education wish to be prophets, not coming down from the mountain, but climbing up, ever upwards, desperately trying to evade being beaten to the moral high ground. They have to be the ones who love children the most, the ones who want the best for the child. Often the only way to achieve this is to exaggerate the claims of their nearest competitors; so if one educational bunny-hugger claims that most children respond best to praise rather than admonition, someone else will say that ALL children respond in such a way. And usually, such views are irritatingly, cloyingly, depressingly optimistic. Nothing against optimism, but remember that it’s an attitude, not a policy.

Also, they usually tend to be of the ‘progressive education’ flavour, which always gets my goat nicely. Any criticism of such inevitably attracts one of the stock ‘Your paradigm rests on the factory model’ or something equally moronic and incorrect. My favorite response is usually when I make some sniffy comment about the failure of IT to revolutionise the classroom, and someone says, ‘Dude, this is the 21st century,’ as if we should all be in hover-boots by now. ‘Why don’t you work in a profession with no children if you want to bully them?’

Well I have something to say about that. I love children; I love teaching children, particularly in the secondary age range. I adore education, and I adore my subjects. Since becoming a teacher I have never been happier, and I have never felt more like I was achieving what Aristotle would call my Eudaimonia, my flourishing. Giving punishments makes me feel desperately uncomfortable, and maintaining the cold stare, the silence, or the disappointed tone, makes me squirm inside. But I know that I have to set sanctions because I want my children to succeed, and sometimes, admonitions and sanctions are the best way to set students back on Straight Street. I believe that the rest of society has already thought of this idea for keeping peace and encouraging good behaviour- it’s called law, which is never perfect, but the boys in the lab have yet to get back to us with anything better.

So whenever I hear some well-meaning, pointy-headed middle-brow tell me that detentions don’t work, that children will behave if the lessons are good enough, that setting sanctions trains them into habits of cruelty and resentment…well, I just feel kind of annoyed that these people have been allowed to ruin the education of thousands and thousands of children for generations. Being anything less than firm with many children will result in them playing hopscotch on your good intentions and ambitions. That doesn’t mean hitting them, or shouting at them, or dangling them from the edge of Canary Wharf or something. It means being firm. It means setting boundaries and sticking to them. It means having high expectations of children and not accepting it when they want to immediately give up.

Sometimes this means showing them that your boundaries are meaningful, and patrolled meaningfully with sanctions. But these are behaviour modifiers, with an aim to providing the best habits to learn and flourish. They are the product of love, in exactly the same way that a parent will scold a child that acts cruelly, or selfishly in order to teach them to pursue other aims. It’s because of love, not in spite of it.

To allow a child to do as they please, embedding habits of egotism and indulgence, is one of the cruellest things you do for them, particularly if you’re interested in social mobility, which I believe is rather popular. Love is a broad enough concept that it often gets confused with the emotion part of compassion, but this is only an incidental, second order characteristic. Love is directed outwards; love seeks the  true benefit of others, even at the expense of yourself.

What does that mean to a teacher? That means putting the educational aims of the class before your own selfish desires, laziness, angst or anxiety. It means working as hard as you can for their benefit. It means identifying their benefit in the best education you can provide. What it doesn’t mean is indulging their immediate desires, or deferring to their whims, because what serves the immediate pleasure of a child will often be to their eventual detriment, in the same way that a child, if given the choice, might defer salads and study for marshmallow and chocolate pizzas (which I have actually seen on sale in Glasgow, of course) and COD. This isn’t an anti-child manifesto; it is profoundly pro-child, and an acknowledgement that children aren’t angels or devils, merely human, just as we are, with all of our wonderful virtues and vices, frailties and perfections.

As teachers, we need to be more muscular in this aim; we need to be unafraid to state that these simple axioms are at the basis of the classroom relationship. We mustn’t be ashamed to say that we’re in charge of the classroom, that the child is subordinate in authority to the adult, that the teacher is the expert, and that praise and blame are equal partners in the field of behaviour modification.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to believe in the power of someone’s dreams. Hold onto your dreams, and don’t stop chasing rainbows.

It’s Clobbering Time! Get ready to open up some cans of Whup-Ass.

‘Homies better step the fuck off, or the shizzle goes dizzle.’


I read yesterday’s Daily Mail headline with the usual mix of self-loathing and grammar anxiety (mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa). According the the Daily Hate,

‘Disruptive pupils who wreck the schooling of millions will be given an ‘unambiguous lesson in who’s boss’, the Education Secretary vowed yesterday.

And doesn’t that sound splendid? I like the use of the word ‘vowed’. It makes me think of Batman at the grave of his parents, waging a mad war against PC Educational super-lefties (The Pen-Pusher? Two-Chance?). How is this game-changing turnabout to be achieved?

‘In a new war on ill discipline in the classroom, Michael Gove will loosen rules on the use of physical force by teachers and increase penalties for parents who allow their children to play truant.’

So far it’s sounding like knuckledusters and Kevlar Equalisers. I’m imagining Heads of Learning sitting like spiders at the heart of an enormous CCTV Panopticon, and corridors equipped with head height trenches of ANSUL riot foam dispensers.

But soft! Teachers ALREADY have the right to use ‘reasonable’ physical force in order to prevent a crime being committed, and in order to prevent substantial disruption to a lesson. The word ‘reasonable’ will be decided in a court, of course, which is entirely proper- no rule could regulate every human circumstance. But the point is that these powers aren’t new. Of course, many teachers are unaware of this, and I think it’s fair for teachers to be trained in what they can and cannot do. But teachers must get over this ridiculous phobia that if they, for example, put a finger on a pupil’s shoulder to direct them back to work, then they are guilty of assault.

Then he carries on with these measures:

  • New rights for teachers to restrain pupils without recording the incidents

This is a bit odd isn’t it? If you need to restrain someone, you need to restrain them. Worrying about filling out an incident report later isn’t going to affect that, unless you restrain people, like, ten times a day. It also seems proper that a teacher should have to record these things- if I had a child who needed to be restrained physically (as opposed to verbally, I suppose) then I suspect I’d like to know about it formally.

  • Increased financial penalties for parents of truanting children
Using cuddles to drive independent learning.

Fine, so long as there are exceptional clauses where the parent can prove that an effort has been made.

  • More male teachers as role models

Is this the real issue? Yes, primary schools are packed with women- when I passed a primary stand at an educational recruitment fair a few years back, I was nearly drugged with a hypo and kidnapped- but surely the proof of this as a lack would be significant differences between the acknowledgement of male vs. female authority in secondary schools. Has this study been done? My experience tells me that gender doesn’t play a huge role here- what matters is how teachers conduct themselves.

  • Anonymity for staff accused of misconduct

This was announced some time ago- still, it’s a welcome 

  • The power to search children for any item

Again, nothing new. Despite the fuss this caused when first announced, this will have a relatively small impact on how schools currently conduct themselves.  It just means that schools will have to define, in advance, what they consider to be  prohibited materials. I suggest the Daily Mail.

  • Heads allowed to expel pupils without being over ruled

This is the one big opportunity lost. I cautiously approve of some of the behavioural reforms, but this one, the biggest one, is an inexplicable fumble. It’s terrific that Heads can now exclude, with no threat of some frilly-knickered Governing body getting all misty and over ruling it (do you know how HARD it is getting a pupil to this stage now? Any school body that over ruled the Head at this stage should be invited to teach the buggers for a fortnight and see what they can with them).

But now schools will be expected to FUND the buggers in their NEXT school. Sorry, I try to avoid cheap, capitalised emphases, but reading the Hate has given me a taste for it. That’s the kiss of death to exclusions in all but the most desperate cases, as schools are, despite their similarity to dream factories and fairy republics of hope and optimism, run on money, just like everything else. If you reduce every exclusion to the blunt, fiscal skeleton of ‘He’s worth five grand’, then you won’t se many of those happening.

That’s bad enough, but the real kiss of death is the idea being floated that the expelled student’s final KS4 results will be counted as part of the expelling school’s pass-rate statistics. Excuse my capitalisation, but DUDE? ARE YOU ON DRUGS? There can be no academic reason for this CBeebies bit of logic- it’s clearly a punitive measure, designed to deter exclusion.

Both of these flaws aren’t just minor weaknesses- they’re deal breakers. Exclusions should never be lightly arrived at, but sometimes they are the right thing to do: not the last resort- the right thing. Just as a community’s penal code sometimes requires the sanction of ‘Go to Jail’, school sanctions need to go somewhere- there has to be a terminal point, and it has to be something that stings. It has to be serious. It has to mean something. If you remove this terminus, then you collapse all behaviour measures that precede it, all the way down to the five minute detention. Because why would a student turn up for even that, if he knows that, with persistence, all privations can be evaded? And some students are very tenacious indeed.

And it only takes a few to ruin a classroom, and to reduce school discipline to a  constant battle to put out fires. Only a few.

  • An end to the requirement to give 24 hrs notice of a detention.

Cheers, for that. This is actually a good one. You know all those people who huff about, ‘Oh my little Barney can’t walk home in the dark, how awful,’ you know them? You know what I suggest to them? Their kids shouldn’t be mucking about in schools and getting detentions. How d’ya like them apples?

It is odd how the Daily Snail decided to put a fire under this one and blow it onto the front page. It’s like announcing that the Tories ‘disapprove of nationalisation’ or something. Still, I’m sure they know what they’re doing.

As I say, I welcome any measure that seeks to restore the authority of the teacher in the classroom. So here’s my three part plan, in case anyone wants to know:

  • New teachers to be trained to view themselves as authority figures, with clear guidelines on what they will do in the event of disruption
  • All schools to have (and adhere to) a Behaviour Policy that emphasises the right of the teacher to run the classroom, and the rights of children to an education free from disruption and distraction by the selfish and the needy
  • All governing bodies to support the school with this policy
  • Children to be given clear codes of conduct at school for the benefit of all
  • Parents to sign behaviour contracts with schools, and made clear about consequences; their support to be considered tacit after this point
  • Schools to monitor the effectiveness in teachers and their line managers in promoting the behaviour policy

I repeat something I say often: there is no contradiction between setting boundaries and compassion. In fact, when it comes to raising children- when it comes to teaching them- the two are inextricably linked.

And don’t get me started on the Troops to Teachers thing…