Tom Bennett

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Notes on a scandal: Giving up on students

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One of the most rewarding things I do outside of teaching is acting as resident Agony Uncle on the TES website’s Behaviour Forum. I, and many other teachers do what teachers do best: offer free advice and perspective to those wading through a river of chains. Occasionally a correspondent raises a problem and I think, ‘Christ, have we sunk so low?’ Most of the problems to which I respond are fairly straightforward; but a large percentage involve teachers being placed in unnecessarily difficult situations by school management systems that seem designed to encourage poor behaviour, and in this case, give up on the kids. Here’s a summary of what someone said recently:

‘I feel embarrassed posting this, as I’m an experienced teacher who would normally feel  that my behaviour management was pretty good – but I am at my wits end with a Y11 class (bottom set).

…Only about 5 out of 28 would do anything they were set.  They were just about polite enough that when I insisted they face the front and listen so that I could talk through brief powerpoint, explain the objective and set the work they did so without interruption.  This was hard work. 

One pupil told me ‘We are leaving school in 4 weeks – and no one cares if we do this’ to which most agreed, despite me telling them strongly, ‘Yeah?  Well I care!’
Very few did anything more than a couple of sentences of half assed effort.  2 or 3 did nothing. I have this class 4 times a week.’

So far, so normal. I get this email a dozen times a week. It’s awful that this is repeated so often in classes up and down the country, but that’s another issue. No, this is the bad bit: he carries on-

‘I feel really pathetic writing this – I have spoken to [the] HOD – who tells me, ‘Oh no one expects them to do anything’.  SMT have told me I cannot [my emphasis] phone home, that I can issue detentions ‘but they won’t come’ and that ‘well…they are leaving soon…it’s very difficult to get them to do anything’.

As there does not appear to be any consequences for their behaviour they will quite happily just sit and chat through every lesson, but I am obviously not happy about this….I’m just highly frustrated and pissed off that no one will back me up and that the class won’t do as they are told.’ 

Once I’d pulled my head out of my keyboard this was my response:

You know, if more parents knew about this kind of attitude then there’d be an earthquake in the scandal rags. Can you believe that a school would just give up on its children like this? Sure, what they’re saying makes perfect sense- but we’re paid to do more than just baby sit them; we have to have high expectations from them every day up until the minute they leave. That’s the job. If the school doesn’t give a shizzle about these kids, it doesn’t deserve to have any.

Your strategy has to be to insist upon full school support. Follow the behaviour policy to the letter, and expect/ demand the support. Remind line management what the policy is. The surest way to fail is by not trying in the first place. Have kids removed who fail to comply. If you can’t motivate them in the short term you can at least present them with an immediate inconvenience (ie hassle from senior staff/ yourself etc) to the point where they consider it easy to work than not. 

We’re paid to believe in them even when they’ve given up. If we give up, God help us.

This is institutionalised thinking at its worst. The minute we cease to believe that we are responsible custodians of children’s futures, and that we have the power and duty to do something about it, then we should quit the job on incapacity grounds, and let someone else look after them. Does a doctor give up on a patient because they probably won’t make it? Does a fireman ignore an alarm because, well, there’ll be more fires tomorrow, and you can’t beat fire? This school might as well have said, ‘We couldn’t give a damn about these kids anymore. Damaged goods.’ It’s the same diabolic thinking that inspired a thousand ‘Reaching for a C’ programs, where schools ignored their consciences and treated one group of students (C/D borderline kids) as more important than the others (the safe bets and the no-hopers).

When I ran restaurants I had a door hostess called Suky who wasn’t the sharpest blade in the drawer. One Saturday night an angry customer grabbed her and said, ‘We’ve been waiting for an hour for a table!’ Suky replied, with perfect sympathy and sincerity, ‘I know! It’s mobbed isn’t it?’ Maybe she went into education afterwards.

The next time a line manager tells you that nothing can be done, you might want to think about finding a department with a different line manager, possibly in a different school. We’re paid just as much in April as we are in September. Our salary is the same whether we’re launching year sevens into secondary or parachuting sixth formers into University. They need us every minute they live under our care. Of course for that to happen, we actually need to care, and vast number of teachers do, of course. Which is why it’s so depressing to hear this kind of croaking.


5 Comments

  1. gillibob says:

    Agreed, i work with children who feel like they have been given up on. Their behaviour reflects this! Don't give up, it is at the heart of what we do. I feel so sad that this School's attitude has sunk to the bottom-we live in an aspirational society. I suspect that those children will remember that this teacher turns up every week and is refusing to give up on them; he will have got through to them even if they don't believe in their selves yet-one day they will.

  2. AWilliamz says:

    This is all part of the problem of what happens when the emphasis in schools is on results. We have lost our purpose when we cannot see that even in 4 weeks we can make some kind of difference, give the kids some kind of learning experience.

  3. While I was doing my PhD I did some supply teaching. I was given one class of GCSE students and (for a change) a task: read them a story. It was for 8-10 year olds. I queried this and the HoD said that they were bottom set, were a behavioural nightmare and would be leaving shortly anyway.

    When I got into class, they were a nightmare, especially as they saw a supply teacher as fresh meat… just like me as a teenager. But once they realised I wasn't going to read them a bloody story they relaxed a bit and got talking. Turns out that they knew damn well that they'd been abandoned and they even knew that the shiny new academy wanted them out for statistical reasons. They were depressed and defeated. It was like nobody had actually talked to them properly before. They were just Problems.

    I left that day determined never to go near a school again, and utterly miserable about these kids. Too late for them, and god alone knows how many more that school, its managers and teachers managed to ruin.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I've spent the last 10 years teaching only young people (aged 11 to 70) who wouldn't go to school, got thrown out etc etc None of them like being bossed about, conned, lied to. They all look scary and sullen on day one. I'm very kind to them, endlessly polite however much they tell me to fuck off, spend a lot of time silently waiting for them to calm down, stop eating the pens, and start to feel safe. I've only met 3 I really didn't like. The rest all ended up enjoying learning and being polite to me. I've had lots of lovely letters like yours. Sadly though, my technique doesn't seem to please Ofsted or any of Gove's fans. At least I can sleep at night.

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