Tom Bennett

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Always someone else’s problem? No, it’s ours, thanks. And you make it harder.

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner, yesterday

Fans of witless bureaucracy and low expectations of children were not disappointed today as the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) launched their report ‘Always someone else’s problem’. Here’s the groovy gist of what it says over 56 gripping pages:

1. Many schools exclude children illegally
2. Exclusions are beastly things anyway
3. Schools that do this should be fined and prosecuted.

I’m not kidding about that last bit. The OCC wants to get tough with naughty schools, which is deeply ironic when you think about it, which they haven’t. Now you don’t have to read it. I’ve written about the OCC before, mainly along the lines of how unlikely I would be build a commemorative shrine were it to suddenly sink into the ocean like Atlantis.

Cards on the table: they are absolutely right that this happens. In fact, rather than their cautious estimate of 2 or 3% I would say it is far more widespread than she suggests. It isn’t the data I substantially disagree with, but their conclusions. Let me clear about something else: they absolutely shouldn’t. There is little a school does that shouldn’t be absolutely transparent, and nothing that it does that should be against the law. If a school has a policy, or the governing bodies have statutory guidelines and requirements, they should be followed.

Ghost exclusions

But why do schools act in this manner? Speaking as someone who actually works in a school, rather than reads about them in the papers, I can tell you. They ghost-exclude because they’re terrified of doing it properly. Because the system has been skewed for so long against excluding at all, that they’re scared- correctly- they’ll be clobbered by Ofsted.

Inclusion has become the new orthodoxy. When I entered teaching I was mystified why so many apparently unteachable children were allowed to remain in classrooms where chaos reigned. Answer: inclusion, that contemporary, well meaning but ruinous excuse for adult responsibility. The aim was to make sure no one was marginalised. The reality was classroom after classroom ruined by a tiny minority of extreme spectrum children, whose needs exceeded the capacity of a mainstream teacher to provide. They need special provision; they got sealed in a classroom with everyone else. Everyone lost, everyone.

We have failed generations of children in this way. You want to radically improve every school in the UK? Scorch the moronic practice of inclusion at all costs, and pay for appropriate in-school internal exclusion facilities, with trained teachers, facilities and teaching materials. You’ll see exclusions wither, I promise. And pay for external provision- PRUS, specialist schools- that can cope with small groups of extreme spectrum children. To do otherwise is as sensible as shoehorning a dozen sick and a dozen well people into a lift and hoping they all get better.

The peril of no destination

‘Your value-added is f*cking unacceptable, Bennett.’

The fact that there is a section in the report titled ‘Lack of a meaningful sanction’ (against schools) suggest to me that the authors are masters of parody and irony, because no one could write that sentence and fail to apprehend that the lack of a meaningful sanction is exactly what they are advocating in schools, which means that boundaries will be entirely unenforceable. Can you guess what this looks like to a teacher? Let me assist.

It means this: when schools don’t exclude as a matter of procedure, without fear of rebuke, then children quickly realise that if they defy the class and school rules then….nothing at all will happen. Consider the classroom teacher who needs to set a short detention for, say chatting. What happens if the child doesn’t turn up? Well, the sanction tends to escalate, both in severity and up through the hierarchy. But what happens if the child doesn’t attend, or continues to tell the teacher to blow their lesson plans out their ass? It has to go somewhere. Such children (and they aren’t many, but they are a consistent minority in every school) need to be taken out of the classroom.

But what if the child still tells the teachers, and the world, to go f**k themselves? Then the child is beyond the means of the school to manage. We literally cannot control their behaviour- only they can do this. All we can do is offer incentives and deterrents to behaviour, and hope that they amend. Greater society also has this last resort- the gaol; not to be wished for, but necessary, as inevitable and indispensable as a lavatory bowl. There has to be a terminus for repeated bad behaviour, to be used as little as possible but as often as necessary. I work with many, many teachers who are told variations of ‘we don’t take children out of classrooms.’ The people who suggest this invariably don’t have to teach them. Maggie Atkinson certainly doesn’t.

A well run LSU/ PRU is a place where children can access one-to-one support, and trained staff. It should be a positive step to exclude, because it’s what the child and their peers need. Ah yes, the peers- only a teacher can tell you what the damage caused by reports like this looks like- exhausted teachers lashed by rude, often violent children, and classes torn apart by the selfish, desperate actions of a few. From the way the OCC writes, you’d think classes were stocked with nothing but avatars of kindness and altruism. They are not. They’re people, just like us.

The pointless OCC (and why do children need an expensive office to look out for their interests? What the Hell do you think we’re trying to do, turn them into nuggets and drop them in a fry basket?), if it was genuinely interested in the well being of children and not merely concerned with showing how lovely they are, would say something like this:

  • Schools to provide appropriate levels of internal provision for children based on education and socialisation, not just a holding pattern over the school runway.
  • No condemnation to be attached formally to any school that excludes whenever it needs to; not from Ofsted, not from Governors, not from the anodyne OCC
  • Exclusions to be seen as either a way for children to obtain and access appropriate services, or as an admission that the pupil is beyond the capabilities of the school to manage, or the relationship has broken down too severely. Maggie Atkinson, I’ll wager, has never had to teach a child that punched her in the face, or sexually harassed her, as many teachers do.
  • Schools to be funded appropriately for taking an excluded child. Some schools specialise in these kinds of children; if you’re good at it, encourage schools to take them for positive reasons.
  • Ofsted to ask the right questions about behaviour, such as ‘Why is this child still in a mainstream classroom,’ rather than ‘Why have they been excluded?’ Again, my challenge to many inspectors is. ‘Howe would YOU deal with this pupil?’ and I’ll stake my shirt that many of them wouldn’t have a clue.

I asked someone from the DfE what penalties exist for schools that exclude children. The answer is surprising; very little. Of course, schools lose the finance for pupils they permanently exclude. The only other penalty is the possible disapproval of the inspector, who might take a dim view of exclusion as so many of them are suckled on the dogma of yesteryear. In which case, Sir Michael Wilshaw needs to add this thread to any subsequent inspector training: inclusion not always good; exclusion not always bad.

There are a dozen things wrong with this report, and that’s before I get past the title:

  • The authors go to great lengths to include the views of children, but the only time teachers are asked their opinion is as part of a survey where they are merely asked to report quantitatively about ghost exclusions, which is a bit like asking a pineapple what their opinion is of canning factories (Christ, someone will jump on that metaphor, I know). If you’ve ever taught any naughty (sorry, troubled) kids then you might be unsurprised that when you ask them what they did wrong, they often deny it or even- vaudeville gasp- lie about it.
  • Putting targets before real improvement. I’ve heard from teachers who were told that their exclusion rates had to plummet in the next 12 months. There are two ways of achieving this: putting structures in place that mean exclusions are needed less, or just cutting the number of children excluded, with no other effort made. Can you guess which option is easier? I’ll leave that with you.
  • My main problem is that the OCC seems most upset that paperwork hasn’t been done, rather than supporting the right of children to be safe and learn in an environment that promotes their flourishing. It’s anti-education; the administrator’s gag reflex. It ignores what children need, and focuses on what form needs to be stamped.

There are schools doing incredible work in the area of exclusion and inclusion, largely because they have clear and rigorous behaviour policies that serve a greater aim: the well being of the community AND the individual, but not at the expense of the many, as most inclusion policies are; which is odd- isn’t the many composed of the sum of the few?

You’ll already know most of this, if you’ve ever taught difficult classes. Unfortunately for most of us, the panjandrums of the commentariat often haven’t. The OCC wants to paint the whole world with a rainbow, and that’s a lovely ambition. It wants to teach every child to sing their heart song; I just want to teach them, to be safe, given boundaries set with compassion, not unconditional and bottomless altruism.

I want what’s best for them, not just what they want. That’s the difference.
What is the Children’s Commissioner actually FOR?
Little bit of satire.
Inclusion, the opiate of the chattering classes
When everyone’s special, no one is.

What is The Children’s Commissioner actually FOR? Speakeasy exclusions and good intentions

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner is yet again proving that it’s worth every penny of the millions ploughed into it annually from the public purse, not the least of which is the gargantuan, supersized salary of the Grand Vizier herself, Maggie Atkinson, at around £138K, plus I imagine an enormous amount of lollipops and Sherbet Dips. When the office was created in 2005, it was envisioned that the Commissioner would give the 11 million children in the UK a voice. 22 million parents, I imagine, are perfectly conversant with the timbre and volume of that voice already, but it was a nice thought.

What is the Children’s Commissioner actually for? To represent the interests of children? Well far be it for me to get all ‘technical’ on your ass, but the Commissioner isn’t elected by a mandate, obviously, so it’s imposed representation. By adults. So it’s adults speaking for children. Isn’t that what we do anyway?

And how are children represented by the office in today’s news? Well, by the looks of it, by making it even harder for schools to maintain a safe and structured learning environment, it seems. This report on the BBC, and everywhere else, sees a new report produced by the Office claiming  that many school illegally exclude children, AND that children shouldn’t be excluded for ‘trivial’ reasons such as uniform or hair styles. Or ‘Leave Children’s Weird Hair Alone’ as the Express thoughtfully and sensitively put it.

I think everyone can agree that exclusions shouldn’t be done under the table; they should be public, transparent and fair, and any process that smacks of the backstreet exposes itself to abuse. But what the Office doesn’t recognise is that the reason that schools are forced into this position is because exclusions have been made so very, very hard to do. Schools are now picked apart like carcasses on the Serengeti for excluding children; one of their performance indicators, as assessed by Ofsted, is how low their exclusion rates are. A low rate is seen as indicative of good housekeeping.

‘My needs aren’t being met!’ ‘And my voice isn’t heard enough!’

But depressingly, the most obvious solution to any school wishing to appear angelic, is simply to exclude far less, which is a monumental example of putting the cart before the horse. Exclusions are a necessary and intrinsic property of a well run school. If a pupil defies the conventions and rules designed to keep everyone safe and secure, then they are usually set some kind of interim sanction- detentions, report cards, etc. But what if a pupil fails to respond to these, or any other interventions designed to help them habituate? There has to be a terminal point, reached only after every other option has been spent- and that point is the exclusion, temporary or permanent. It simply has to be.

The alternative is the current car-crash of a system that I walked into when I joined teaching ten years ago, where kids who persistently misbehave are simply…kept in classrooms. And the tragedy of it is that the education of everyone else is decimated. I’ve seen it, and every teacher in any kind of difficult school can see it. And even sadder, every kid I know who doesn’t tell their teacher to stick their lessons up their arses can see it, and they despair. They simply look at us, the adults, and wonder why we don’t seem to be able to do anything with persistent offenders. The answer is that many schools choose not to. They simply contain them in the classroom and cross their fingers.

You want to see education improve in this country? You want to see your precious PISA comparisons rocket up? You ant literacy and numeracy to improve? Worried about STEM subjects? Worried about social skills?

Then for god sake, let us, the teachers, do our jobs and make it possible to do so.

There exists a small, persistent minority of children who have the ability to completely devastate a lesson, and all lessons because they choose to do so. This isn’t a statement of distaste or dislike for them. This is simply truth. Just as in any society there are some law breakers who place themselves beyond the values of the community, so too are there children- who grow up to be adults, incidentally- who display exactly the same characteristics. Yet we are often unable to remove them to a place where a) they can no longer harm the education of others and b) they can be educated in a one-to-one setting.

The current system is a complete clusterf*ck. They remain, and learn that there are few consequences to their actions. And they grow bold, wondering where the next boundary lies. And other children, whose lessons are routinely depth charged by these kids, look on, and wonder if they too can get away with misbehaviour; and so the behaviour normalises downwards, and everyone suffers.

Me, when I read today’s papers.

And at the end of this grisly process is the teacher, going out of their minds trying to teach, and being interrogated by parents, ‘Why can’t you control the class?’ as if control were some kind of Jedi Mind Trick. Which is why so many new teachers leave within five years of joining. It’s as if we have vowed to protect the interests of the most disruptive and forgotten the rights of everyone else, as if they ceased to matter. I wonder when, one day, a parent will launch a legal challenge against a school for failing to provide a safe educational environment for their child. Soon, I hope.

The social and emotional damage this situation causes teachers and children is awful, and I am precise when I say that it is a scandal. It’s why I got into behaviour writing in the first place, because schools and teachers weren’t allowed to do the completely obvious, natural thing; show children that good behaviour is rewarded and bad behaviour is discouraged.

It’s not that I want to see badly behaved kids punished for pleasure, or revenge; but actually because these children are so poorly served by the current provision- packed off to an ‘internal exclusion’ centre, which are sometimes brilliant, and often terrible, or merely holding pens. Given proper support in secure, disciplined environments by trained professional teachers, they could actually learn to become more socialised and educated. Instead they are frequently fobbed off with half measures.

And let’s not pretend that children are routinely excluded for minor matters: these days you need to practically pick off milkmen with a sniper rifle to be considered for an exclusion. A permanent exclusion would require that the child had constructed an airborne Ebola virus and pump it through the school air con. And admit it. It is really, really hard to get excluded.

I saw two charmers on Channel 4 News tonight who were ‘at risk’ of exclusion, as if they had no responsibility in the matter. They admitted they had been ‘rude’ to the teachers. Only a teacher knows just how rude a kid has to be before they get put on Exclusion Death Row; it normally means weeks, months, years of abuse and arrogance, of making their teachers and other people lives misery. These aren’t misguided angels with dirty faces. These children have to be persistently unpleasant to get there. So don’t tell me that schools over exclude. They massively under exclude. And the reason they do so off the books is because doing it on the books will lead to them being labelled Unsatisfactory. It is as simple as that. The process has been driven underground because the government insists on Prohibition. No wonder Speakeasys start to open.

So, thanks, Office of the Children’s Commissioner. I know that you have to justify your outrageous, credit-crunch-defying salaries somehow. And when it comes to taking the moral high ground, nothing is easier than saying, ‘Will no one think of the children?’ while wringing your hands like some Victorian Thespian.

Far harder to do what I and thousands of other teachers do, which is actually teach children (have you ever….? No, of course not. Few people in these positions actually have to get their hands dirty helping children directly.) Far harder to stand up for the rights of children like we do: their right to safe and secure schools; their right to a calm classroom; their right to a teacher who doesn’t spend half their time dealing with terrible behaviour; their right to guidance.

Sometimes being an adult means saying ‘No’ to children, for their own good. I know it’s easy to say ‘Yes’ all the time and be the nice Mummy. But all good parents- all good educators- know that sometimes, children need to know the boundaries. Tough love is still love, and love without boundaries isn’t love at all; it’s indulgence.

If a school excludes for make-up or uniform, it isn’t excluding for those things directly; they exclude for the child’s persistent refusal to follow school rules, created for everyone to be fair. If a child only follows rules they agree with, then schools cannot operate. Their acceptance of these rules is implicit in the application letter they sent prior to their arrival. In societies we don’t get to personalise the rules; we abide, and support out community’s will. We learn to rub along with others, and we learn that sometimes the individual’s needs must be set against the greater community.

So, I return to my original question: what is the Office of the Children’s Commission actually for? Because it seems to exist to undermine the institutions that want desperately to help children the most: teachers, parents and schools. Let us do our jobs. You can go…I don’t know. What IS it you do again? Because £138 grand would buy me a lot of textbooks and pens.

Teacher Voice.