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Jamie’s Dream School 2: The Baited Bear and the Referee

‘Bwah-ha-ha-ha-haaaaa!’

Oliver’s multimedia Free School gathers pace, in what is increasingly becoming the top television of the week. Blue Peter– watch your back. This week, another brace of celebrity talent tries to inspire a room full of exam dodgers, some old faces return for more porridge, and we find out what’s left once the ice that’s broken has melted.

Oliver’s intentions, as I’ve mentioned, come from a place that can only be described as golden. But some of his assumptions are exactly as uninformed as I imagine mine would be were I to recommend a better way for him to chop his onions. Case in point: ‘In a way, the system has let these kids down,’ he says, in a quote from Oliver that prefaces the program. Aye, if by ‘In a way’ you mean ‘It’s not true.’ The assumption behind that proposition is that the state has a responsibility to make sure that every child leaves school with medals, as if the student has no responsibility to his or her own future. What are we supposed to do, drag all kids by the hair and threaten to play knifey with them like De Niro in Casino unless they get down to some GCSE revision? Because there comes a point in any society with a claim on being a liberal democracy, where we have to concede that, while the state may be duty bound to provide a certain level of education and other civil goods to its citizens, it can’t be simultaneously held responsible if the citizens take one look at what’s on offer, however charming, and say, ‘Bugger that.’

The state doesn’t let these kids down; the state provides them with a decade and a half of free education, books, rooms, teachers, trips and lunches. If a kid decides to p*ss about and be a nuisance to others, then we may, as civilised members of a community, give them a chance or two to calm down and wise up, but how long do we do that before we say, ‘Actually, you’re a kamikaze, mate. Good luck.’ Nobody wants kids to leave school without qualifications and life skills; but the idea that it’s the school’s fault if they don’t puts the cart before the horse. And then blames the cart. Bad cart!

The first week of teaching can see both class and teacher enjoy a sort of honeymoon (albeit not the sort  you’d actually pay for), as they sniff each other out warily. It can also lead to the biggest clashes, as the juggernauts of character and intention can collide into each other (as Starkey found). New teachers often start a school and think, ‘That’s not so bad,’ only to find that the class realises how far they can go, and then runs past it. Time will tell if the more successful teachers here are experiencing this syndrome. Rolf Harris and Robert Winston seem to have made a good fist in the more practical subjects; Starkey and Callow struggled with their book learnin’.

‘I’m worried we’re lettin’ them down.’

Jamie started the show with a group hug, as all the kids stood up and shared their expectations from the School, although I missed any of them saying ‘To be on Telly’, or ‘I woz bored, innit?’ From my experience of kids, I’ve learned that ‘being on telly’ is, for many of them, seen as some kind of Olympian deification, an ascension into the elect. They seem to imagine that once you’re on film, you’ve been transformed magically into light and magnetism, living forever in an immaterial realm of luxury and immanence. I’ve been on telly. All you get are biscuits and the odd taxi. Connor, our hero from last week’s Starkey-slapping (‘Have you always been that short? I’m not bein’ funny.’) said one of the saddest things:

‘I want better than what I’m destined for. School didn’t care. If you weren’t going to get five A-Cs they didn’t care.’

That boy may need to work on his manners, but he’s not stupid. He’s simply sussed out that many schools have prioritised their position on the league tables over trying to make sure that all kids get an appropriate education. Mind you, from his behaviour on camera, I imagine he hasn’t made it easy, which is why it becomes even easier for schools to say ‘sod ’em’ and focus on the borderline D/C students. Whenever Ofsted or the League Tables set a criteria, most schools will bend themselves into a shape that best takes advantage of that criteria, and exploits the system to its advantage. I believe this is analogous to the maxim, ‘Good money drives out bad.’ If you establish 5A-Cs as your benchmark, then schools will sell their first born to wizards in order to achieve that magic figure as its own end, in itself– and the other aims of education wither on the vine.

I loved Jenny’s comments about what happened at her school: ‘My school got a new head teacher…and we didn’t agree with each other.’ I’m reminded of Tom Baker’s alcoholic, mad captain in Black Adder, talking (in the 18th century) about the shape of the world. ‘Opinion is divided says I,’ he begins. ‘I says it’s round….and everyone else says it’s flat.’

‘Kill them. Kill them ALL.’

Alastair Campbell seemed, by the evidence presented, to have had a relatively smooth time, although from the moment we saw him walk in with a devilish confidence, it was clear he was no pushover. I imagine if you can chew out cabinet ministers and provoke international conflicts causing the death of hundreds of thousands, a few oiky kids chewing gum and texting isn’t a huge worry. It has to be said though, despite his credentials for ‘most evil man in the world’, he also carried himself in a manner that was bound to work well, even for a new teacher- fearless, calm and patient. There was no sense that he was worried about the kids not behaving, and he managed to convey a kind of dispassionate detachedness (i.e. professionalism) while at the same time talking with certainty, confidence and passion about what he wanted. In many ways he spoke like an experienced teacher, and while one lesson doth not a term make, it was a good start. His Top Trump Card reads Humanity: 06, Teaching: 85.

One tip for you, Mr Campbell: if you’re going to have one rule, don’t make it ‘One person speaks at a time.’ Because then if one of them gets a word in, everyone else- including you- is bound to shut up. Mind you, I suspect he’s not one to be bound by classroom conventions and verbal contracts if he isn’t bothered about International Law and the United Nations, but there you go. *dismounts soapbox*

Jazzy B also seemed to have a good crack at it- I suspect he had an advantage simply by virtue of being a once-famous pop star, which would cow many of the kids into admiration- witness Angelique squealing with delight upon discovering that her drama teacher Simon Callow was starring in the West End show they’d been taken to see. ‘That’s my teacher!’ she raved. Last week she was doing her nails and texting Domino’s Pizzas when he was trying to teach her. It’s often said that less able kids like active subjects like PE and Music, but this simple act of reduction ignores the fact that these subjects require ability to do well in, and equating low academic ability with poor behaviour with a preference for running about and banging drums is an insult to every leg on that tripod.

But Jazzy B (‘To you, Mr and Mrs B, a son- Jazzy!’) seemed to also be possessed of confidence, calm and certainty about what he wanted to do, and when he spoke, it was with the cool, clear tone of a man who expects people to listen to him. Many new teachers mistake severity for firmness, and ferocity for vigour. I also suspect he doesn’t call the kids ‘fat’ very often. He was even giving tips to Starkey, who by now was realising that he was going to look like an angry shrew if he didn’t try to make a success of it. Perhaps he was motivated by seeing that some of his colleagues in the staffroom were to some extent succeeding- and there, I suspect, is a man who doesn’t like to give up easily.

(Incidentally, I would give up a finger to see that staffroom, with Rolf Harris making a brew for him, Alastair Campbell and Robert Winston, as Simon Callow complains about what a bitch Louisa Sutton is in 10M).

‘I’m jousting in tourneys- like a G6, like a G6.’

However Starkey reflected, it paid off: he had a moment of reconciliation with Connor, his nemesis, in a manner that wouldn’t have looked out of place at the end of a Richard Curtis movie, all awkward nobility, embarrassed humility and ‘no-it-was-all-my-fault’. Nobody cried or anything, but it was a touching example of how sometimes the relationship between pupils and teachers can improve when you take both parties into a different context, give them time to reflect, and remove the audience (well, apart from the camera, I suppose).

His lesson showed humour, positivity and gave the truth to the idea that sometimes when you bare your teeth, you can smile a little at the same time. He seems the most nervous of the teachers, and that often expresses itself as aggression, as the teacher becomes brittle and bristles to every slight, real or imagined. In his position, a new teacher would have to learn to let some of the little things slide at the time, and maybe follow up later on, after the lesson. I’m still not sure what the system of sanctions are at Jamie’s Dream School, other than being told by the affable Head Master ‘I’m going to sleep on my decision’ before deciding to do nothing. The only sanction, it seems, is the threat of expulsion which then doesn’t happen. I bet all the kids are wetting their knickers over that one.

Simon Callow was trying to get down with tha kidz by showing them Romeo and Juliet, or ‘a play about two feuding gangs’ as Jamie put it. I’m sure Shakespeare would have agreed. The aim was to make it relevant to the kids, but they predictably couldn’t round up five minutes of quiet between them for Callow’s recital, which made the good bard blow his stack and shout ‘Shut up!’ at them. We’ve all been there. It’s a difficult Rubicon to re-cross, though: the kids know you’ve lost it, and it takes time to get back from the point to which you’ve fallen. Can’t blame him, though, can you? He must be thinking, ‘I’ve been in bloody ‘Four Weddings and Funeral‘. Little bastards.’ Get used to it, mate. It all takes time, and usually a few detentions and phone calls home too, neither of which you appear to have access to.

Alastair Campbell, the early years.

I think that;s the problem for all of these teachers: they have to win these kids over using nothing but their personalities, delivery and capacity to amuse, entertain and distract. This is far removed from the real school, where teachers can’t be expected to constantly do cartwheels and pull rabbits out of their asses like some children’s entertainer. We have to teach them syllabuses that contain lists and facts, and skills that often require repetition and practise to master, none of which is always amenable to conversion into a game of ‘Take me Out‘ or ‘Ker-Plunk!’ Sometimes it’s a grind, but learning always has been. Without the ability to sanction as well as reward pupils, many would choose to do other than their teacher described.

Jamie’s School, by having no clear system of following up with behaviour problems, lays itself open to accusations of being a well-meaning but doomed experiment, because as soon as all of these students leave the walls of their fantasy boarding school, they’ll enter workplaces and environments where they will have to listen to other people, be on time, and sometimes just do as they’re bloody told without someone catering to their whims. Sometimes the iPods have to be put away. In the outside world, they will get few chances to make amends.

And that’s another reason why schools have to provide environments of structure and restraint: in order to elevate and improve. We mustn’t pretend that kids should be left to their own devices to discover their own, magical, internal butterflies. Sometimes they need to be told what to do, and how to do it,. That’s the process which I’ll describe as ‘raising children to become adults’. That’s how we communicate societal values. That’s how we teach them to be people. Until people can learn to restrain themselves, they can never flourish with half as much success as they could were they able to apply themselves to objectives with tenacity and rigour. It’s not enough to blame the Head Master for getting chucked out- sometimes these kids need to look in the mirror to see where the problems really lie. And that’s our job in schools- to guide, to lead out, and to show them how to make as few mistakes as possible, as well as succeed. And what to do when we sometimes, inevitably, fail.

LOVED Jamie’s confiscation of phones at the start of his lesson, having already surmised that their presence is like kryptonite to the well-planned lesson. It’s hard to convey how much of an impact these little boxes have had on teaching and learning (or not); some teenagers literally cannot bear to be off them for five minutes. It’s like crack. And Jamie, I think, summed up with characteristic brevity and simplicity the central truth of teaching and behaviour management:

”You want to gain their respect, get them to be your chum, but at he same time have the kind of strictness and ‘I ain’t takin’ that.'”

Amen, brother. Most teachers start off with the vague ambition of being the cool teacher they themselves never had- informative, entertaining, and a bit of a laugh. Alas, it takes about five minutes for them to realise that the kids couldn’t give a monkey’s buttock about their aspirations, and my, my, can anyone else see a target on that new guy’s back? Teachers need to be tough and tender. Tough love, as I am fond of saying, is still love. Sometimes you love someone so much, you;re going to be strict with them. Sometimes you have to take a bullet. Eventually you hope they’ll learn to do the same for others.

Special mention has to go to the photographer Rankin (‘To you, Mr and Mrs….er…..a son- Rankin!’) who seemed to do so well with them that they were turning in homework that, to my amateur eyes, should have been hanging in a Hoxton Cafe, it was so good. Connor’s infinite regress of eyes and faces, Carl’s scarily Pop Art portrait, and others, showed that many of the kids could produce the goods when they wanted to. Rankin’s style was positive, authoritative and encouraging; I expect that half of his class were surprised to be told they could succeed if they tried hard enough in a way that didn’t immediately suggest they were total failures for not so doing.

Rankin, Jazzy B, and reluctantly, Alastair Campbell, get my ‘Outstanding lesson’ observation this week. Starkey gets the ‘Most improved’ accolade, and Simon Callow gets the ‘Best use of the phrase Shut Up’ gong.

And the final word has to go to the conversation between the Head Master and Starkey:

Head: ‘I’ve always rated you as a historian, but now I rate you as a teacher.’
Starkey: ‘…’

I’m sure that Richard Starkey is blushing with flattered embarrassment at being told he’s ‘rated’ as a historian.by the eminent…er, head master John D’Abbro. As they walked off, arm in arm into the sunset, Starkey said, ‘They’ll all be doing PhDs next week.’

Not yet, David, not yet. Give the Exams Boards a few more years, and then we might be talking.

Jamie’s Dream School: in special measures

‘I’m safe like a CRB check.’
Favourite quote from ‘Dream School’:
Internationally renowned Shakespearian actor Simon Callow: ‘Who’s heard of the Bard of Stratford?’
Gobby Egoist: ‘Omigod I live in Stratford, yeah!’
*realises*
‘Oh.’

Ladies and gentlemen, there’s only one game in town this week, and it’s not Said Gadaffi and his suspiciously well-written Ph.D. thesis, oh no. It’s Jamie’s Dream School, which has been slouching towards us for months now; fans of light-entertainment pedagogy have been hugging themselves in anticipation like the Rapture was coming and they’d just been born again. This was worth a month’s worth of drearily wholesome Teacher’s TV.

How can anyone not like Jamie Oliver? Sure, he may be approaching near-divine ubiquitousness, only taking a break from the glass teat to allow Gok Wan or one of Simon Cowell’s ravenous combine harvesters to get a look in, but here surely is the Webster definition of having one’s heart in the right place. Boundless enthusiasm, talent and optimism is a cocktail that brings the worst out in other people, I suspect.

His School Dinner series actually knocked a few dominoes over, and made at least a few schools hide the Mars Bars- and the sight of those ghastly parents slotting Toblerones and iced doughnuts through the wire mesh fences like angry, red-faced drug dealers to their corpulent, doomed offspring was the most devastatingly upsetting social experiment since Milgram got busy with the dials.

Dream School was doomed from the start, though. Not as telly- as telly it’s an uncomfortable work of art, and until Mad Men series 4 arrives in the post (believe me, it won’t even have a chance to hit the carpet. I have a catcher’s mitt next to the letter box) it’s this month’s wide-screen must-have. As an example of how not to teach children; it should be in a glass box and tastefully up lit in the Museum d’Orsay, surrounded by red ropes and brass poles. Teachers will queue to see it, prefaced by solemn warning videos that put it in context.

This school was a three-wheeled lorry; it was a ship with a hole in the hull. And here’s where some one had blunder’d;

Wrong assumptions about teenagers

Jamie had a bad experience with school, and only found his calling once he had left, first in cooking, and later in celebrity Essex capering. He was undoubtedly bursting with talent, intelligence, curiosity and probably possessed of a good character. The danger is to assume that all people, all children are like that. There are very good reasons why not every child leaves school with golden scrolls, cups and shields, and frankly sometimes it’s not everyone else’s fault; sometimes it’s down to the kids themselves. It’s ludicrously, childishly naive to say that all teenagers would blossom like tulips if it weren’t for the nasty system that exists purely, it seems, to grind them like grist into grain.

‘I reject his analysis of Tudor etiquette, innit’

By the time they get to secondary school, most children have pretty well developed personalities, habits and character; believe me, the clay is thrown a long time before they get to high school, and teachers face the challenge of taking hundreds of diverse representatives of society and making a decent fist of educating them. Let me assure you that many children by that age do not entirely fancy the idea of school, and are delighted to share this fact with you, in ways that range from swearing at you, laziness, up to (and including) violence. And they don’t do this because they are forced to by a system that doesn’t care. They don’t do this because they haven’t been ‘shown how’ to behave. They choose to do it.

Some people start to hop up and down when I suggest this: that teenagers simply need to be shown love and trust, and they will engage with Tolstoy and Curie with gusto; that they, to some extent can’t help themselves; that they are products of a world that wasn’t fair. Let them hop. Disadvantage is a hideous fact of life, and mere poverty doesn’t necessarily reduce to rudeness, violence or playing the thug. By the age of twelve it’s an empty claim to say that children don’t know how to behave. They do, of course they do. Some don’t want to. Til my last breath I’ll believe in freewill, and the fact that we are the captains of our own destiny, or at least the destiny that faces us. We choose how to act and speak, no one else, and we are responsible for our actions. I’ve met (and taught) students from horrendous poverty who worked hard and got the grades because, as one famously said to me, ‘I want to get out.’ 

Jamie is fantastic at talking to people; he had the kids eating out of his righteous rudeboy hand. But one of the appeals he made to them was that, ‘You all feel to some extent that education let you down,’ or words to that extent. That simply isn’t true, almost certainly. What’s probably happened is that they didn’t value education; or thought school was an enormous, three-dimensional version of Facebook, where they could chat to their pals and sell Flapjacks. Friends of mine from third-world backgrounds are appalled by how lightly our children (and their families) often treat free education- in their countries, children face a ten mile walk to school and back, if one exists at all. No books are provided. And I feel vaguely ashamed for our over-privileged, flabby ingrates.

They’re not in the last chance saloon because no one gave them a chance- they’re there because they didn’t recognise a chance when they saw it. David Starkey, in his brattish, awful way was trying to verbalise this, but did so with so little grace that I found myself siding with Malcolm McDowell in If, taking pot shots at the school masters from the roof top.

Teaching is all about expertise

Cruel and unusual.

This was another axiomatic fumble. The idea seemed to be that if only the subject teachers were good enough at what they wanted to teach, then the children would fall into single-filed awe at their mastery. This is far from true. Subject knowledge is a vital part of a teacher’s repertoire, of course- there’s little point being a teacher if you have nothing to teach- but for most teachers, a degree level or equivalent is quite enough to be at least ten steps ahead of the kind of knowledge you’ll need to teach in a classroom. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the majority of GCSE papers. When I started teaching RS years ago, I entered the classroom with a Masters in Philosophy from a decent University and a profound lack of content knowledge about Jewish food laws, or the five pillars of Islam. Petrified at first, I soon found that with a little diligence, I could get on just fine- A-level took more rigour, and a lot of brushing up, but to be educated to one step past the student, and possessed of a little intelligence and professionalism, is enough in most cases to teach a subject at secondary level. Of course, the more knowledge the better, but it’s not a necessary precedent.

But this show seemed to rest on the premise that international experts would magically transform the learning of the unloveliest of NEETS. Wrong, dead wrong. The teachers in this program had an abundance of ability and knowledge in their field- and most of it was superfluous to their needs. You don’t need William bloody Shakespeare to teach a room full of kids with no English GCSEs- you need a good teacher who knows the GCSE syllabus. Anything beyond that was unnecessary, like driving to Tesco in a Lamborghini Gallardo Spider- all that juice in the bonnet but nowhere to put it. So our academic sledgehammers were sent to work on the walnuts, and they found it just as hard to get to the good bits without smashing everything to pieces.

While I’m on the subject, I’d like to point out that, without prompting, I would put a tenner on the bet that every one of those kids had barely or never heard of the Olympiad of experts Oliver had lassoed into this project, and consider it very safe indeed. The cultural and intellectual circumference of some children is genuinely frightening- Daley Thomson was a legend when I was ruining my Spectrum 48K on his desperate console game, but he may as well be Plato’s next door neighbour for all the impact his name would have on  most plimsoll-dodging teenagers today. Robert Winston, Alvin Hall, Alastair Campbell….all stalwarts of contemporary culture, all big noises in their own worlds; but there’s nothing like a teenager’s incomprehension to make you realise that you’re only famous if people have heard of you. None of these kids were likely to go, ‘No WAY, I can’t believe the Poet Laureate is going to teach us poetry!’ because most of them won’t know what a Poet Laureate was. Or indeed poetry.

We can’t all talk at once

Behaviour management is, I believe I might have said a few times before, absolutely fundamental to good teaching and learning. If you don’t have the kids behaving reasonably well, then you might as well go home, because they’re not going to learn anything. This doesn’t seem to occur to most people involved in running education, apparently, and the number of times I’ve heard people say that interesting lessons will solve behaviour problems…well, it’s a lot of times, let’s just say that. This was joylessly proven every single lesson in the program as we watched how quickly they were ruined by pointless, self-referential teenage jibber-jabber, as all the big gobs were determined to have their say no matter what. It was deeply uncomfortable to see the apparently lovely Simon Callow start off with them, only to see their attentions dissolve like chocolate in lava after about ten seconds. And then they started arguing. And then they were all telling each other to shut up. And poor Callow is left spluttering at them and being ignored, because he’s not important to them- what’s important is that they get to have their say, and that nobody cusses them.

‘Good weed, white wine, I come alive in the night time.’

It is, I have to say, the world that some of us don’t just visit, but inhabit in our professional careers. I could have told them this for free. I don’t know who acted as consultant on this program, but they were either deliberately ignored for televisual fireworks, or misinterpreted, because only the greenest of rookies would have thought that this experiment would work in a meaningful way. Disruptive pupils can be distracted for a short time by novelty, or by catching their curiosity. But eventually the teacher has to realise that they can’t be entertained every minute of every lesson. Sometimes, learning is just work, in the same way that sometimes training is just lifting weights or running around a track at six in the morning, and that life isn’t always fun.
And that’s when they’ll lose interest, and need to be directed for their greater good. And that means sometimes being strict, and always having rules that everyone has to follow. And the first rule of the classroom is that not everyone can talk at once. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a lesson; you’re just standing in the same room as a crowd of children who happen to be talking to each other.

Nobody can make you behave

David Starkey came a total cropper on this one, and serves him right. Actually I’m quite angry with Starkey, because in many ways what he said echoed my own opinion- that many of the kids had put themselves in that position, that they needed self-discipline, that without the ability to restrain their own egoist desires they would be slaves to their whims, etc. But then he p*ssed all that good will up against the staffroom wall by being so explicitly, wilfully repellent to the children (for God’s sake, he called one of them fat, and called them all failures) that I’m surprised they didn’t turn him into a totem pole. He blew it in an enormous, spectacular way, and it’s no good stalking off in a huff and saying how awful they were. They were- but so was he. His attitude was one of enlightened superiority, but he displayed less manners than they did in the first few minutes. it was excruciating.

The worst part of it is, some will see him representative of the assertive discipline technique, that he is the natural result of a behavioural system that relies on sanctions as well as rewards. He doesn’t- he’s merely one unpleasant particle on the spectrum of that process, and an angry, petulant smear on the windscreen of others who drive more carefully through classroom management. You can be tough and polite; you can be assertive and calm. The kids might well be lucky to have you there, but if they don’t realise it, there’s no point expecting it like some kind of divine right. You have to show them why they should be interested, not rebuke them with insults when they don’t slavishly dance at your every utterance.

‘Bit of Dewey, bit of Bloom…bosh!’

Nobody  can make you do what you don’t want to do; at some level, we have to cooperate with the person controlling us. To get children to behave, they have to know that you care about their education; so much so, in fact, that you’re prepared to use sanctions against anyone who needs some coaxing. With care, rigour and consistency, most children can be engaged with this process. Eventually, the need to punish dwindles as the pupils learn to enjoy the comfort and security of a well-run classroom, and the benefits that it provides to their education. The ones who still won’t comply with this can be dealt with in more selective ways.

Sometimes this means exclusion. Sometimes it means that they slip through the net. But no system is perfect, nor should we expect it to be so. For schools to be well run there have to be sanctions against those who resist social mores. People who rebel against the system within which they operate can expect the system to respond. And that is why many of these children end up as NEETs, or other acronyms. Nobody said life was going to be perfect. Sometimes we have to just do our best and deal with the consequences.

This program wasn’t a failure at all; it was a brilliant way to generate debate about education, and you know you’ve done something special when kids and non-teachers are talking about how schools are run and what it all means. But the crucial problem with Jamie’s Dream School is that it seemed to assume that teaching isn’t a skill at all, but some kind of verb that happens when you turn up to a room full of kids with ties on. Teaching is an art and a craft, not something stapled on to subject knowledge. I’m still learning to be a teacher, and I hope I never stop. Let’s face it, if even Rolf Harris can’t get his classes spellbound with his boyish, divine enthusiasm, then I think we can safely say that expertise alone isn’t enough. Teaching is a profession, not a job, not an accident that occurs when the educated mean the un. Jamie’s Dream School is in Special Measures, as far as I’m concerned, with a notice to improve.

The Head Master, John D’Abbro, has a big job to do, and I’m not sure if he’s up to it; what are the school rules? Are there any? Do the students have any expectations to conform to, or is that merely for the teachers? In other words, is this the Land of Do As You Please for the students, many of whom will have been doing as they pleased for some time? And I fear that after their holiday in Channel Four High School for Narcissists, they’ll find that the rest of the world isn’t that bovvered.

Only time will tell.

If you build it, they will behave: the great behaviour myth of teaching and learning

‘That lesson was bare differentiated.’

Because I don’t get out much, I have a favourite false (or possibly just invalid) syllogism, and it’s from Yes Minister, the satirical political sit-com precursor to The Thick of It that now seems like a Golden Age of propriety and civic integrity. It goes like this:

P1: We must do something
P2: This is something
C: Therefore we must do this.

I mention this because there seems to be many government ministers and policy formers who apparently see this as the last word in logic. These are interesting times in Education; the Curriculum is being shaken down, sorry, up; Ofsted are being retrained to hunt different prey (presumably using the bloody undergarments of teachers who don’t value Geography as scent-markers). It’s all a bit up in the air again, and education has the atmosphere of the Museum of Baghdad after the liberation of Iraq. No one really knows what’s going on, and schools are feeling sore about the new baccalaureate because everyone looks like they do nothing but teach kids how to fail exams. In many ways it’s a great time to be a teacher.

And in other ways it’s business as usual. The Education Committee of the House of Commons has just reported back the following conclusions:

1. The curriculum should be designed to meet the needs of all children

‘The report by the cross-party committee concluded: “Ministers should bear in mind that if the future curriculum is to have a beneficial effect on standards of behaviour in the classroom, it will need to meet the needs of all pupils and contain a mix of academic and vocational subjects, while being differentiated and enjoyable”‘

Says who? Says Graham Stuart, MP and committee chairman. You would hope that, as Mr Stuart has brought the tablets down from the mountain that he would have some kind of solid experience in classrooms to back up these claims. A brief search of his web page reveals…well, a career in publishing, which is nice, and presumably where he learned all that classroom management stuff he’s so good at. Give me strength.

‘Er, sums and Homer and that, innit.’

What other profession would have to endure such uninformed micro-management? It’s a topic I’ve visited before, but I’m happy to drop in again: can you imagine the neurosurgeon just about to perform a cerebrospinal fluid leak repair, when some enthusiastic Sir Humphrey chips in that he should be wearing opera glasses and using a judge’s gavel if he wants to minimise post-operative infection? (On second thoughts, I shouldn’t give them any ideas.)

So why does teaching have to routinely endure the armchair wisdom of so many hapless, uninformed desk-jockeys? Because everyone has been to school, I suppose, therefore everyone has an opinion on it, in much the same way that because I’ve got a mobile phone I have an expert opinion on quadrature amplitude modulation.(I do incidentally; apparently they’re taking all our jobs and living twenty five to a flat. I mean I’m not racist, but they’re not like us are they?)

There’s a recurrent theme here: education is an open field; anyone can have a crack at it. I suspect that this is part of the problem with the Free School idea, but only time will tell. What’s obvious is that education wobbles under the weight of the legion values and judgements of battalions of nosey Norahs who have never set foot in a classroom unless they were learning Latin. The teaching ‘profession’ can barely call itself such any more; the juice has been squeezed from our lemons until these days we’re not much more than vending machines for the latest fashionable ideology or dubious international success story.

2. Good teaching causes good behaviour

‘Behaviour is one of the four key areas to be examined by schools inspectors Ofsted under changes announced.
Ofsted’s last annual report found that in schools where teaching was good or outstanding, behaviour was also almost always good or outstanding.’

Philosophy lovers everywhere can have this one for free: devotees of empirical science will be all over it like hungry dogs. Can you spot the (presumably deliberate) mistake in this reasoning?

P1: Some schools have outstanding or good teaching.
P2: Many of these schools have good or outstanding behaviour.
C: Therefore good teaching leads to good behaviour.

‘One can do it like the man’dem, man’dem..’

Does it? Does it really? As Hume would say, this is an invalid deductive argument. It’s barely even an inductive one. Why not just as easily conclude that good behaviour leads to good teaching? Because that’s exactly what I have observed in my teaching career. If the class won’t behave for you, then you can plan a lesson to the millisecond, involve tumbling dwarves and the Dalai Lama, plan a different activity for every child, have rewards, have them waving traffic light cards and pumping them with SEAL, but you ain’t got a thing if they won’t behave for you. Good behaviour is prior to good learning. If they don’t want to learn, if the class is even remotely challenging, then you can plan your little heart out, but you might as well try to teach a colony of seals on the beaches of Shapinsay.

That’s not to say that good lesson planning doesn’t help the situation, or that interesting activities and well-structured tasks that involve variety and challenge aren’t part of your behaviour management arsenal- in fact they should be- but the suggestion that what teachers really need to be focusing on is high quality teaching activities isn’t just wrong, it’s destructive.

Why? Because on the TES Behaviour Forum I chair, I deal with complaints every bloody day from new teachers who are broken men and women, having been fed this snake oil as the remedy to their classroom woes. When they find it doesn’t work with many kids, they do one thing- they blame themselves.

I learned this the hard way, like many teachers; I went into the profession brimming with enthusiasm and ingenuity, but found that to my new classes, I may as well have been talking in Swahili, as they listened in Armenian, because they couldn’t give a monkeys. It was only when I realised that the focus needed to be the behaviour first and de Bono’s Learning Hats second (and believe me, it’s a very, very distant second) that I made headway. Then, when I had tamed them to a satisfactory level, I could restore creativity and subtlety to the lesson.

These things are never completely separate of course; but the emphasis in the early days needs to be getting the classes under control first. As the control deepens, so too can challenge and intricacy. Putting them the other way around does nothing but break the hearts of those new to the profession.

This myth is cultured in other political Petri dishes:

‘Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said: “An appropriate, relevant and broad curriculum that keeps pupils engaged is absolutely fundamental to good behaviour.’

Again, there is some truth in this, but misplacing the emphasis can lead to teacher training disaster:  ‘absolutely fundamental’ means, to me, ‘cannot exist without it’. This is demonstrably untrue: I know scores of experienced teachers who could sit a class down with an open book and tell them to work through 100 maths questions, and not hear a peep for fifty minutes. Not exactly what you might be looking for in a class necessarily, but it proves the point.

I want lessons to be interesting, challenging, fun and inspirational- who doesn’t? I would love it if they were all like that. But just because something is desirable doesn’t mean that it is a necessary component, or even that it is possible. Put simply, much of the work that needs to be done in order to achieve a good education is boring. (Just saying that makes me feel like Ofsted will burst down from the ceiling on static climbing ropes like Harry Tuttle in Brazil.) But it’s true; it’s not all interesting; in fact I’ll go further- a lot of learning is a bit dull, and takes effort and resilience to complete. That’s not an excuse for all lessons to be boring, but a admission that education sometimes requires repetition, rote learning and routine. To be frank, that shouldn’t even be a controversial statement, unless you think that the suggestion that ‘building up your quadriceps will require exercise’ is controversial.

Somewhere along the line we picked up the assumption that all learning can be fun. Oh really? A big shout going out right now to every single one of the children I have taught who studied and worked hard even when my lessons weren’t based on quiz shows or involved human pyramids or playing at Rock Stars. Nothing hard ever happens without hard work. If we demand that all lessons engage then we are making an electric rod bristling with broken glass for our backs. What we demand is that all pupils try, that they behave. Then it’s up to us to make it as engaging as possible. But I won’t apologise for some lessons that bore even me. that’s the nature of learning sometimes. To accept that lessons must all be engaging simply shifts blame to the teacher when children misbehave. ‘It’s your fault- the lesson didn’t engage,’ the argument goes, which is about as logical as the proposition that people get burgled because their homes aren’t secure enough, or look too affluent.

Free Schools led to unusual sponsors.

The Shadow Education Secretary, Andy Burnham doesn’t want to be left out, either. The curriculum revamp is ‘narrow and restrictive’ he says, and could lead to children behaving badly. Oh aye, they’ll all be out on the streets with burning torches and pitchforks when they have to do Geography and French, won’t they? (Presumably Citizenship and BTECs do nothing but soothe the savage breast. Oh that’s right. They don’t.) Andy Burnham is well placed to talk about the effects of the curriculum on education, having spent a few years as a researcher for Tessa Jowell before entering politics, so he knows exactly how these things work. And next week he’ll be redesigning the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, because he saw Horizon once.

While I have my sopabox out, there are a few observations I’d like to make about the new education Bill:

1.Pornography and mobile phones added to the list of items schools can search for.

Fabulous. The power we’ve all been waiting for. Actually, if my biggest worry at school was the possession of a few mouldy Jazz mags, my life would be a lot easier. And frankly I’d be more surprised to not find pornography on the average adolescent’s mobile phone, but there you go, it’s nice to know we can.

2. Schools told they can search for anything they have banned 

Brilliant. So to that list I’ve just mentioned you can add, ‘anything else you can think of.’ Actually this is a rather good idea. I vote for ‘existentialist literature’ and ‘unhappy thoughts.’

‘Nah mate, it’s the fan belt.’

3.Appeals panels are no longer allowed to tell schools to reinstate a pupil who has been expelled, but they can ask them to reconsider their decision.

And we’ll say ‘F*ck off, thanks.’