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|Alex Dolan: Heroine of Education|
Sometimes when I watch news features on schools, I wonder if I am listening in Armenian to someone speak in Lithuanian. Take this report from BBC’s Daily Politics. It started off by asking the old chestnut, ‘Have kids got worse?’ before looking at some oddly divergent data:
1. Permanent exclusions are at a five year low- 0.08% of the school population, which is jolly low.
2. Reported violent assaults against teachers are at an all time high, with many resulting in hospitalisation.
3. A Teacher Survey indicated that 92% of teachers surveyed said that behaviour had become worse.
Incidentally, claims that students have always been like this are often supported by the tired old mare of Socrates, or sometimes Aristotle, sometimes Plato:
‘Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.’
I’ve read this dozens and dozens of times. No reference can be found for it, because it’s made up. Old Andrew (@oldandrewuk) does a fine job exploring this oddity. Perhaps Bill and Ted heard him say it? It seems that people who want to grow a bit of credibility for their prejudices are happy to invent supporters at times. I find it difficult to believe that someone would just invent a quote, but then I’m not Johann Hari.
So, forget Socrates. Are kids getting worse? WELL FAR BE IT FROM ME TO START A BIG BILLY JOEL FIRE, but the fact that exclusions have gone down at the same time as reported assaults have gone up, would seeeeeeem to indicate that there might be some kind of link between the two. If you fail to exclude the right students, then more and more teachers will get flat noses. Could someone ‘investigate’ this please? Because it seems fairly intuitively demonstrable to me.
|‘No, I said FRANCIS MAUDE was a tyrant.’|
For me, a far more important question is, ‘Is behaviour good enough?’ and ‘What needs to be done?’ When I entered teaching I was flattened by the way kids spoke to adults and teachers. Truly astounded- and I’d just come from eight years in Soho nightclubs. We were used to finding and liquidising drug dealers and bad lads. But to find a kid of fourteen dealing skunk in my lesson the first week I taught made my head spin. Is it worse? Seems like it to me. But I don’t care so much. The main thing is, it’s bad.
And of course that’s too small a description. It’s worse in some ways, in some schools, in some segments of society. We, too often, speak about schools as if they were one school, about kids as if they all came from the same family, about teachers as if they were all of one voice. It’s the mistake of the politico, and anyone who finds it more expedient to oversimplify for the sake of analysis, or for the sake of a three-minute feature on TV.
This news report was rushed, felt strangely like it had no centre, and jumped from one question to another without answering any way at all. It simultaneously achieved lack of breadth AND depth. It was a hurried, harassed head stuck round the classroom door and then removed before an image could form. No wonder people watch and believe Waterloo Road.
Which brings me to the reasons why so very, very many things I see on TV about schools are so utterly contrary to reality. Everyone likes lists. Magazines, blogs and the Huffington Post LOVES them. So here’s a list:
Why TV Journalism about schools often resembles the Twilight Zone
1. They never, ever see a bad school. When does a camera get close to a class melting down? Into a school where the kids are routinely awful? Into a playground where they might get their lenses lifted? Never. Seriously, never. Cameras only get into schools with the permission of the Head, sometimes the Governors. It is a long ship to steer, and there is barely any guerilla footage of schools in crisis. Like the Queen, TV only sees schools at their best behaviour; like Ofsted. You think Vic Goddard would have invited a fixed rig into Passmores if he wasn’t proud and confident about his manor? Of course not.
The very rare examples of ‘found footage’ of bad behaviour have to be smuggled in and out like elephant-foot umbrella stands or bush-meat through Gatwick. You may remember the excellent, eye-popping footage of a day-in-the-life of a supply teacher that the journalist Alex Dolan provided for Channel 4’s dispatches. It was gruesome, even though teachers throughout the UK and beyond would recognise it as common. The GTC drummed her out of the profession for bringing it into disrepute, despite the act that it was in disrepute already because of situations like the one she exposed, and ironically the GTC supported that situation by suppressing its public dissemination. They should have given her a medal, not chastened her. What a pity it’s been canned *throws a single white rose on its hearse*.
2. Like most people, they reckon they know what teaching a class is like. They don’t. Unless you do it, you don’t know. Unless you’ve had a room full of kids laughing at you, ignoring you, or cursing you for no reason other than that you wanted to get them all looking at a board, a book, or you, then you have no idea. Trust me on this. Dispense with your Care-Bear philosophies and Noddy-policies that suggest children will leap to attention if the teacher cares enough, or engages with them, or creates fun, funky lessons. This isn’t Dead Poets.
3. Like most people, they believe that teaching is fairly straightforward. It is not. It is certainly not simply being an expert in your subject and devising interesting ways to communicate this expertise. Most of your job, especially at first, will be behaviour management, planning, paperwork and other thrill-suckers.
|‘Chairs IN, stand behind desks please.’|
4. It’s far easier to speak to non-teachers than teachers. I do a bit of telly-whoring from time to time; I speak at education festivals and conferences. But I have to do that outside of my real job, which is teaching. I had the possibility of a telly slot the other day, but I had to turn it down because- guess what- I would have been teaching. at the time. So who do we get? Anyone who’s available on the Rolodex. If you’re lucky, like in the DP report, you’ll get some ex-teachers at least. But teacher opinion- the ones who rock up to the ACTUAL CLASSROOM- is rare. Rentagobs abound. They’re often the ones with something to sell.
5. The issues of schooling are hard to summarise in a few minutes, and the usual approach of ‘one person says this and another says that’ journalism projects the illusion of balance at the expense of a clear picture. Some people think that teaching kids has become much harder because of a swing towards rights over responsibilities; that behaviour has become worse for many reasons. Who says so? 92% of teachers in the survey. Now that is a lot of people. Who doesn’t say it? Mostly people who work in easier schools, or who only see schools at their best. Or Trevor Averre-Beeson, Peter Hyman’s (ex Tony Blair speech writer, now Head of ’21st century school’ 21) old headmaster. What kind of balance is that?
I don’t blame TV journalists for much of this; they are, of course, generalists, and can’t be expected to be intimate with the cell structures of schools. But I can’t be expected to be a teacher and not comment on it.
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.
|‘Right- MANAGED MOVE’|
|‘When shall we three meet again?’ ‘Depends on the grading’|
|‘No come to me wid them aagiment deh. Chah!’|
Well, it had to happen. Just as I was beginning to wonder who had stolen Michael Gove and replaced him with a human being, I am simultaneously reassured and appalled to see that business is proceeding as normal. In a story in the Daily Telegraph, it’s reported that Gove has decided that, in future any school that excludes a pupil will be forced to pay the costs towards that child’s education in the school they move on to after exclusion. AND, the grades that the child obtains in their new school will count for the school which excluded in the last place. Which given the demographic of the excluded, doesn’t normally mean A*s.
I am gnashing my teeth and clawing at the sockets of my eyes over this. This is, without a doubt, the single most anti-education policy that I have heard in the last five years. At least until now it has been merely difficult to exclude; schools have been deterred from excluding by the threat of an unfavourable Ofsted inspection, on the already witless assumption that a school that excludes pupils is somehow responsible for the behaviour of that pupil. But the result of these new measures will mean one thing only: schools just won’t exclude.
And what will happen as a result of that? Well, for a start, short term, internal exclusions and fixed term external exclusions will rocket. But because the pupil isn’t gone for good, they, like every good zombie, will return from the dead to haunt the corridors, and terrorise the pupils, classrooms and teachers that they were exorcised from. Over and over again, in a Hellish infinite regress of bad behaviour.
That’s bad enough. The knock on effect? Classrooms will be populated by students who have been proven to be beyond the capacity of mainstream education to handle, many of whom are there simply to disrupt as much as possible. Given that we are bending over backwards to teach them that their actions have no consequence, I imagine they won’t be mending their behaviour any time soon. The effect this has on a class is awful to see; it was one of the first things I noticed in education when I trained as a teacher. It only takes one or two mentalists to ruin the finest lesson; and once a few of them get going, and get away with it, the rest of the class are tempted into piracy as well. It’s a trickle effect that can ruin the education of millions.
Permanent exclusions aren’t pretty, but they need to exist, for the simple reasons that prisons need to exist in society; there needs to be an ultimate sanction to both deter and remove the very worst. Sure, the carousel of schools that these students go through isn’t perfect either, but the best solution was taken away from us: special schools, where these pupils can get the help and support they need, and not simply penning them into classrooms where they can’t cope, and neither can the teacher.
Of course, Gove’s scheme is only piloting right now, which means its being tested out in a few selected schools. But I can almost guarantee that the evidence has already been decided in favour of the project. Why? Because it is inevitable that introducing this scheme into any school ecosystem or cluster will result in a decline in the number of schools excluding. Which, in the current climate of data-obsession, will mean that on a nice coloured bar chart, this will look like it has the effect of ‘forcing schools to face up to bad behaviour’ and to ‘really work with the pupil to reduce bad behaviour.’ Which is guano, incidentally. All it will mean is that schools will permanently exclude less, and another generation of school children will be condemned to sit in sink lessons as one or two egoists parade their unattractive characters around the room for years on end, and watch as their education goes down the plughole.
Well done, Michael. An excellent weekend’ s work.
For God’s sake, it’s even being touted as ‘A clampdown on school exclusions,’ as if that was the problem, and not the behaviour that leads to the exclusions. To paraphrase the artist formerly known as Banksy, ‘That’s like going to a restaurant because you’re looking forward to the sh*t you’re going to have afterwards.’
So far this is a pilot project, as part of a white paper that is being drawn up as I froth and rage. Which means it’s far from a certainty yet. Great Krypton, I hope I’m wrong about this. You would almost think that no one in the Ministry of Silly Lessons has ever been outside of a private school.
Oh, wait a minute. They haven’t.