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.

Educating Essex 3: Suffer the little children

‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and hinder them not; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’
Luke 18:16
‘Listen to Iron Maiden baby, with me.’
The Kingdom of humanity, too, given time. The child becomes the man, and inherits the earth from his ancestors. But as teachers, we often see more than most the grisly, grimy ways in which the soil the seed is sown in is spoiled by neglect and the absence of a gardener.
This week’s episode was played in the minor scale, and almost entirely dismissed the Daily Mail-teasing fireworks of the first. We met Vinni (no, I didn’t know you could spell it like that either, and neither does my bloody spell-check. Down, boy) who was an odd mixture of idiot-savant: idiot because in a frantic race to press his own self-destruct button, he pressed every one else’s too; savant because he possessed something that it’s sometimes unfashionable to mention- intelligence. He sat GCSEs early, was in the top sets, and in his own words used to be ‘a good boy’.
It’s strange to see someone describe their own previous  behaviour as good, implying that now some of their behaviour is bad. That kind of introspection requires intelligence, all right.  Idiots can’t assess their own actions with the eye of the observer; fools don’t possess self-awareness enough to critique their own actions. ‘It is the mark,’ Aristotle said, ‘Of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.’ Vinni knew what his behaviour was like. Of course, Vinni wasn’t odd at all; teachers see scores of Vinnis in their paths, something that Vic revealed as much to Vinni in one of their seemingly endless rounds of pastoral discussions. The ‘good boy gone bad’ trope isn’t exclusive to Rihanna and Star Wars trilogies. Just as adult alcoholics fall off the wagon, so too do children. Progress is neither automatic nor one-way.
If Vinni’s plight didn’t touch you then I suggest you need touching more often: the smart, quick-witted boy (and he was), going off the rails like a train falling over in slow motion, by degrees, and everyone could see it, including him. The program was at great pains to suggest that the source of Vinni’s dissolution was a generational fracture; the parental break-up, the loss of paternal esteem. And maybe it was. Unlike many, I don’t feel qualified to commentate on Vinni, his home situation, OR the reasons for his self-immolation. Vinni doesn’t need my criticism or my half-baked theories. So I’ll comment instead on the television character we saw on screen on Thursday, because the moment we forget that we look through a mirror darkly on television, we lose perspective, like children unable to discern that the Teletubbies are just sweating actors in dark, furry pastry casing.
With that proviso, I can continue. The TV Vinni was a charismatic mess; dodging lessons with the practised art of Fagin, and playing everyone else for a fool. That’s the sad scary thing about a trusting, loving environment- it’s so easy to abuse. Like Ricky Gervais in the audience-repelling ‘The Invention of Lying’, if you find yourself the only dishonest man in a world full of angels, you possess an enormous advantage. I remember visiting Canada some time ago and finding that in some areas people left front doors unlocked, cars with keys ready to turn, and wallets on the sand while everyone went into the surf, and I thought, ‘I should come back with a van and some Cockneys and rob THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.’ Still do.

That’s kids like Vinni in a school where everyone wants to save him. They lope around from corridor to corridor, dodging the guards and the CCTV by simply playing off every teacher against every other one. I once looked up ‘Belvedere’ in a dictionary, and it said, ‘See: Gazebo.’ So I looked up Gazebo, and the dictionary said- I fuss you not- ‘See: Belvedere.’ The internet couldn’t happen quickly enough. That’s how kids manage it: ‘Mr Smith sent me here’, ‘Mr Beddow sent me here.’ ‘Mr Beddow sent me to Mr Smith,’ and so on. To be fair, it doesn’t require the wit of Fu Manchu. I used to watch war movies set in POW camps and think how the F*CK did they manage to build tunnels and forge passports IN A SHED? If human ingenuity can allow a blind Donald Pleasence to reproduce Swiss work visas from cockroach blood and wasp spit, then a child can lose themselves in the endless labyrinths of the most grid-like of schools.
‘I AM my note, Fritz.’
To be honest, even though I despaired to see the effort he put into evading education, you’d have to be made of stone not to salute the perpetually funny ‘man-walking-down-stairs’ trick when he went past the office window. But even with his undoubted charm and nerve, there was a tragic core to this story; talent and potential being wasted- an infinity of alternate possible futures collapsing into a handful of half-choices and blind alleys, and all wilfully done by the person who stood to lose most by their reduction: Vinni. Tragic, tragic, tragic.
But there’s a B-side to this ballad: everyone else. Schools aren’t vehicles fuelled by bottomless resources, they’re institutions driven by engines of necessity and invention, populated by endlessly labouring staff desperately trying to juggle as many balls as they can without letting any drop, and knowing that inevitably, some will. For every second a teacher spends on the trail of Vinni, a second is stolen from thirty other kids. If kids like Vinni (KLV) want to come into lessons ten minutes late, then everything stops for KLV, no matter the damage to everyone else’s education. Every time the Head, or the Deputy spends a minute, an hour, a day coaxing him back from the ledge is a minute invested that can never be reclaimed. This is the tight-rope act that every teacher knows and lives with. Because we all know that up to a point, it’s necessary; children are, as Mr Drew observed again, not adults. They make poor choices, and we must be robust enough to observe, perhaps roll our eyes, and help them pick themselves up. We don’t throw them to the wolves.
But a point is reached when the effort invested becomes too great a burden on the community; and in those circumstances, the community has every right to say, ‘No, we have needs too.’ You may be familiar with the policy of Inclusion, whereby efforts are made to ensure that everyone has access to a mainstream curriculum. It is an entirely noble goal, but as I frequently point out, just because a goal is noble doesn’t mean it is practical. I’d love to see every kid get a great education, and like most, I’ll fight until I’m broken to ensure it for my classes. But there comes a point in a doctor’s career when everything has been done for a patient, and he’s still arresting every five minutes. That’s the point that the surgeons and nurses put down the paddles and admit, ‘Enough. This one is beyond my resources.’ This isn’t an admission of defeat or bad faith: it’s just the truth.
Inclusion was instigated in order to make sure that children with disabilities were guaranteed access to mainstream without discrimination, and rightly so. But mission creep over the years has seen this vision becoming poisoned by the desire to include every kind of syndrome, condition or symptom as evidence of some kind of special need, identifiably medical, and therefore not the student’s fault.
I need to point out that this isn’t so: being argumentative and stroppy isn’t a condition; it’s part of character, just as being dedicated and altruistic is. Being described as ‘Having anger management problems’ is an enormous ontological mistake: it turns a normal, albeit undesirable part of the spectrum of human expression into a virus, a sniffle, a fracture; something that is done to the person, rather than part of the person. There comes a point- there must come a point, when we need to say to a student, ‘This is your fault.’
It’s a bitter place to occupy, and no teacher likes it. But if we don’t then we’re doing nothing but placate and in some ways, empower the dysfunctionality.
And we’re back to boundaries again. Mr Drew rose even further in my estimation than before this week, with his thoughtful admission that in all his years, he considered the need for boundaries for children to be more important than the need to grant them autonomy. In truth, of course, they are inextricable: we encourage children to flourish, but in order for them to do this by themselves, they need a scaffold upon which to climb so that they can reach its summit and hopefully, fly high above. But take away the scaffold and you’re left with children on the ground, unable to see horizons beyond their own eyeline, and doomed to a destiny no further than their own whims and desires will carry them. In effect, they become slaves to themselves. They can do as they please, to quote Bertrand Russell, but they cannot please as they please.
The adults that supported him- or supported his weakness, depending on your whether you subscribe to Marx or Milton Friedman- were avatars of compassion and patience, altruism incarnate. Miss Conway conveyed trust and empathy so powerfully I felt like apologising to her for my bad behaviour and getting back into a classroom. Vic Goddard himself once again demonstrated that if there were an Olympic event for caring about his kids, he would jog through the ticker tape in time for a pint before the silver caught up.
Too much though? I’m not arrogant enough to judge a man when all I have to go on is 50 minutes of telly, plus ads. But purely looking at situations like this one, I reiterate; a balance must be struck at all times with the needs of the many and the needs of the few. Because the many are, of course, a collection of the few. ‘Never giving up’ is an aphorism that trips easily from the tongue, but as professionals we don’t enjoy the luxury of utopian fantasies. Some of our patients live, some of them die, some of them miraculously recover and some do not. We can only do so much before we need to move on to the next admission, just as important as the last one. There are limits to the potions in our pouches.
We can sympathise with the difficulties that KLV experience, and yet still be forced to find alternative provision for them, with clear consciences. Sometimes schools aren’t the best places for them to be. I bemoan the great reduction in special school provision that has accompanied the ascendancy of the inclusion project, because it is a fact that stares me in the mug at times: some kids aren’t meant to be in mainstream schools, just as much as some people need to be taken to prisons, hospitals and care units. Who first thought that the bosom of the community was the best womb for everyone? An idiot, whomever.
Vinni left school, we find from the EE website, with some GCSEs, despite volunteering for care- and did you see everyone stop breathing in horror at that prospect? The state, it is true, makes a lousy parent. But with the support, no doubt, of the school and others, he made it across the very, very thin ice upon which he danced so carelessly. It was a beautiful story, well told, and reminiscent of so many others we face on a daily basis. I certainly don’t begrudge Vinni (or the Telly Vinni, remember) the good fortune he had to encounter adults as diligent and dedicated as Vic, Stan, Tina and Miss Conway. But do we do any good in the long run when we give someone five, ten, twenty-five final warnings? Have we loosened the boundaries so much that they become meaningless. ‘Men,’ Russell Crowe’s character in Master and Commander said, ‘Must be governed.’ And they must, so that they learn how to govern themselves.

‘We’re not included…and we don’t care…’

There is a frightening assumption in society these days that schools are an extension of the social services. Of course, we must liaise with such institutions because children’s lives don’t exist in convenient compartments, and Vic described how often, at multi-agency meetings, it is the school which will bear the brunt of responsibility for the child’s welfare. If they’re not breaking the law, or being specifically abused, then all else falls to us. Of course; how expected. But schools are imperfect families, and the burden of making sure that the children are fed and housed is too great for us to bear. And we’re not trained to do so. Dear God, we’re just trained enough to teach our subjects and run our own lives. If you want us to bring them up too, you’re going to have to build a bigger school. If you force us to do everything else too, then something has to give. Oh look- it’s education. Funny that.

Other Stuff:
  • Children in care get £3.10 every day pocket money. Good luck with that. But £7.50 on a Friday? I presume that’s to cover the White Lightning and 20 Mayfair. Get the party started.
  • The school choir singing ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ in the manner of Scala the Belgian girls’ choir. Then Mr Drew humming along as he went to obliterate some new law breaker. Ah, Brave New World.
  • The queue of penitents waiting for Drew to deliver his divine justice, one after another. ‘Can you tell me which teacher asked you to download ‘Thirteen Days in Hell‘ into your user area? No? You are banned from accessing the internet until January, except from a list of approved educational sites…’ This, over and over again. Beautiful.
  • The slight tension implied between Drew and Goddard in their approaches to discipline; boundaries versus autonomy. Drew chipped it out of the long grass with a masterful admission of faith in his line manager’s judgement, even if he himself had reservations. That’s not craven, that’s professional, and that’s how teams work. Save criticisms for private discussions, and work with the chain of command unless your values are irredeemably lost by doing do.
  • Vinni, asked for a note to explain his stalking the corridors: ‘I AM my note.’
  • ‘How many times have you got your skirt rolled up?’ said Drew to, apparently, one of the Saturdays. Takes a brave male teacher to tip-toe  through that minefield. 
  • Loved the ‘lunch’ montage; it was like the bit in Rocky when he’s building himself up into a comeback Titan. OK, it wasn’t very much like it.
I’ll play you out with poetry:
Philip Larkin – This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
  They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
  And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
  By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
  And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
  It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
  And don’t have any kids yourself.

Hogwarts in Special Measures: Notice to improve

A bastion of elitism and institutionalised racism

Oh boy, oh boy. A response, below, got me thinking about Harry Potter’s educational experiences. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? I know this is a well worn path, but tinkering around on the wiki entry for Scotland’s premier selective boarding school with a giant squid made comment irresistable. Here are some of the things that immediately struck me:

1. It’s a selective boarding school, with fees payable. What’s the selection criteria? Ability? Faith? Wealth? Er, no, actually, it’s birth. If you’re ‘born magic, or not,’ as the book puts it. So if you’re a member of the lucky sperm club you qualify for entrance. Oh, how jolly egalitarian. Of course, qualification still doesn’t imply admission, as the poorer candidates (like Tom Riddle) find out. You still have to cough up the Galleons, or groats, or whatever the Hell wizards buy their milk with. Dumbledore magnanimously allows that ‘there are funds available for students who cannot afford robes and books.’ Oh, thank ‘ee mazzer. He might have added ‘And snuff, and truffles.’ How can they stand being in the same Highlands as the rabble?

Hermione shouldn’t be hopping about with her knickers in a twist about the House Elves, despite their servile lack of class consciousness; she should be painting placards about the scandalous admission system. Born magic or not? Hmm, so we have an educational hierarchy of pure bloods, half-bloods, squibs and Muggles do we? Can I smell the bonfire of class war? You’re born into one or the other? I believe Gandhi was quite specific about this: the untouchables must be integrated with the mainstream. And I understand Marx had a few words to say on the matter, something about History, and Chains.

Still, is the accident of occult genes any more indicative of inequality than the multiple benefits that fortuitous birth conveys upon any non-magical child? A healthy series of trimesters, sturdy nutrition, the down-payment against stress that financial security brings, the confidence of a supportive nest, and the opportunities of doors opened by friends and family…none of these are the child’s fault, and one can hardly be surprised that they take advantage of them, just as one cannot begrudge a parent for grasping every opportunity for their offspring. Is a magical chromosome any more or less unjust than that?

Perhaps if the school was serious about equality (which it isn’t, but that might not be such a bad thing, because equality is a hydra-headed concept, and at least some of the definitions aren’t universally positive: equal rights for all animals, for example, leads to murder trials for stepping on an ant), then it would have a number of places reserved for non-magical students, who would be led through seven fruitless, soul destroying years of being crap at everything (except hiding from Slytherin predators in the showers), with extra time in their exams (which they would still fail) and having spells made even easier for them (and yet strangely, still uncastable). Then they would be entered for soemthing like ‘Knowledge of How to Open Ye Doors’ GCSE, which they would all then pass with a C, and the school could record that it had entirely complied with the Occult Ability Equality Act, as well as top up their pass rate.

‘So you see, we’re just better than the other people.’

2. Differentiation/ Streaming. While no streaming in lessons is immediately apparent, there’s one system that should have every educator choking on his porridge: the Sorting Hat. Yes, pupils at Hogwarts are selected for Houses again, not by ability, not in order to result in an integrated mix of gender, race and ethnicity…no , they’re selected by character. You heard me. If you show courage, bravery, loyalty, nerve and chivalry, then it’s Gryffindor for you, which I imagine is full of the most self-righteous, arrogant and entitled set of stuffed robes in the known world. ‘Yes, I’m in Gryffindor; yah, actually I am pretty brave and honest, yah.’ The most noble people I know are often the most modest; they would, by default, shrink away from describing themselves with such glowing terms. What must that do to their noodles?

Hufflepuff values hard work, tolerance, loyalty, and fair play. Boy, I bet they’re hammering at the door to get into Hufflepuff. ‘Oh, I got into Hufflepuff, did I? I must be a bit of a thick grunt then. Right-oh. Best get on, then.’

Ravenclaw values intelligence, creativity, learning, and wit’ : all I can say is that they must be even more insufferable than Gryffindor. I would happily spanner anyone from Ravenclaw, just on principle

‘Haw-haw-haw. We’re off to bash the oiks.’

Slytherin house values ambition, cunning, leadership, resourcefulness, and most of all, pure wizard blood. Which means they’re racist. And a bit like Peter Mandelson. Again, they probably have to chain them to their beds at night to prevent them sneaking out into any of the other houses. ‘Bloody Hell, they think I’m David Miliband.’ Can someone tell me why anyone would want to be in Slytherin? Any mention of its members invariably describes them as shifty, arch, sly, crafty, self-serving, vain, arrogant, etc. Most of them seem to have ‘meaty faces’ (if they’re stupid) or ‘thin, pinched faces’ (if they’re clever). Most of them are pretty ugly, unless they’re ‘beautiful and terrible’ like Bellatrix. Far be it from me to criticise the quality of Potter’s Pen, but I think she takes physiognomy a bit far. Everyone in Slytherin is a bastard. And I know the horse has bolted a bit, given that the series is over, but they’re all on Voldemorts’s side. What; is Dumbledore taking crazy pills, and inclusion to Olympic levels? ‘Yes, we’re keeping them all at school. Yes, the bastards too. They have every right to learn magic, even if they will use it for violence and mayhem. What?’

Much has been said about the intrinsic unfairness of selection by ability. Not much has been said about the problems of selection by character. Talk about pigeon-holing; talk about stereotyping. ‘You’re a bad ‘un’ says the Hat (a HAT, I’d like to add), ‘Off you pop with the other bad ‘uns. Ah, now youre a swell guy; take a seat next to Harry Potter.’ The kids must droop under the expectations of that bloody hat. I wonder if any of them fantasise about dropping the halo and getting a bit snaky for once; or not plotting the downfall of the Headmaster and actually perfroming something altruistic? A few years in the Cauldron of Character Caste (good name for the next book, incidentally) and there’s no chance for any of  the poor buggers.

‘Screw the House-Elves. I LIKE my robes ironed.’

3. Divination. There’s actually a subject called Divination. You know, where you can see the future? That must make predicting grades a bit easier. Although it doesn’t seem to work most of the time, which seems to imply that it’s a bit of a non-subject, like Life Skills or GCSE/ BTEC equivalents…

Ah, you could go on about this stuff forever….

Inclusion: ruining education since 1978

Sir Alan Steer has been poking his oar in again. From the genius that brought us gems like “Only 2% of UK schools have unsatisfactory behaviour” and “behaviour is no worse than it’s ever been” comes a new report: ‘Excluded teenagers who receive a minimal amount of home tuition are falling into a life of crime and drugs‘. Who would have thought? This just in: Fire Is Hot.

Now Surallun seems like a very nice man indeed; I warm to him; I embrace his beardy jowls. But I suspect that if you were to unscrew his skull cap, fill the brain cavity with hard sweets, and somehow mount his lower mandible onto a spring mechanism, you would have a reasonable impression of a Pez Dispenser. Tony Blair’s Behaviour Tsar (I had to settle for Guru. It’s like a number plate: you have to put your name down on a list, and hope you don’t get ‘Behaviour Monkey‘ or ‘Behaviour Fairy‘) has told a cross-party commons committee that children that get themselves turned out of schools often end up as bad lads, hanging round bus shelters and mocking authority.

I imagine the Committee must have fallen off their sedan chairs when they heard that: badly behaved kids often end up badly behaved adults? But Mr Steer! Surely it’s the well behaved, high-achieving students that fill our high-security prisons? It’s not? Then the world has gone mad! Once they composed themselves I’m sure they thanked Surallun and asked him if he’d mind closing the door on his way out. Seriously; who gets paid for these kind of homilies and home-truths? Who pays for them? Oh yes, us, cheers.
“We have children who are out of school who are receiving as little as an hour a week of home tuition, week after week, month after month,” he says. Oh, the horror, the horror. As a teacher who is regularly asked to coordinate or provide work for pupils on temporary exclusions, I can happily report that the return rate of work provided hovers somewhere around the 1% mark. Obviously schools rightly have a legal obligation to provide work for pupils on fixed term exclusions, as part of their national entitlement to free and compulsory education (and we can get ourselves in hot water if we don’t provide it).

If only there were some way, Surallun, of these children receiving proper tuition in a wide range of subjects, in custom built premises where they were surrounded by curriculum experts, given free materials, support, and a structured diet of mental and physical challenges that eventually led to qualifications and valuable life experience.

Oh wait, they already do. It’s called school. These children put themselves outside of the mainstream community. As a society, we burn a healthy proportion of our GDP on education, and quite right too. The twentieth century saw a progressive increase in the age, gender and curriculum entitlement available to children in the UK, which you can add to Human Rights and the Enlightenment as pillars of Human Civilisation and progress. We try to get as many children into schools as possible for a huge number of reasons. And we mustn’t pretend that they’re all about the beautiful flower that is the child:

1. Children deserve to flourish
2. Society’s values need to be passed on efficiently
3. Societies need skilled work forces across the social spectrum
4. More educated children tend to generate more tax, commit less crimes, and require less welfare commitment.

And so on. It’s better to be explicit about our assumptions of the aims of education, rather than pretending that it’s all about growing beautiful seeds into fabulous butterflies, or something, and let’s hold hands and cry while we talk about how much we love sunrises.

Steer’s comments, while being pleasingly tautological, offer us an insight into the apparent helplessness of our school systems to deal with wide-scale misbehaviour.

It isn’t their fault- it’s ours. Somewhere along the line, we have blurred the definition of responsibility. These children are now the helpless passengers of the school bus, driven to destinies over which they have no influence.

I’m sorry, I must have missed the memo. I teach a lot of Philosophy, which makes me pretty rubbish at most things that involve plugs and building anything useful, but I do know this: moral responsibility assumes the existence of Free Will. If you want to be a Hard Determinist, and speculate that there’s no such thing as Free Will, then fine- good luck to you. But the society you envisage as a result of such a conclusion is very different to the way we normally view the human condition. At some point we have to accept that people are responsible for their actions. Children above 11 can be treated as criminally responsible; my pre-teen nieces know the difference between right and wrong. By the time they get to secondary school, their actions are their responsibility. Poverty isn’t a necessary condition for anti-social behaviour. Children are responsible for their own behaviour, certainly by secondary. Teachers and schools are responsible for how we react to that behaviour.

All children should be included in mainstream education. Oh you bloody think so? This kind of thinking makes Astrology look credible. The initial aims of this policy were admirable; to make sure that children with disabilities (and I mean proper disabilities, not just ‘gets a bit angry if he can’t spit on you’) weren’t marginalised simply on the basis of physical impediments. I might add here that, for instance, provision for blind children in any kind of education wasn’t made compulsory until ten years after it was made so for the able-sighted.

But this has evolved in the laboratories of simple-minded educationalist panjandrums to include all children, at any point on the behaviour spectrum, whether their ‘need’ is behavioural, emotional, social, or any other definition of ‘disadvantaged’. Suddenly, somehow, children who exhibit extreme-spectrum behaviour aren’t rude or aggressive any more- no, they have ‘Emotional and Social Behavioural Disorders’. Pupils who kick off and swear are sent to ‘anger management’ classes, as if their behaviour was somehow removed from them as people, in much the same way as people with enormous beer guts sometimes pat them disapprovingly and say, ‘I’ll need to get rid of this,’ as if it was something that had been sewn onto them without their knowledge.

Keeping really badly behaved kids in school has been a disaster for children for a generation now. It was the first thing I noticed the very minute I stepped back into classrooms after a twenty year absence, and my opinion hasn’t changed. Which ties into…

The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. I have yet to discover a philosopher or educationalist who wouldn’t die of shame if they were to try to justify this, but that’s exactly what we do. We pretend that the child who brings violence or interminable rudeness into the classroom somehow has needs that must be serviced, even at the clear expense of the vast majority of the room. How many lessons are tied up, ruined and abandoned because some charmless oaf has decided to throw her toys out the pram? New teachers are particularly prone to this kind of attack on the classroom, because they haven’t yet realised that the rules are no longer in their favour. The child has needs, to be sure: they need to shut the hell up and learn.
It should be as hard as possible to remove a child from school. And it is, it is. Not only do Government guidelines clearly express that schools should exclude permanently as rarely as possible, but schools with high levels of exclusion are judged as having unsatisfactory behaviour by OfSTED. So unsurprisingly, the vast majority of schools have resorted to the easiest way to turn down the dial: they exclude less. Which has the same logic as observing that a society with lots of people in prison must have high levels of crime; ergo, put less people in prison. Problem solved! Except it isn’t. The causal relationship runs backwards in this uniquely backwards way of solving the problem. Or to put it another way: every time I go the doctor there’s something wrong with me- so don’t go to the doctor! Boom boom!

Keep them in! Let schools become a prison for all. As you might guess, I support streaming, because it allows children to be taught at a level appropriate to their ability. Mainstream comprehensive education is a noble aim, but we mustn’t be blinkered by orthodoxy to place it beyond scrutiny or critique: it sought to overcome the obvious class divisions of the Tripartite system of grammar, technical and mainstream schools, but it incurred another problem; how do you pitch a lesson to a class of very mixed ability? Oh, there are ways, to be sure, but it’s an enormous challenge to the working teacher, lesson after lesson. Almost inevitably, the middle ability gets catered for far more than the extreme spectrum children, which is why we have SEN and G&T inelegantly stapled on to lesson planning.

Incidentally, I have a solution to this mess; I’m not a doom-sayer (‘Doom! Doom, I say!’). Bring back the Special Schools in an enormous program that creates meaningful, professional environments where children with genuine special educational needs (as opposed to a wheat intolerance) are catered for with a student/teacher ratio that actually makes a difference. You see, I’m not one of those that just wants the difficult kids slung out on the streets- I actually want them to land somewhere that will look after them with a combination of tough love and concerned structure and discipline. Mainstream classes are not the right environment for a minority of the children we ‘teach’; teachers don’t have the time, and the other kids can’t afford the disruption to their lives and educations.

If Alan Steer really wanted to make a helpful suggestion, he could abandon the well-meant but hopelessly undermining attitude that behaviour isn’t really so bad, and that kids will behave well if the lessons are more interesting, and instead tackle the main causes of the behaviour crisis in schools: inclusion, inclusion, and…oh yes. Inclusion.