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Troops to Teachers: Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Twiggy?

Panic.

I normally prefer to play the ball, not the man, but Stephen Twigg is beginning to look like Quiz-Kid Donnie King, the washed up yesterday man from Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 ensemble film Magnolia. ‘Look, you used to love me!’ he seems to say. ‘I sorted that rotter Portillo out, remember?’ Well, I do remember, and I’m very grateful. But right now Michael Gove is rolling his tanks on to the lawns of the secret garden, and there’s no credible opposition across the sword lines that looks close to matching wits with him, like Moriaty and Holmes, grappling on the Reichenbach falls of the schools debate. It’s The Hulk versus Mr Bean right now. Whatever camp you’re in, that can’t be good for the debate. Every time I see Stephen Twigg I think, aww man, does his mum know he’s got those scissors?

The latest mouse fart from the Ideas Factory is a strangely familiar air: Military Schools for tough (read: poor) areas. A spot of service, it seems, will turn bawds and brawlers into One-Man-Learning-Corps. Where have I heard this before? Ah yes: Michael Gove’s Christmas list. So military schools can join academy schooling as something championed by both sides of the House. Now they just have to find ways to hate each other for the same thing but for different reasons.

I wrote about this before, when the American project, Troops to Teachers, was first proposed as a roll-out over here. Like rock ‘n’ roll, fee-paying tertiary education and the influenza of sub-prime debt, where the colonies lead, the parent follows. At the time I was concerned that every statistic and claim made by the TTT zealots was based on suspicious evidence to say the least. Claims of academic improvement in such schools were more modest that the headlines suggested, and more worryingly, every major study into the efficacy of such institutions that I could find, had been conducted either by the TTT leaders themselves, or by the educational institutions that ran, or were affiliated to, the program. Hardly impartial researchers, I think many would agree.

That’s not to say that some ex-military men and women wouldn’t make excellent teachers, and I can certainly see how many of their army experiences would be useful, transferable skills into the theatre of education. But it isn’t a simple, linear process to map one industry with another. They are very different fields. Or to put it another way, does the process work in reverse? Would we say that the army would benefit from teachers bringing all their terrific classroom experience into the army. God help us. If we’d sent most staff rooms I know against Hitler, well, the Queen would be wearing a moustache by now.

Is this what you want, Twigg? IS IT? Monster.

There are other claims in the Respublica think tank Green Paper that smell of the smoke that accompanies mirrors; that, for instance, kids in tough backgrounds are better served by people who grew up in similar circumstances to them. I hope *peers down spectacles* that you’re not suggesting that you have to be from a specific community to reach or teach a specific community, because that’s not a logic I’d be very comfortable applying to, say, race, gender or ethnicity. I’m a lower middle-class white man teaching children in a poor part of the East End, from all backgrounds. Does Stephen Twigg suggest I’m handicapped in my teaching thereby? Just asking.

There is nothing wrong with admitting what this program is: a back-to-work project, moving demobbed military into other jobs where they can be useful. This is simply a sop to an anxious electorate, concerned with inner city decay reaching their drive-ways. But to call it a ‘strategy’ to remotivate and re-engage the poor is an insult to both sides of the equation, neither of whom are so simple as to be the solution to each other. And don’t let’s succumb to the gruesome subtext of some who complain against this scheme: those dislocated hipsters who basically have a bee under their backflaps about the army even existing. If you have a problem with the military being involved in schools then I suggest you ask yourself from where people are to come who will join and preserve the liberties we enjoy so fitfully? I rest my case and swerve from Godwin.

Kids in all schools need strong boundaries, governed by love. Kids from chaotic backgrounds need it more, if you’re even remotely interested in social mobility. You don’t need an army to do that. You just need teachers that care enough to bring order into classrooms, and school leaders who care enough to back them up.

Any other bright ideas, Private Pike?

It’s Clobbering Time! Get ready to open up some cans of Whup-Ass.

‘Homies better step the fuck off, or the shizzle goes dizzle.’

‘AT LAST! TEACHER IS BACK IN CHARGE’

I read yesterday’s Daily Mail headline with the usual mix of self-loathing and grammar anxiety (mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa). According the the Daily Hate,

‘Disruptive pupils who wreck the schooling of millions will be given an ‘unambiguous lesson in who’s boss’, the Education Secretary vowed yesterday.

And doesn’t that sound splendid? I like the use of the word ‘vowed’. It makes me think of Batman at the grave of his parents, waging a mad war against PC Educational super-lefties (The Pen-Pusher? Two-Chance?). How is this game-changing turnabout to be achieved?

‘In a new war on ill discipline in the classroom, Michael Gove will loosen rules on the use of physical force by teachers and increase penalties for parents who allow their children to play truant.’

So far it’s sounding like knuckledusters and Kevlar Equalisers. I’m imagining Heads of Learning sitting like spiders at the heart of an enormous CCTV Panopticon, and corridors equipped with head height trenches of ANSUL riot foam dispensers.

But soft! Teachers ALREADY have the right to use ‘reasonable’ physical force in order to prevent a crime being committed, and in order to prevent substantial disruption to a lesson. The word ‘reasonable’ will be decided in a court, of course, which is entirely proper- no rule could regulate every human circumstance. But the point is that these powers aren’t new. Of course, many teachers are unaware of this, and I think it’s fair for teachers to be trained in what they can and cannot do. But teachers must get over this ridiculous phobia that if they, for example, put a finger on a pupil’s shoulder to direct them back to work, then they are guilty of assault.

Then he carries on with these measures:

  • New rights for teachers to restrain pupils without recording the incidents

This is a bit odd isn’t it? If you need to restrain someone, you need to restrain them. Worrying about filling out an incident report later isn’t going to affect that, unless you restrain people, like, ten times a day. It also seems proper that a teacher should have to record these things- if I had a child who needed to be restrained physically (as opposed to verbally, I suppose) then I suspect I’d like to know about it formally.

  • Increased financial penalties for parents of truanting children
Using cuddles to drive independent learning.

Fine, so long as there are exceptional clauses where the parent can prove that an effort has been made.

  • More male teachers as role models

Is this the real issue? Yes, primary schools are packed with women- when I passed a primary stand at an educational recruitment fair a few years back, I was nearly drugged with a hypo and kidnapped- but surely the proof of this as a lack would be significant differences between the acknowledgement of male vs. female authority in secondary schools. Has this study been done? My experience tells me that gender doesn’t play a huge role here- what matters is how teachers conduct themselves.

  • Anonymity for staff accused of misconduct

This was announced some time ago- still, it’s a welcome 

  • The power to search children for any item

Again, nothing new. Despite the fuss this caused when first announced, this will have a relatively small impact on how schools currently conduct themselves.  It just means that schools will have to define, in advance, what they consider to be  prohibited materials. I suggest the Daily Mail.

  • Heads allowed to expel pupils without being over ruled

This is the one big opportunity lost. I cautiously approve of some of the behavioural reforms, but this one, the biggest one, is an inexplicable fumble. It’s terrific that Heads can now exclude, with no threat of some frilly-knickered Governing body getting all misty and over ruling it (do you know how HARD it is getting a pupil to this stage now? Any school body that over ruled the Head at this stage should be invited to teach the buggers for a fortnight and see what they can with them).

But now schools will be expected to FUND the buggers in their NEXT school. Sorry, I try to avoid cheap, capitalised emphases, but reading the Hate has given me a taste for it. That’s the kiss of death to exclusions in all but the most desperate cases, as schools are, despite their similarity to dream factories and fairy republics of hope and optimism, run on money, just like everything else. If you reduce every exclusion to the blunt, fiscal skeleton of ‘He’s worth five grand’, then you won’t se many of those happening.

That’s bad enough, but the real kiss of death is the idea being floated that the expelled student’s final KS4 results will be counted as part of the expelling school’s pass-rate statistics. Excuse my capitalisation, but DUDE? ARE YOU ON DRUGS? There can be no academic reason for this CBeebies bit of logic- it’s clearly a punitive measure, designed to deter exclusion.

Both of these flaws aren’t just minor weaknesses- they’re deal breakers. Exclusions should never be lightly arrived at, but sometimes they are the right thing to do: not the last resort- the right thing. Just as a community’s penal code sometimes requires the sanction of ‘Go to Jail’, school sanctions need to go somewhere- there has to be a terminal point, and it has to be something that stings. It has to be serious. It has to mean something. If you remove this terminus, then you collapse all behaviour measures that precede it, all the way down to the five minute detention. Because why would a student turn up for even that, if he knows that, with persistence, all privations can be evaded? And some students are very tenacious indeed.

And it only takes a few to ruin a classroom, and to reduce school discipline to a  constant battle to put out fires. Only a few.

  • An end to the requirement to give 24 hrs notice of a detention.

Cheers, for that. This is actually a good one. You know all those people who huff about, ‘Oh my little Barney can’t walk home in the dark, how awful,’ you know them? You know what I suggest to them? Their kids shouldn’t be mucking about in schools and getting detentions. How d’ya like them apples?

It is odd how the Daily Snail decided to put a fire under this one and blow it onto the front page. It’s like announcing that the Tories ‘disapprove of nationalisation’ or something. Still, I’m sure they know what they’re doing.

As I say, I welcome any measure that seeks to restore the authority of the teacher in the classroom. So here’s my three part plan, in case anyone wants to know:

  • New teachers to be trained to view themselves as authority figures, with clear guidelines on what they will do in the event of disruption
  • All schools to have (and adhere to) a Behaviour Policy that emphasises the right of the teacher to run the classroom, and the rights of children to an education free from disruption and distraction by the selfish and the needy
  • All governing bodies to support the school with this policy
  • Children to be given clear codes of conduct at school for the benefit of all
  • Parents to sign behaviour contracts with schools, and made clear about consequences; their support to be considered tacit after this point
  • Schools to monitor the effectiveness in teachers and their line managers in promoting the behaviour policy

I repeat something I say often: there is no contradiction between setting boundaries and compassion. In fact, when it comes to raising children- when it comes to teaching them- the two are inextricably linked.

And don’t get me started on the Troops to Teachers thing…

Atten-HUT! Troops to Teachers sees battlefield promotions lauded- but is the science solid?

 I enjoyed Panorama tonight; I always do. There’s something so intuitively respectable about the BBC’s venerable investigative magazine that I would default to unqualified admiration even if it were to tell me that spaghetti grew on trees. This week: Troops To Teachers (TTT)- Michael Gove’s drive to inject a bit of military discipline back into classrooms by aggressively recruiting and retraining ex-military servicemen. It apes the Troops to Teachers program in the US, launched 18 years ago after the first Gulf War, and since then it’s seen over 15,000 men and women swap green berets for cardigans with leather patches (or whatever the symbolic equivalent is in America).

If you watched the program you would be forgiven for assuming the the program is an unqualified success; we were treated to the example of Lordswood Boys’ School in England, which entertains no less than 1 in 12 staff from  military backgrounds, which shouldn’t really be a surprise seeing as how the smallish Birmingham comprehensive has an assistant head who used to be in the Infantry, an ex-Sergeant from the Territorials, and a former sergeant major acting as a shooting instructor. Quite. Still, variety is the spice of life, and one thing that schools have to be praised for is diversity of strategies, trying different things, and adapting tactics to meet the needs of the local community. Looking at the prospectus and the Ofsted report, it seems a bit of a success story. Students like Hakeem Nawas spoke proudly of how it had transformed his self-esteem and motivation to be involved in Cadet activities, and Neil Macintosh, the aforementioned Assistant Head proposed that ex-military were ‘more resilient…less down-hearted…and more robust.’ As Mandy Rice Davies, said, ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he.’

Actually I have no issue with this: in fact I admire many of the principles that inspire it. I particularly liked how the servicemen spoke about how they maintained order- they didn’t have to raise their voices, they said. The students agreed. ‘They just look at you,’ one said. I know what he means. Screaming your head off is usually a sign that you’ve blown your stack, and for most kids it’s better than telly. Speak silently, they say, and carry a big stick. I couldn’t agree more. Who do you respect more- the small dog with the big bark, or the silent dog with the claw hammer behind his back? Exactly.

Troops to Hogwarts

Then we were off to Huntingdon Middle School, in Virginia’s Newport News City (honestly- I wouldn’t make up a name like that because you wouldn’t believe it), where a clutch of ex-military had taken over their classes like Desert Storm. The story here was the same, it seemed- lines of biddable, disciplined and enthusiastic students queued up to enter classrooms, and we were presented with crocodiles of marching students who were noticeably not selling crack pipes to grandmothers or auditioning for The Wire. Glee, maybe.

Geoff Lloyd, the poster boy for this school’s TTT project spoke proudly about bringing ‘discipline into an undisciplined world,’ and frankly, I couldn’t agree more. His robust, direct attitude to being a responsible adult in a classroom full of students who need clear boundaries and someone they can rely on was more inspirational than a dozen Dead Poets’ Societies or Dangerous Minds. I would put him on my fictional Heroes of Education list, but unfortunately he’s a real person, so he’ll have to content himself with a notional award instead.

So far, so good. As I say, I actually applaud many of the aims of this program. I think that what many of the ex-servicemen said made perfect sense- courage, responsibility, discipline and carrying your own water. Amen to that, brother.

And then- with the inevitability of the Sun rising- came the research. Because that’s what we do whenever we want to justify something: we wheel out the academics who biddably endorse whatever is being flogged to us. And that’s when it got interesting for me. William Owings of the Old Dominion University sat in an agreeable, respectable setting and enthusiastically waved the flag for the TTT program, his eyes twinkling as he did so. He twinkled a lot. ‘Ex-military stay in the profession twice as long as non-servicemen,’ we were told. ‘Troops in the T2T program outscore all other teachers,’ it was said. Owings also provided my favourite quote of the show- T2T had provided a ‘stellar performance,’ he said. Twinkle, twinkle.

Now that didn’t strike me as the careful, cool, neutral perspective of the scientist, I thought. And as soon as someone starts to mention educational research, my spider sense starts to tingle, and frankly I start to sweat a bit. Because, as regulars to this blog will be painfully aware, I’m allergic to the way that some educational research is used to hustle strategies and big ideas that are composed, it is eventually seen, of equal parts moonshine and optimism. As a teacher of some years, I’ve been making a list of the Initiatives and Great Ideas that the hucksters of education try to flog us, and my hackles start to mambo whenever someone calls along and says, ‘Hey, you guys! I have a great new idea for turning schools around! I just need your credit card number and your uncritical commitment…’ I’m just funny like that.

So I did a bit of, rooting around on t’interweb. Just what IS the Old Dominion University, anyway? It sounds awfully grand. And it is, I am sure, a paragon of academic vigour, rigour and propriety, even if its mission statement does say that ‘Our philosophy is simple: Knowledge should be productive. Research-driven solutions that make sound business sense.’ Which isn’t really a philosophy, is it? More of an admission that if something is worth something, it has to be worth money. Ah, it brings a tear to your eye, doesn’t it? .

As I say, I’m sure it has the noblest intentions. It also has an interesting link to the Troops to Teachers program, as its website says: ‘The state office for Virginia TTT is located on the ODU campus.’ That’s the state office. Of course, that doesn’t suggest that the Old Dominion University might be a less than partial witness to the efficiency of the TTT program. I’m just saying, that’s all. Isn’t that a marvellous coincidence, though?

So I did what few civilians have done before: I had a peek at a couple of the papers quoted on their website as showing terrific, supportive data that confirmed the TTT program as a winner, and the ones that William Owings was quoting so freely on Panorama. You can find two of them here and here. They are, as most social science papers are, a thrill a minute, and I heartily recommend you print them off and read them on the way to work tomorrow. Unless you drive. Or listen to Coldplay while you read them.

The 2005 study was, broadly speaking, a survey of Teachers who had gone through the program, and of their supervisors. It asked if they felt that they had been appropriately trained to approved standards. It also asked supervisors of these teachers if they felt they were as good as, or better than teachers of similar experience who hadn’t come through the program. The answer was strongly in favour in both cases. How many were surveyed? A fair few. Over 2000 teachers and their supervisors were sent surveys. That’s not a bad study by any standards. Except that the response rate was 65%. We don’t know why the other third didn’t reply. We don’t know what attempts were made to convert those no-shows. We don’t know on what basis the surveys were sent. We can probably assume that surveys weren’t sent, or at least answered, by teachers who had dropped out of the program.

And it’s details like that, that make this kind of research so hard to value meaningfully. Big numbers are good, but without transparency about who answered, what their motives were, and show inaccuracies were avoided, the purity and reliability of this kind of data is always going to be hard to measure, let alone accept. I’m certainly not impugning William Owings, or any of his co-writers, but these are substantial, significant impediments to the development of social scientific research credibility.

Another problem is that this paper relies on perceptions- ‘how well do you feel …’ questions. These questions fall short, IMO of the clinical precision and neutrality of the genuinely inquisitive, and stray into the territory of market research. When did you stop beating your wife? Who’s to say that the TTT candidates were actually trained properly? What’s to prevent the supervisors betraying their own inclinations, preferences and prejudices through their own opinions. Nothing. Nothing at all. This isn’t the same as measuring the temperature at which mercury boils- it’s like interviewing a series of marathon runners at the finishing line and asking if they feel out of breath.

The paper does acknowledge some of this. Actually, it seems to acknowledge all of this:

‘the study does not provide evidence of T3’s self-reported or actual teaching behaviours. Neither does it provide empirical observations of school administrators watching T3s’ actual teaching behaviours. Nor does it provide evidence of students’ learning gains as a result of working for a period of defined time with T3s as compared with other teachers of similar experience. Further study of the actual teaching practices from T3 self-report or assessment of their students’ measured achievement, although very complex and difficult studies to undertake, would provide important information about T3s’ quality as well as feedback about how to strengthen T3 preparation.’

In other words, we know it’s all just opinion and self analysis. But we don’t think it’s a problem. Of course, opinion and subjective experience have a place in analysis; but it’s not the same place as objective, viewer-independent data. It doesn’t prove anything more than the people who responded felt the way they felt. It’s not corroboration that these teachers are better: it is what it is.

The other paper I looked at, from 2010 (and also by our hero from Panorama), focused on TTT candidates who went on to become Principals. This time it was 107 subjects; ah, boo, much smaller. Their supervisors (I didn’t even know Heads had supervisors) overwhelmingly (90% plus) said that they thought such principals were better on a variety of scales than similar, non TTT Principals. Yes, you may also find it unsurprising that supervisors, who I assume are involved in the selection and support of these principals, overwhelmingly thought that they were doing a jolly good job, and hadn’t they made excellent decisions hiring them? Again, we don’t know the conversion rate, the response rate etc.. I’m sure it was fabulous, given that 107 is a very small number. Still, the data comes out rather well, doesn’t it?

So is there nothing concrete at all to support the view that TTT candidates have a, if you will, tactical advantage over their civilian counterparts? Not a bit of it. Here it is:

‘In a 2008 Florida study comparing measured academic achievement of elementary,
middle, and high school students taught by TTTs, results indicate that compared to all
teachers, students served by Troops teachers performed about equally well in Reading and
achieved a small but statistically significant advantage in Mathematics. In comparisons
where each Troop teacher was individually matched to another teacher, teaching the same
subject in the same school, with approximately the same amount of teaching experience,
students served by Troops teachers achieved substantially and statistically significantly
higher in both Reading and Mathematics (Nunnery, et.al, 2008; Nunnery, et. al., 2009).’

Call me a gutless limey cynic, but ‘equally well in Reading’ and ‘a small but statistically significant advantage’ in Maths doesn’t exactly strike me as cause to start popping the champagne for the cause yet. Incidentally, the Nunnery paper mentioned above by Owings is co-written by…..yes, William Owings. And it wasn’t published in an academic journal, but, as the report says, ‘submitted to ‘Educational Administration Quarterly
October 2008′. I can submit a poem written on bog paper to the Sunday Times. Does that mean I can say it was printed?   Have a look at the front page. It’s got a lovely ‘Troops to Teachers’ logo all over the front. I’m don’t have a Ph.D. in this exact subject, but I suspect that means they might have something to do with the report….

(I stopped reading it at that point, because I don’t believe in an afterlife, and I value every precious minute I possess.)

In fact, so do the previous two papers I mentioned, both of which are prefaced by the sentence, ‘A Report Prepared for Mike Melo, Director, Virginia Office of Troops to Teachers,’ and ‘Report to Dr. William McAleer, Executive Director, Troops to Teachers, Pensacola, Florida.’ So all of the reports mentioned were written for (can I presume commissioned?) the TTT itself. Hey, waitaminute…..

It’s not that I’m against the idea of ex-military training for schools: good luck to ’em, I say. And I think that there might be something in the idea that men and women who have experience with leadership, developing self-discipline and oiling rifles might have something useful to teach children (sniping, for instance). But it doesn’t do anyone any good to use research like this that seeks to support proposals with empirical claims that can at the very least be contested as meaningful or verifiable in any real sense. Michael Gove needs to look elsewhere for better arguments, and maybe we might start to take research based policy more seriously.