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My Dream School: Part 1

November 18, 2007

The Oldandrew Academy for Boys (in the Utopiashire Local Authority) looks a lot like other schools from the outside. It is only as I walk inside it that I see that it is very different in style from conventional comprehensives. As I walk into the plush carpeted reception area I see there are no students in sight. I ask casually about this and am told that this is because student reception is around the side of the school. This helps to establish that there are areas of the school for students and areas for staff, parents and visitors.

The receptionist lets me through a set of double doors using a thumbprint. Apparently all doors between student areas and staff areas are similarly protected. I am directed down several corridors to the Deputy Head’s office. On the way I notice there are no carpets in the corridors, but instead polished wooden floors, unstained by chewing gum. In place of the usual displays of work on the walls there appear to be photos of past and present students emblazoned with their exam results and other academic achievements. Each corridor has the same notice repeated several times:

Please do not make the following choices:

Detention:
Running
Eating or drinking
Dropping litter
Using a phone

Disobeying a member of staff

Isolation/Exclusion:
Being Out of lessons without permission
Arguing with a member of staff,

I arrive at a door with a shiny copper name plate with “Mr J. Hardbastard BSc (hons), M.Ed” emblazened on it. I knock and a gruff voice invites me in. An imposing shaven-headed man greets me with a handshake and introduces himself as Jonathan Hardbastard, and explains that he is the Deputy Head and has responsibility for running the school’s discipline system. I immediately ask him about the nameplate. Is it really necessary to declare his qualifications on it? Are people really impressed by letters after a name?

“Look, nobody in their right mind chooses their child’s school because of the degree qualifications of senior management. Unlike a lot of schools we don’t include the Head’s qualifications on a sign outside the school or on letters to parents. However, at every opportunity every single member of teaching staff will have their academic qualifications revealed to students. Children in an area like ours don’t plan to get degrees, there may be no graduates in their family, the only place they are ever going to acquire the basic vocabulary of academic aspiration is here in the school. Here it is a big deal whether you make it to university or not and a big deal as to which university you go to.”

“Isn’t that elitist?” I ask.

“Yes of course it is. If we want boys from deprived backgrounds to escape from poverty and become part of the middle class then there is no point pretending there aren’t class divisions in society. That doesn’t mean we are saying that such divisions are a good thing, but we are telling them that those divisions will matter in their lives.”

Changing the subject I ask about the discipline system. How does it work? He passes me a document explaining it.

Responsibilities

All students are responsible for behaving in a way that preserves the school as a learning environment. This involves choosing to learn, choosing to allow others to learn, and choosing to maintain order within the school. In order to make it easier for students to understand their responsibilities they are displayed on posters in every room.

If students choose not to live up to their responsibilities then they are choosing a penalty for themselves. Penalties include:

Detention after School – 45 minutes sat in the hall
Isolation – a day in The Inclusion Room working in silence
Internal Exclusion – Enrolment in The Behaviour Unit

Permanent Exclusion – Removal from the school
Prosecution – It is the policy of the school to involve the police where behaviour is illegal.

“Isn’t this very Draconian?” I ask. I can see that Mr Hardbastard is angered by the suggestion.

“The standard of behaviour is one which would be expected in almost any professional workplace in the country. The fact is that schools spend most of their time dealing with the consequences of poor behaviour in terms of lost time and lost learning. Allowing this poor behaviour in schools does not provide freedom, it cripples schools. Students who disrupt lessons are thieves. They are stealing from the other students, they are stealing their education. Most schools accept this theft as inevitable and refuse to countenance the suggestion that this shows a moral failure on the part of the perpetrator. They accept that children cannot control themselves or exercise responsibility. They see the discipline system as something to be used only where persuasion and encouragement has broken down and they blame the teachers for resorting to punishment. We don’t see it that way. The purpose of the discipline system is to identify poor behaviour wherever it exists and punish it. We are proactive rather than reactive on discipline. That’s why the corridors all have CCTV cameras whose footage is monitored for breaches of the rules. That is why all members of staff have a day’s training in using the discipline system every year. That is why we ask all job applicants to provide evidence that they have been regularly issuing punishments during their teaching career. That is why we have a program of lesson observations which we use to ensure that all staff are using the discipline system.”

“All this must use an incredible amount of time and resources? Your Behaviour Unit is almost like another school in itself, and employs many staff. Your brochure says that the facilities exist for up to five percent of the school to be in the unit at any one time. It must be expensive to keep all those students in another building behind a high rule, never mixing with the rest of the school.”

“A properly run behaviour system saves money in the long run. CCTV saves us a fortune in vandalism and cleaning. Having a centralised detention system staffed on a rota uses a fraction of the time it would take for staff to run their own detentions. Removing students from the main school and putting them in the Behaviour Unit where there is a high staff to student ratio is costly but because it stops bad behaviour before it is copied by other students it saves us a fortune. It allows us to teach larger classes where necessary, it reduces staff absence due to stress, and it reduces staff turnover.”

Afterwards Mr Hardbastard escorts me to the office of Dr Goodscholar, the Deputy Head, in charge of curriculum. As we walk from the main school building across the quadrangle to the Faculty of Letters the school bell rings and through the many large windows through which the corridors are visible we can see students simultaneously leaving their classrooms walking quietly to their next lesson, fully aware that running, stopping to chat, or even having their uniforms out of place would be picked up by the cameras (or the teachers who are now appearing at their classroom doors) and would result in a detention or, for the worst offenders, time spent in the Behaviour Unit. At first it’s a shock to see hundreds of boys walking quietly and sensibly, without any of the running, pushing and shoving I had assumed to be normal for teenagers. Has Big Brother produced a school of automata in perfect school uniforms, robbed of their natural exuberance? It is only as I look at their faces that I realise the truth. They are smiling, full of confidence, with the bearing of young adults rather than oversized toddlers. They don’t need to jostle for position, or run away from their peers, because they feel safe, secure and happy where they are. This is probably more than they can say about their lives outside of school. What’s even more jarring though, as they walk contentedly and calmly down those corridors, is that many of the teachers stood at the doors of their classes, many of them veterans of the anarchy that persists in other schools, are smiling back at their students.

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22 comments

  1. I’ve taught there.
    It were grand.
    That’s why nobody left and when my maternity cover ended there was no hope of a permanent job.
    Waaaaahhh!!!!


  2. Sounds like a private school to me.

    Its fine for all state school kids to be aware of their opportuities but skilled working class jobs can be just as rewarding. You don’t need a degree to fit a car tyre or tap a dent and I still don’t get the point of trying to get a prospective plumber or electrician to critically analyse Sylvia Plath or speak German. The curriculum as it stands is of limited relevance to a large number of working class kids and their aspirations.

    I agree with the idea of consistent and firm standards and sanctions being applied, I have never encountered a successful school in which this wasn’t the case. However, society, parents and the media often teach us that respect for authority is old hat. Educators only get five out of 16 waking hours to exert influence, and even then they have to compete with a ubiquitous and powerful peer system which rewards dissent with popularity.


  3. “Its fine for all state school kids to be aware of their opportuities but skilled working class jobs can be just as rewarding.”

    Which is why the rich are just lining up to get their kids into skilled working class jobs?

    “I still don’t get the point of trying to get a prospective plumber or electrician to critically analyse Sylvia Plath or speak German.”

    Perhaps they wouldn’t be prospective plumbers if somebody hadn’t decided that it wasn’t worth teaching them literature or languages.

    I might add I have lost count of the number of adults I’ve met who despite getting “skilled working class jobs” ended up wanting to continue their education, or getting office jobs instead. I’m not suggesting that nobody aspires to be a plumber or a mechanic, but at the very least we should give them a choice about it, not give them an education where skilled manual work is the most they can hope for.

    “The curriculum as it stands is of limited relevance to a large number of working class kids and their aspirations.”

    The curriculum as it stands in most challenging schools isn’t relevant to anybody with aspirations. Schools haven’t abandoned complex and difficult subjects in order to teach the basics, they’ve abandoned almost everything of academic value in order to teach worthless junk qualifications.

    “However, society, parents and the media often teach us that respect for authority is old hat. Educators only get five out of 16 waking hours to exert influence, and even then they have to compete with a ubiquitous and powerful peer system which rewards dissent with popularity.”

    You say that as if schools are fighting to raise aspirations but are losing the battle to inevitable social pressures. Schools aren’t even trying. Many schools should have as their motto: “this is all you can expect from kids like these”.


  4. “Which is why the rich are just lining up to get their kids into skilled working class jobs?”

    Perhaps not but middle class people frequently retrain as skilled tradesmen because they can potentially earn more plumbing than they can say.. …er teaching. And I’m sure that any sane parent would heartily support the opportunity for a child with limited academic aptitude to learn a trade and become an artisan rather than press on in a system that regards them as below average and then shuffle into a mediocre white collar existence.

    I don’t disagree with the idea that the opportunity should be available for any child to aspire to academic success and that a significant proportion of state schools fail in their duty to provide this. However, as you pointed out children have to make a choice to achieve, many children do not – even in good state schools with consistently applied sanctions and a supportive SLT. This is partly because they do not see the point. Forcing set five and six to study Shakespeare when they struggle to construct basic grammar or spelling is putting the cart well before the horse. Just getting them reading would be a good start.


  5. “Perhaps not but middle class people frequently retrain as skilled tradesmen because they can potentially earn more plumbing than they can say.. …er teaching.”

    I’ve heard stories about this, but I can’t say I’ve met anyone who actually did this. I’m not convinced it is that frequent.

    “And I’m sure that any sane parent would heartily support the opportunity for a child with limited academic aptitude to learn a trade”

    Well when I see middle class parents coming into schools to point out their child’s limited academic aptitude I’ll tell you, but don’t hold your breath.

    The fact is that most children’s academic aptitude depends on their aspirations, not the other way round. The high achiever who doesn’t care, and the low achiever who always tries hard are in a small (but not negligible) minority.

    “Forcing set five and six to study Shakespeare when they struggle to construct basic grammar or spelling is putting the cart well before the horse. Just getting them reading would be a good start.”

    I’d be the first to argue that you should teach the basics first. However, the least able aren’t given a curriculum of basic literacy and numeracy, they are given rubbish like ASDAN and vocational qualifications that are worth nothing to employers.


  6. Before I reply again, I should state that I neither believe you to be a bad teacher or someone who hates kids. The evidence would suggest otherwise. You believe, almost to a fault, the potential of children otherwise you wouldn’t hate the system which fails them so much and have such high expectations.

    I am still not, and never will be, convinced that all children should be educated as potential doctors, lawyers, teachers and so forth. If adults wish to change their career path at a later date then, in a just society, the resources should be made available for them to do so.

    “Well when I see middle class parents coming into schools to point out their child’s limited academic aptitude I’ll tell you, but don’t hold your breath.”

    I disagree that sensible parents cannot recognise when a child has limited academic ability and at the same time celebrate their common sense, practical, social and sporting abilities. I have also seen the negative concequences of middle class parents refusing to be realistic about a child’s academic potential and bullying them to conform to unrealistic, vicarious ambition.

    An equally valid counter argument to “The fact is that most children’s academic aptitude depends on their aspirations.” is that a child’s aspirations depends on their aptitude. However aptitude is only part of the puzzle. Attitude and cultural factors play a huge part. The children of the welfared and working classes and their parents often perceive the education system as alien and pointless, this is not speculation it is fact. No amount of sanctions and consistency in school will change that. However I do completely agree that a school without sanctions and consistency is like a canoe without a paddle – In a very smelly creek.


  7. “I am still not, and never will be, convinced that all children should be educated as potential doctors, lawyers, teachers and so forth.”

    My point is not that all children can achieve in this way. I’m just pointing out that many who can don’t get the opportunity. It’s certainly not the case that the system is over-educating children.

    “Attitude and cultural factors play a huge part. The children of the welfared and working classes and their parents often perceive the education system as alien and pointless, this is not speculation it is fact. No amount of sanctions and consistency in school will change that.”

    But changing attitudes and culture is precisely what effective sanctions and strong leadership do. Schools aren’t passive receptacles for the culture of the students. Schools have their own culture, and that culture is determined by those who have power in the school. In some schools that is the kids. In some schools it is the worst of the kids, and the majority of children are under the authority of a violent minority. In effective schools power lies with those who seek to educate and the culture values education.


  8. I’m going to make this one the last comment because I sense that we are both people who like the last word. Also its beginning to sound like were on opposite sides, we’re not. This article, implies that sanctions and leadership will act as a panacea to all of the problems in the schools system. I believe that is an oversimplification.

    “But changing attitudes and culture is precisely what effective sanctions and strong leadership do”

    How is a system of sanctions applied to children possibly expected to change a culture which exists outside of the school – in families, communities and society? Even if parents sign a hundred contracts they still won’t promote education in the home because many do not understand its intrinsic value.

    Imagine that I were in a position to punish you repeatedly for your chosen actions, for example this blog. Would your family support me? Would you eventually come around to my point of view? How severely would I have to punish you before you aquiesced?

    Furthermore, research has shown that children and adults with behavioural problems are significantly less responsive to punishment than reward.

    I am not arguing that a system of sanctions such as that described in your school are not essential, they let students know that you are setting clear boundaries between good and bad choices. Good choices are rewarded and bad choices are punished but this is only part of the picture. Approved Schools applied harsh sanctions, yet seldom did their inmates leave, misty eyed with gratitude. Even if you assign the tasks of hercules as punishment for misdeeds, you won’t magically turn surly, tough youths into blazer wearing boffins.

    Keep up the good work.

    “The Terminator” (as I am known by the little treasures)


  9. “How is a system of sanctions applied to children possibly expected to change a culture which exists outside of the school – in families, communities and society?”

    Because the vast majority of the time in school, the vast majority of students reflect the culture of their peers rather than their parents. There are some rotten parents out there, but time and again the attitude of parents on parents evening is a lot more positive than the attitude the students show in school. Most parents have some aspirations for their children. Often in bad schools the children arrive with aspirations that they gradually lose over time.

    Schools have a culture of their own. The first mark of a bad school is the extent to which they consider that culture to be fixed. The culture can be changed, it often only survives because it is enforced on students by other students as it is. The huge variation between schools with a similar intake demonstrates that culture can be changed.


  10. Comment from: oldandrew 1
    “Its fine for all state school kids to be aware of their opportuities but skilled working class jobs can be just as rewarding.”

    Which is why the rich are just lining up to get their kids into skilled working class jobs?

    Comment from: oldandrew
    “Perhaps not but middle class people frequently retrain as skilled tradesmen because they can potentially earn more plumbing than they can say.. …er teaching.”

    I’ve heard stories about this, but I can’t say I’ve met anyone who actually did this. I’m not convinced it is that frequent.

    So it’s true when you make the unsubstantiated assertion, but false when someone else does?


  11. “So it’s true when you make the unsubstantiated assertion, but false when someone else does?”

    What?

    You appear to be reading a different discussion to me.


  12. He’s saying that the assertion that the rich aren’t lining up their kids to get into skilled working class jobs has the same level of validity as the claim that middle class people are retraining into plumbing, and dismissing one statement should dismiss the other.

    Its really not that important to the topic you were discussing really though.


  13. “He’s saying that the assertion that the rich aren’t lining up their kids to get into skilled working class jobs has the same level of validity as the claim that middle class people are retraining into plumbing, and dismissing one statement should dismiss the other.”

    Well given that I haven’t dismissed either statement then I’m left wondering what he’s on about.


  14. 2 questions for you:

    1) How would you handle unsupportive parents who defend their kids over and above teachers?
    2) What consequences would you impose for differing breaches of school policy? …. e.g. Low level issues – uniform etc. and high end issues?
    3) What would take place in a 45 min DT or whole day internal exclusion?

    I like your ideas…


  15. 1) Unsupportive parents can be asked to change schools or put up with it.
    2) Smaller incidents can be enforced on a warning basis, so only repeated offences are punished.
    3) Detentions should involve sitting in silence. Internal exclusion should involve doing work, just not in an environment where students can speak to each other, including during lunch and break.


  16. Do you envisage a kind of shadow academy, where all pupils with unsupportive parents and all the pupils who have been permanently excluded go? After all, their education is compulsory and they have to be taught somewhere.

    I really don’t like the internal exclusion idea. I hear it’s used more and more locally. Somebody of course has to manage it (to ensure those internally excluded are working and not doing less constructive things). A waste of staff. Dare I say it’s paying good money to compensate for poor teaching?

    What do people learn from your ‘success gallery’? And why keep students and staff seperate; after all we’re only there for them.


  17. I envisage separate provision for those who disrupt the learning of others. The unsupportive parents don’t come into it, I think it is time to stop relying on parents for discipline. Far from being a waste of staff it is the most effective way to employ staff, as the worst behaved students monopolise staff time as it is.

    The success gallery is about building aspirations. At the moment kids are allowed to think that education isn’t important.

    Having areas that are not for students is not about keeping staff and students separate. It’s about establishing who is in charge. At bad schools kids feel that they own the place.


  18. I assume you would prefer not to teach at one of these ‘separate providers’? Who would you propose does? Which member of staff’s time would be best spent running the internal exclusions?


  19. The teaching world is full of people who would love to teach challenging kids in tiny classes with TA support. In fact it’s what appeasers want to do most of the time. Teachers often talk about how much they enjoyed working in PRUs, as long as they are competently run.


  20. You don’t need a degree to fit a car tyre or tap a dent and I still don’t get the point of trying to get a prospective plumber or electrician to critically analyse Sylvia Plath or speak German.

    Just come across this. Why does this commentator think the only purpose of education is to equip someone for a job?

    While I am not prepared to defend Sylvia Plath or German specifically, I work in the field of electricity, where literary analytical skills are not necessary, but in my spare time I enjoy a variety of things, including reading and plays and travel, and find literary analysis useful there. The more you know about the world, the more interesting it is.


  21. What does your dream school do when it finds that it just expelled half its students?


    • It wouldn’t. If you knew anything about kids you’d know the overwhelming majority conform to what is normal. In bad schools kids behave far worse than they do at home, in good schools they behave far better.



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