Archive for May, 2008

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Heroes of SMT

May 31, 2008

In my experience most schools have one or two competent members of SMT. In a good school this is the Head and the Deputy Head. In a bad school it will be the Assistant Head in charge of PSHE and the Assistant Head responsible for The Sixth Form.

There are a few things that make a good member of SMT:

1) They walk the talk. They enforce the rules they expect you to enforce. They teach the way they expect you to teach. They don’t mind you observing their lessons. They don’t ignore trouble in the corridors, hide in their offices or ignore students who aren’t obeying rules concerning uniform or behaviour around school.

2) They are honest. They keep their promises. If they say they will support you in a lesson then they are there. If they say they will sort something they will sort it. If they don’t know the answer to a question they will tell you and get back to you. If they can’t get something done they say, instead of failing to do it and looking for somebody else to blame. They don’t use euphemisms, if a kid is out of order they will say so. If a job they give you is difficult they will tell you that. If a school is difficult they will tell you that, with no weasel words about how it will be better once you “build relationships”.

3) They are on the teachers’ side. They remember what it is like to teach. They don’t waste time trying to see teachers’ problems from “the other side”, whether that’s the students or management. They have a sincere conversation with the teacher about what can be done. Most importantly of all they are like this with parents. In their book a parent who is unsatisfied with the school needs to find a new school. There are no “personality clashes” and no undermining of staff.

4) They’ll get the kid. If you report a disciplinary incident they deal with it without trying to refer it elsewhere or to pretend it isn’t serious. They assume that if you have gone to them it is because it is serious, and because nobody else will deal with it.

5) They take responsibility. If they are there, then they are in charge. This is particularly important for things like supervising the canteen, or children on sportsday or a trip. There is no need to ask them for help in such a situation, they are looking for the problems and dealing with them.

Few schools have nobody like this, although some schools have so few that they end up overworked. What is rare is the situation where such a person is the headteacher. I have only encountered this briefly, but it is a joy. In particular there are some other qualities that the competent headteacher has:

1) They lead. Almost everything they do is their own idea, and they don’t care for consultation or debate. They will also make it clear what they want or expect at all times. You never have to ask what they want as they have already made it clear. Their aims are clear and non-negotiable.

2) They look for trouble. You find them in the corridors at lesson change over. They ask what the matter is if you look stressed. They intervene in as many incidents as possible, particularly if awkward parents are involved. They will take on new projects if they are likely to make a difference. They are never satisfied with the status quo even when accepting it would make their life easier in the short term.

3) They fight The Powers That Be. They will fight the Local Authority. They will ignore targets for exclusion. They will not ask what other schools are doing before taking on a new idea. They will pick a fight with anybody that interferes, and will rely on the school’s exam relults to let them get away with it. Not only that, but they do get those results. As long as they are in place the school’s results keep going up.

There’s a naïve idea that the best headteachers are the nicest ones. While I know that an evil backstabbing swine makes a poor head, a weak one is even worse. The best headteachers are ruthless bastards, but they are on your side and they are ruthless with dealing with problems, rather than in covering them up. We owe them a lot. I’d like to buy a drink for all the good secondary headteachers in England. (After all I’d probably get change from a tenner).

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Seven Habits of Highly Defective Headteachers

May 26, 2008

Dilbert.com

 

If you are the headteacher of a Battleground School the following types of behaviour will be normal for you:

 

1) The Strategic Euphemism. When interviewing suckers, sorry, candidates for teaching positions, and talking to parents and governors it becomes important to be able to avoid explaining what the school is actually like, but too blatant a lie is likely to be found out. The best way to avoid being caught out is to describe the phenomena of the school in certain glossy phrases:

“Our students aren’t afraid to say what they think” means “our students are rude to everybody”.

“Our students often have a difficult home-life” means “our parents are scum”

“We will expect you to cater for a variety of different learning styles” means “let the kids sit and chat in your lessons, it’s safest that way”.

 

2) The Bad Reference. There’s nothing like keeping hold of staff by stopping them from leaving. Unless you actively want shot of somebody and have a replacement lined up then you make sure you write a hatchet job. If you haven’t said anything critical of them to their face then it might take a year for them to realise what’s happening. Even if they do find out then they have very limited options to do anything about it. If you become known for your bad references then they might not even try to leave in the first place. The great thing is that in a bad school, you can paint any teacher as bad. They will have had problems with bad behaviour. (Bill Rogers, Mr Chips and Coach Carter combined would have problems with bad behaviour in your school). So make out it is their fault. If they don’t like you, and they probably don’t as they want to leave, then say they have trouble getting on with their colleagues.

 

3) The Fortress Of Solitude. Nothing reduces a headteacher’s authority more than being seen with children. If they are rude to your face in front of staff then the staff may realise you are not in control of the school. The solution to this problem is to create your own Fortress of Solitude, otherwise known as your office. If it is safely placed away from classrooms and you never leave it, except to go on Local Authority junkets, then you may never have to deal with a student directly at all. It can be embarrassing if you are showing somebody around the school and some of the students say “who the hell are you?” but it beats being called names by the little scrotes.

 

4) Delegating Responsibility. It is well known that great managers delegate. Great headteachers delegate so much that nobody quite knows what they do at all. If anyone asks what you are doing mumble something about paperwork and attending meetings. Some headteachers warn staff in briefings if they are going to be unavailable that day. This is a mistake as it just becomes noticeable that this makes no difference to anything that happens in the school. The rule of delegating is: If it’s important to you (i.e. things that you might be asked about by the local authority) give it to another member of SMT, if it’s not important (i.e. it’s to do with behaviour, or with the kids) give it to middle managers.

 

5) Blame People To Their Faces. Everything will go wrong eventually. The important thing is that it was in no way your fault. You need to invite every member of staff into your office at some point and blame them for something. Make it sound official, it looks good if you have some paperwork about it that you aren’t allowed to show them. If they apologise despite having done nothing wrong then you know that they will never stand up to you, and that you can blame them for other things in the future. If they do stand up to you, perhaps by leaving or going to their union rep then at least you have uncovered a troublemaker.

 

6) Blame People Behind Their Back. Some people are too indispensable, or too well-connected to be confronted directly. Therefore it becomes important not to talk to them directly about whatever you are blaming them for. The important thing is that you have an excuse for what’s going on. People can go for six months to a year thinking that they have done an excellent job, with only management incompetence to slow them down, and then later discover that they have been given no credit for anything they’ve done but have been held personally responsible for the failings of everyone above them in the hierachy. Discipline is the worst area for this. A teacher may ruthlessly enforce the rules despite a complete lack of support, only to discover that the people who were meant to be supporting them held them personally at fault for having to enforce the rules in the first place. Teachers often object to being told “we are not going to do our jobs in following up bad behaviour, because we think you are to blame for every bit of bad behaviour you tell us about” but if you say it behind their back then it could take months before they notice their referrals are being deliberately ignored (rather than just accidentally like everyone else’s).

 

7) Fake Concern about Staff Well-Being. Given that so many of the miseries of teaching result directly from bad management it is very easy for teachers to suspect that headteachers don’t care about them at all. The easiest way to deal with this complaint is to buy into initiatives that are meant to help with staff well-being. These consist of an INSET explaining that in future there will be greater concern about staff well-being, followed by a questionnaire that asks people how unhappy they are and why. This questionnaire is then ignored (usually by claiming not enough staff filled it in). Coincidentally all the answers that were filled in were from respondents who said they were very unhappy and you are the reason why. If that doesn’t convince staff that you care then offer free aromatherapy sessions after school.

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A Brief History of Education Part 5. The Battleground School

May 18, 2008

I discussed previously the rise of comprehensive schooling and the deteriorating position of the teaching profession. I didn’t explain the phenomena that followed on from this. The Battleground School is the type of school I have been writing about.

To be precise I am using the term to refer to schools of the following type:

  • They are large, usually secular, mixed (or boys’) comprehensives.
  • They have a limited or ineffective discipline system, in particular, referrals of serious incidents regularly result in no action against the student responsible and such incidents are common.
  • School management explicitly avoid endorsing punishment as part of the school discipline system.
  • The ethos of the school prioritises socialisation, but not socialisation into academic, religious or (conventional) moral values.
  • Management deny the existence of the behaviour problems identified by staff, and see behaviour as primarily the responsibility of the teaching staff.

No figures exist for what proportion of schools are like this. My personal experience suggests that it has become the norm. I have direct experience of schools of this sort being praised by OFSTED as if nothing was awry. They form the overwhelming majority of schools in the Local Authorities where I have worked and I know from the reaction to this blog that a large number of teachers in other parts of this country are in such schools. The question I am interested in is not “how common are such schools?” I know that I am unlikely to get a more precise answer than “very common”. What intrigues me is how long such schools have been a feature of our education system.

The first point is that they have existed since at least the early sixties, before comprehensives had even became widespread. The first reference I can find to such a school is that of Risinghill which was established in 1960. Berg (1968) writes a glowing review of a school serving the deprived based on principles she finds agreeable. The headmaster, Michael Duane:

  • announced to the children there would be no more corporal punishment
  • claimed “I personally have no time for punishment at all”
  • concluded the discipline problems were the fault of “second-raters” on the teaching staff who “did not know how to deal with children who are uninhibited and therefore a threat to the authoritarian standard”
  • refused to expel any child
  • did not support staff with disciplining the students

To him good teachers were the ones who “treat people [children] with respect, as friends”. “Humanist assemblies” and “child centred lessons” were introduced. Sex education became X-rated in its language and explicitness. A School Council was introduced.

In prize day speeches Duane declared:

“To measure a school by exam results is like estimating the quality of a man’s life by the number of calories he burns … They bear no relation to the real purposes of living… vigour.. spontaneity.. and a zest for life. These are important.”

and

“You cannot educate against the climate of opinion or attitude in the family, or neighbourhood or society.”

Despite the writer’s spin (apparently traditionalist teachers and unprincipled politicians are to be blamed for everything that went wrong at the school) it soon becomes clear that violent gangs formed among the pupils. Staff wouldn’t stay at the school and were often off sick. Inspectors found obscene graffiti, internal truancy, and unruly and uninterested children. Staff complained of having been attacked (including with a gun) and were often sworn at. One teacher, of the most liberal variety, describes a boy pulling a knife on her and a girl in a class being molested by a boy, with no punishment given (apparently this approach shows you are “a special kind of teacher”).

It is hard to read Berg’s account without concluding that she is describing the archetype for modern British schooling. However, this was not when such schools became normal. Risinghill became a national scandal and was closed down. Other comprehensives did not follow suit. Some schools that became comprehensives made a virtue of retaining a grammar school ethos, such as Highbury Grove Boy’s School. But over time things changed. Francis Gilbert’s two books (Gilbert 2004 and 2005) describe Battleground Schools in the early 1990s which, although not named, are easily identifiable. McNulty (2005) describes something similar, again dating back to the early nineties.

The creation of OFSTED led to the identification of failing schools, some, such as Hackney Downs and The Ridings became infamous. Others became infamous for other reasons, such as St Geroge’s in Westminster where the headmaster Philip Lawrence was murdered at the school gates before entering Special measures (I include St George’s despite it being a Catholic school as Stubbs (2003) suggests that at its low point it lost any Catholic ethos). These schools are, however, the extreme cases and can no more be considered to be representative of a wider class of schools than Risinghill was. What’s more indicative is Blum (1998) and Johnson (1999).

Paul Blum’s book is an excellent survival guide for teachers in Battleground Schools, or in his phrase “difficult classrooms”. In his introduction he describes the problems faced by teachers:

“There will often be situations in which they will be faced with defiance, aggression and verbal abuse… [and] low-level energy-sapping daily routines in which they struggle to get the pupils to stop talking and actually listening to what they are saying.”

The success of this book (I recently saw large numbers of copies in the library of a university well know for its teacher training, far more than any other behaviour book) suggests his advice is widely applicable and that challenging classrooms are very common indeed, but he nevertheless writes as if the “rough schools” he’s describing are only those schools “which [are] bottom or near the bottom of the examination league table in [their] local area”.

Martin Johnson’s book has a similar viewpoint, despite being written as a polemic rather than as advice. He describes perfectly life in a Battleground School, including the anarchy in the corridors and the hostility faced in the classrooms. Like Blum he condemns those who suggest that “good teaching” is a panacea to classroom chaos and claims that he is talking about a minority of schools. He identifies these as “schools for the underclass” and assumes they exist only as a result of deprivation.

So as I’ve said the battleground schools have existed for, five decades. However, for most of that time they seemed exceptional. By the nineties they were easily found and by the late nineties and this decade they were common enough for people to write books about them as if they were an unavoidable widespread feature of UK education system. All the tough schools I’ve worked in have had a history, passed on by the old hands, that explains when they become tough. The nineties and the turn of the twenty-first century figure prominently in those stories.

As I said, I am convinced that they have become the norm, that they are actually the bog standard, at least in England. A short scan of the British education blogosphere and teacher forums seems to confirm this impression. Many of the books I mentioned carefully tried to explain the exceptional nature of the experiences described, and carefully and sympathetically explained the plight of the urban poor. By 2006 no such niceties were necessary, teachers were willingly buying a book, with a cover that stated:

“The kids are thick, the parents are scum, there’s drugs everywhere and half the girls are giving birth.”

Chalk (2006)

The Battleground school has now taken over.

References

Berg, Leila, Risinghill:Death of a Comprehensive School, 1968, Penguin Books

Chalk, Frank, It’s Your Time You’re Wasting, 2006, Monday Books.

Gilbert, Francis, I’m a Teacher Get Me Out Of Here, 2004, Short Books

Gilbert, Francis, Teacher On The Run, 2005, Short books.

Johnson, Martin, Failing Schools, Failing City 1999, Jon Carpenter

McNulty, Phil, Extreme Headship, 2005, Trafford

Stubbs, Marie A Head of The Class, 2003, John Murray

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The Driving Lesson Revisited

May 12, 2008

Before you read this have a look at The Driving Lesson dialogue which featured in my blog in November 2007. It was well received at the time and I revisit it now because it, and the reaction to it, illustrates some of the recurring themes of this blog.

Firstly (as you may have noticed), I have often explained that the behaviour of learners in our schools is terrible. Arguing over where to sit, blaming the teacher for poor achievement, refusing to listen and all the time arguing with the teacher is not just commonplace, but actually routine in many classrooms. I have seen it in the schools I have worked in and many teachers who read the story of the Driving Lesson responded to say they recognised it too. In fact the behaviour is worse than terrible it is absurd. It doesn’t consist simply of silly, childish behaviour or, to borrow a phrase, “low-level disruption”. It has reached the point of a ritual conducted out of habit no matter how inappropriately. For this behaviour to exist widely it is not enough for us to assume that children are simply awkward at times, or that teachers haven’t persuaded them to appreciate the benefits of an education. We have to accept that the education system has initiated them into bizarre patterns of behaviour. Arguing for five minutes over where you are going to sit is as pointless in a classroom as in a car. A couple of the teachers who contacted me about The Driving Lesson asked permission to use it as a role-play with their students in the hope that it may bring home to them the ridiculous nature of their behaviour.

Secondly, a major consideration in that behaviour is the belief on the part of students that teachers are to be held responsible for the students’ behaviour and effort. This is not at the basic level of expecting teachers to enforce the rules and spell out what is required for students. It has reached the point where a student can choose to break the rules, or choose not to work, and then tell any teacher who confronts this behaviour that they are at fault. This spills out from accusations into verbal abuse and even violence.

Finally, although large numbers of teachers can recognise the behaviour described there is another possible reaction to the story of the Driving Lesson; denial. When the original website that my blog was hosted on ceased to exist I looked into moving it to one of the top education sites in the UK. I was told

I’d be interested in publishing your blog, but it would need to be firmly focused upon education, so although I really enjoyed the driving school piece, it isn’t really suitable for [us].

Unbelievably, there are people in the wider field of education who are simply oblivious to how children are behaving in our schools. The web journalist quoted above is merely the tip of the iceberg. A far more important denial of the realities of behaviour in secondary schools is the following:

… most schools successfully manage behaviour to create an environment in which learners feel valued, cared for and safe … in our experience, where unsatisfactory behaviour does occur, in the vast majority of cases it involves low level disruption in lessons. Incidents of serious misbehaviour, and especially acts of extreme violence, remain exceptionally rare and are carried out by a very small proportion of pupils.

Steer (2005)

This quotation is from the Introduction to the Steer Report a review of behaviour in schools commissioned after school discipline became an issue during the 2005 general election campaign. It was put together by a team of headteachers, school managers, an OFSTED official with responsibility for behaviour, and various union representatives. Somehow the behaviour that is so commonplace that I could satirise it in my blog, because I could be sure teachers would recognise it, exists in a world that the leading lights of the educational establishment are unaware of.

I tend to see denial as emanating from the education establishment and the associated education bureaucracies, rather than the politicians. But what I want to see as soon as possible is a politician willing to face up to the truth on education, and say about the education system what John Reid (whatever happened to him?) said about the Home Office, that it’s “not fit for purpose”.

References:

Alan Steer (chair), Learning Behaviour: The Report of The Practitioners’ Group on School Behaviour and Discipline, DFES

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God

May 3, 2008

Form time. Not long ago.

“This is boring. I hate form time” said Ryan.

“It’s St George’s Day today” I replied, changing the subject.

“What?” asked Ryan, “Who’s St. George?”

“He’s the Patron Saint of England” replied Jade. “He fought a dragon”

“Here, let me put his Wikipedia page on the whiteboard” I said, “There you go, it says he is also the patron Saint of Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia,”

“This is boring” said Ryan.

“He was a Greek speaker but was born in a place that is now in Turkey” I said.

“Why don’t we have our own saint?” asked Holly.

“It’s typical” complained Julie. “We always have to put up with all these foreigners”.

Ibrahim and Mohsin look uncomfortable. Yusef doesn’t react as his English isn’t good enough to have picked up on what was said.

“I don’t think that’s terribly fair”, I said.

“Is he real?” said Holly.

A short conversation starts up quietly in the back of the room about whether dragons exist. Somebody claims they have them in China, but then looks embarrassed.

“We’re not sure if he existed, but obviously he didn’t really fight a dragon” I said.

“This is all nine thousand years ago” shouted Ryan. “This is boring”.

“It’s not nine thousand years ago” yelled Jade, “That would be before Christ”

“What I don’t understand” said Julie, “is how there can be people before Christ”.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well if God made the world, how come there were people and dinosaurs before Christ?”

“There’s a difference between the birth of Christ and the creation of the world.”

“Yeah” interrupted Jade, “But how come there were dinosaurs before Christ?”

“Like I said, the birth of Christ isn’t when the world began. The world had already been around for a while.”

“But how come there were dinosaurs millions of years before?”

“Sorry, what are you asking? I don’t see why there can’t be dinosaurs before Jesus. Christians believe Jesus was born a long time after people first appeared”

“No, you’re not listening” said Jade rudely, “how come there were dinosaurs before there were people?”

“I’m not sure what you are asking. Why shouldn’t there be dinosaurs before there were people?”

“I mean if God created the world, how come the world and dinosaurs existed before there were people?” asked Jade.

“I’m still not sure what you mean. Are you asking about the story of Adam and Eve and asking how, if God created people at the start of the universe then how could dinosaurs have existed for thousands of years beforehand?”

“Who’s Adam and Eve?” said Ryan.

“You know, from the book of Genesis”, I said.

“What’s the Book Of Genesis”, said Ryan.

“The first book of the Bible” I said.

“The Bible’s boring” said Ryan.

“Sir, sir” interrupted Jade. “I’m not talking about that. I just don’t see how God can have created the Earth if there weren’t people until millions of years after the Earth was created.

“Hang on”, I said as the penny dropped. “Do you think God is a person?”

“God’s boring” said Ryan. “I hate God”.

“Yes.” Said Jade,

“I think you’ll find people don’t think God is a person like that.”

Ibrahim and Mohsin are now rolling their eyes.

“Then why do you see pictures of him” said Julie.

“What pictures?” I said.

“You know. He has a big white beard.”

“Oh” I said. “I don’t think that’s how Christians, or other people who believe in God, actually think of God”.

“This is boring” said Ryan.

Then I paused.

“You are in year eight. You have been doing RE for a year and a half, just at this school. Why are you are asking me this? Why not your RE teacher?”

“We don’t learn anything in RE” complained Julie.

“The teacher’s boring” said Ryan “I hate him”.

“We just did one religion for ages.” This was Connor’s first contribution to the discussion.

“What religion?” I asked.

“The Muslim one” said Julie.

“No we didn’t” said Ibrahim. “We only did it for a week”.

“Wait.” instructed Jade. “What about Adam and Eve then? How come there were dinosaurs?”

“Well I said, not every Christian thinks the story of Adam and Eve is literally true. For instance the biggest Christian denomination is Roman Catholicism, and the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope…”

“The Pope’s boring” interrupted Ryan

“…has said that evolution is more than a theory”

“I think Buddhism is the true religion” said Julie.

“Do you know anything about Buddhism?” I asked.

“No” said Julie.

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