Archive for July, 2008

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Was It Always Like This?

July 26, 2008

Back here I explained that the earliest record I could find of the sort of school I’ve been writing about was in Berg (1968), an account of life at Risinghill, one of the first 1960s mixed comprehensives. There were tough schools before then, there always will be tough schools, but, as far as I could tell they weren’t tough because of the rejection of discipline and academic expectations.

The following quotation acknowledging how tough some schools are, written before the Battleground Schools came into being is from a noted educational philosopher:

Some schools, of course, are in such a sorry state that there is little more that can be done than to have policeman in to stop riots, caretakers to keep the place clean, doctors and dentists to look after physical health, and psychiatrically trained teachers to care for the `mental health` of the inmates and to do something about providing the `socialization` which they are so obviously lacking. The conditions of schooling and the attitudes of the inmates make talk of `education` almost as out of place as a fashion parade on a dung-hill. Teaching in such `blackboard jungle` types of institutions requires special gifts and probably special training. It is more like a commando operation than an educational exercise; for the problem is basically that of establishing conditions for normal education to take place. Even so it is remarkable what can be achieved by sympathetic and hard-headed teachers in such circumstances. Education is so much a matter of confidence and enthusiasm; words like `tone` and `spirit` are necessary to convey the feeling of the contagious atmosphere in which it can take root and spread. But there are some environments which ensure the contagion will not spread very far.

Peters (1966)

This might suggest a reference to Battleground Schools if the author hadn’t provided a couple of references to books about the schools he had in mind. Both are incredibly revealing about education in tough schools in the early 1960s.

The school referred to in the comment about “environments” where the “contagion” of learning will not spread is from Partridge (1966). This book has a similar thesis to Berg’s, that selection and corporal punishment must end to usher in a new age of socially just and emotionally sensitive education, replacing the brutality of existing schools and the monstrous teachers within. However, whereas Berg wrote about a clearly terrible comprehensive with a weak headteacher as if it was a utopia, Partridge writes about a rather impressive and well-run boys’ Secondary Modern as if it was hell on earth. Partridge’s school might have been tough in his view but his complaints that the discipline is too harsh, that too much effort is spent on the high achievers, and the curriculum is too academic, indicates that he is not talking about a forerunner to today’s Battleground schools. His first description of the children includes the following passage:

One of the duty teachers blows long and hard on his whistle: every boy on the playground “freezes”. On the second short blast they move to form columns along the edge of the playground and facing the teachers who stand or walk up and down in front of them. When every boy is in his class line they file off in turn into the School by a door leading into a main classroom block. Prefects stand at the door and pull a boy out if they think he is misbehaving. The boys pour into school and make for their classrooms, where their form teachers will be waiting to call the roll and collect dinner money. This takes perhaps five minutes and then the boys troop down to the hall for morning assembly, herded down by the prefects and the teachers like so many sheep.

A picture further removed from the chaos in the corridors of today’s schools is harder to imagine.

Peters’ other reference, this time corresponding to his comment about the remarkable achievements of “sympathetic and hard-headed teachers”, is Farley (1960). This is a superb read, which fits Peters’ description (the full title inside the front cover is “Secondary Modern Discipline With Special Reference To The Difficult Adolescent In Socially Depressed Industrial Areas”). Much of it could have been written today, for instance, the descriptions of appalling and criminal behaviour outside of the classroom. It is also hard not be initially disheartened by the author’s frequent suggestions that it is best to try and build relationships with difficult students which sounds like the failed strategies of today. However, it soon becomes clear that, while the children of the underclass may be much the same outside of lessons, what you can expect from them in classrooms has changed massively. His description of the favoured behaviours of a class “playing up for a teacher” runs as follows:

  1. Asking awkward questions – “Please, sir! What’s a harlot?”
  2. Banging furniture about, squeaking chairs, etc.
  3. Grinning insolently at the teacher.
  4. Making unpleasant smells.
  5. Making a noise by pretending to help – six boys dashing to pick up a book, knock over a desk and inkwell.
  6. Muttering under the breath.
  7. Making smart remarks.
  8. Refusing to take the cane (on the increase).
  9. Hiding equipment, chalk etc.
  10. Raucous laughter, jeering, moaning.
  11. Refusing to do work.
  12. Arguing and interrupting.
  13. Pulling faces.
  14. Annoying other boys in range – pins, kicks etc.
  15. Flicking pellets (a hardy annual).
  16. Unco-operative attitude when asked to do something.
  17. Threatening gestures and stances.

Now bear in mind that this is meant to be the worst behaviour a teacher might encounter, if they are new or really hated by the class. You may wish to compare it with my description of the equivalent situation today. Other advice also indicates the difference in expectations between now and then, such as a warning to watch out for “Insufficiency of rubbers [erasers] for drawing etc., necessitating communication between pupils”, or the suggestion that “If it is your bad luck to have a tough class, do not try and sit down and mark books, or lean on the radiator.”

As I said before, Farley’s repeated calls to understand and sympathise with troubled pupils might resemble some of today’s behaviour advisors. However, he makes it clear that his sympathy has limits, and these limits are narrowly drawn compared with today’s “anything goes” mentality of appeasement:

Talk to the class roughly on these lines: “Listen, lads, [he explains elsewhere in the book why mixed education is a bad idea] I’ve got a certain amount of work to get through and so have you. I’m not looking for trouble, neither am I going to avoid it. If you want to start irritating me, then you can hardly expect me to remain in a reasonably good mood. Don’t think that you’ve had a raw deal if you find yourself in a situation you don’t like. I’m not worrying you unless you force me to.” If after that “one of the boys” starts up again then say, “All right, Brown, go on, act like an infant and then when you’re treated like one you’ll start standing on your dignity and getting nasty. I don’t expect you to be an angel, or a statue, but if you can only learn the hard way, then that’s how it will have to be. Frankly I’d rather treat you like a growing man than a little school kid.” If he still continues, cane him good and hard! … Usually it won’t come to the level of caning Brown, but if you must cane him, do it, because if Brown gets away with it, the rest of the class, although probably liking you as a person, will not respect you as a teacher; in their eyes you are a weakling.

There is no escaping the conclusion that while students haven’t changed much in four decades, the expectations of schools and teachers have, and for the worse.

References

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

Farley, Richard, Secondary Modern Discipline With Special Reference To The Difficult Adolescent, 1960, Adam and Charles Black

Partridge, John, Middle School, 1966, Victor Gollancz Ltd

Peters, R.S. Ethics and Education, 1966, Allen and Unwin

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Pointing Out The Obvious

July 22, 2008

I often find myself defending what I write here, often from people who just don’t get it. It is particularly noticeable when I am told that what I see as the almost universal experience in tough schools is just a fluke, something that I must have stumbled upon that is actually very rare. Often it will be claimed that their own experience as part-time SENCO in a very challenging private Church Of England primary school in the home counties proves me wrong.

So, for the benefit of those who have never set foot in a tough secondary school classroom (or those who have but didn’t notice what was going on because they were a member of SMT), here is my list of ten things that you can’t have missed after a single term of teaching in a tough school, yet some people will still swear aren’t true:

  1. Kids don’t behave just because your lesson is interesting or well-planned, or because you are nice to them.
  2. Top sets, particularly in Key Stage 4, often behave badly.
  3. Punishment does work on 99% of kids. If you look closely at the kids who supposedly don’t respond to being punished, it almost always turns out they haven’t actually been punished very much.
  4. IEPs and other SEN information tell you nothing useful at all.
  5. When SMT say “come and see me if you have a problem with that” about something they’ve told you to do, they don’t mean it.
  6. Discipline has got worse since you were at school. By a factor of about 3000%.
  7. The kids don’t know things that they are meant to know.
  8. It is a lot easier to teach a class that has been set than a mixed ability one.
  9. The paperwork cannot possibly be done. No task is worth doing until somebody reminds you to do it.
  10. Some very stupid people are teachers.

Please feel free to suggest additions to the list.

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The Good Kids

July 13, 2008

A new Year 7 intake usually includes a large proportion of children who are intending to learn and behave. It’s a bit of a shock to stand in front of a shiny, fresh Year 7 class and see the attentive faces of The Good Kids all around the room. The proportion of Good Kids falls throughout their time in secondary school, until it is a tiny minority by the first term of year 11, when it may pick up again as the real world bears down on them and some of the worst students stop attending.

The process by which The Good Kids are weeded out begins almost immediately. Students are establishing themselves in a hierarchy almost as soon as they arrive. They quickly want to establish themselves as the coolest. In the first few weeks they may be under the impression that it might be cool to be the most academically successful child; to be captain of the football team; or to have a fifteen year old girlfriend and a Playstation 3. Soon it becomes clear that the coolest thing to be is an outlaw: somebody who wrecks lessons, tells teachers to fuck off and is known to all the adults in the school. Once this has become clear the alpha-males, and most of the alpha-females are lost from the ranks of The Good Kids, along with their followers. That’s not to say they all reach the extremes of poor behaviour, but they are desperate to avoid getting caught being good.

By year 8 they have firmly established their roles. Many may still want to learn, but only the chronically uncool respect authority. Their classes are still controllable, but the attitude within them is often negative, and teachers have to work to maintain a good working atmosphere, even in top sets. It is here that we get to see the Good Kid Glare. When a teacher spends time in a class re-establishing control The Good Kids who want to learn are left waiting. They won’t complain about waiting, but they will sit glaring at the teacher, the clear expression on their faces saying: “Why are we having to wait? Why can’t you just teach us?”

As hormones take effect on students and they move into Years 9 and 10, they become more and more preoccupied with how they are seen by their peers, and less concerned about how they are seen by their families and teachers. Even those who are committed to learning begin to change perspective. Some just become “one of the gang”, learning only secretly when the true authorities in the school won’t notice. Others decide that simply sitting glaring while waiting to be taught is not enough. They begin to see their willingness to learn to be something special, something to be rewarded. It will be withdrawn if they aren’t adequately praised or if they aren’t allowed to sit near their friends. Unfortunately when sat near their friends their interest in learning diminishes. They also become bored waiting to be taught and are more demanding of their teachers. They develop the expectation that if they are going to work then they should be sat at the front, they shouldn’t have to wait for the rest of the class to be cooperative, and if, every so often, they don’t feel like working then they might as well have a day off, as they are still doing a lot more than many of their peers. And every so often becomes more and more frequent.

In their own heads they still remain the Good Kids. Unfortunately, as you stand in front of them establishing order in the class they no longer glare at you in impatience. They stare at you in disbelief:

“Why is this teacher trying to get the whole class to learn? Doesn’t he realise we are the special ones? Why waste his time on those who don’t care? Why does he criticise us when we chat, or take a break? Doesn’t he realise we will do some of the work he gives us? What more does he want from us, other than a bit of neat work in most lessons? Does he actually expect us to listen? Why should we? Nobody else will. Why does he tell us to stop talking and listen? Why doesn’t he just set some work we already know how to do, and let us do it while we continue our conversation?”

And they will become as aggressive as any other child in their efforts to establish that the teacher has no right to expect anything more from the class than occasional bursts of effort by those who want to please. They chat continually; they often sulk when challenged, and they very often don’t work. And you stand at the front and you look from Good Kid to Bad Kid, and from Bad to Good and from Good to Bad again; but already it’s impossible to say which is which.

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Shoot The Messenger

July 6, 2008

Almost the last week of term. Almost the end. Year 11 have left. Year 10 are on work experience. The only cloud on the horizon is the redesign of the behaviour database. It’s new and improved but:

  • It doesn’t yet print out detention letters.
  • All the detentions in the old database have been cancelled.

Not surprisingly the kids have reacted by going a bit mad. Several year 7s I was teaching (in a class that is normally taken by another teacher) seemed determined to be removed from the classroom by refusing to stay in their seats or stop talking. According to the school rules I am obliged to give them several warnings and then email the Call-Out Staff (the people who patrol the corridors at the school) to have the students removed from the class. I did so and the Call-Out Staff didn’t respond (very unusual). After half an hour of waiting, and having had several subsequent emails also ignored, I sent an “all-staff” email:

Can somebody please check the Call-Out Staff, they don’t seem to be responding to emails.

There was no reply. I muddled through. At the end of the lesson a member of Call-Out Staff emailed apologising for having been unable to answer. I recalled my email so that anybody who hadn’t already read it wouldn’t receive it. Five minutes later, Duncan Brown, the Assistant Head in charge of inclusion emailed a reply to my email, carbon copied to SMT:

Mr Old

Why please have you sent this to “All staff”?

Additionally the “Call-Out team” do respond to emails but at present they are three members of staff down out of five. In future if you have a serious issue about a poor reaction time will you please contact me. If you are then unhappy about my response then please contact the Deputy Head in the first instance.

A little shocked, a little stressed, I replied:

I was not complaining about the reaction time, I was asking for help with a pressing problem.
I am used to Call-Out being too busy to collect. I am not used to having no response from Call-Out, no warning that there would be no response, and no response to emails to Call-Out asking about the problem. Therefore I hoped to contact any member of staff for immediate help with removing the students.

I have, of course, recalled the message now that I’ve had a response (although that did indeed take until the end of the lesson), but at the time I was being utterly prevented from teaching my lesson and the support that is normally provided and was urgently needed was not only unavailable, but nobody had even acknowledged to me the fact that it was unavailable. Moreover the complete lack of response to my all staff email would indicate that it was not widely known that Call-Out was unavailable either.

I am sorry if you interpret a member of staff calling for urgent help as a criticism. I suggest that any future incident can be avoided by informing staff in advance that they will not be able to use Call-Out, not 44 minutes after they request assistance.

The following day there was more from Duncan:

Mr Old

I take note of your comments but still insist that you contact me in the first instance if you perceive that there is a problem.

For your information the difficulty was that Paul Michelle was put onto the team at the last minute to man the “Call-out” room but having logged onto the computer, obviously as himself, was not part of the “Call-Out” distribution list and therefore was not receiving any “Call-Out” emails, either from you or any other members of staff.

As for “avoiding” this situation occurring again, it might still occur, because we are all affected by human error.

Can I again emphasize my earlier comments that you contact me if you have a problem in future. Can I suggest as an immediate solution that if you are faced with a similar difficult you might speak to a colleague in an adjoining room who might be able to support you immediately or send a messenger to student services or please contact me by on my mobile.

I replied:

I do not have a phone in my room. There are no adjoining classrooms and the only teacher on this floor of the building would have been a supply teacher.

I could, of course, contact reception or you, which I did by sending an All-Staff email. Given that neither you nor reception responded to my email (except in your case to criticise me for sending it) I fail to see what good this would have done. Given that contacting all logged-on members of staff yesterday resulted in no help at all I’m a little mystified how contacting less people would have made the situation any better. It wouldn’t have even lessened the amount of emails collecting in people’s inboxes because, of course, I recalled my email at the end of the lesson.

The only downside I can see to my email is that more members of staff found out that Call-out wasn’t functioning yesterday than was strictly necessary. Personally I find it useful to be informed when this is the case and am surprised that you consider it a priority to keep this from staff.

In future, however, when Call-Out fail to acknowledge my emails for 29 minutes I will send my requests for help to you, my faculty and the Deputy Head in the first instance. If this results in no resolution to the problem then I will assume that you would prefer it if I send an all staff email rather than leave the room myself, unless you wish to tell me differently.

I hope this has resolved the matter.

He hasn’t replied yet.

I don’t think my replies have done me any favours, but I do not want to stay at a school where you get blamed when you ask for help.

Another observation: For most of my time here Call-Out has been run by non-teaching staff and has worked really well. It is noticeable that its ineffectiveness, and attempts to conceal this ineffectiveness, began this month, when a member of SMT took over responsibility for running it.

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