Archive for November, 2006


The Behaviour Management Database

November 30, 2006

OFSTED had committed Stafford Green to improving the “small amount of unacceptable behaviour”. Bob, the Head, decided to turn to technology for a solution.

Well I say a solution. Perhaps a “cost free activity that can be listed on forms to create the impression of action” would be a better description. Kevin, a member of middle management, had brought the “Behaviour Management Database” with him from his previous school. It wasn’t copyrighted and could be run using software the school already had access to. The idea was that all disciplinary incidents would be logged in the database, along with the action taken (chosen from Detention, contacting parents, and referring it on to a variety of the usual suspects). Once recorded the records were available to all, so tutors could monitor their students and any action taken after a referral would also be logged on the database. This replaced an informal system of emails and private conversations that had previously been used to refer incidents. Detentions were still to be organised by the teacher issuing them, using the database to organise them would have been a step too far for Bill.

The following term the system was launched. First, in one or two departments, then across the school. To begin with staff were delighted that there was something being done about behaviour. Within a month it became clear that logging detentions made very little difference. In fact as it was setting a detention meant writing a detention slip for the student, making your own record of it, writing another detention slip when they didn’t turn up, making your own record of that, informing your Head of Department that they had missed it a second time, writing another slip for your Head of Department and passing it on to a form tutor or some similar combination of futile tasks. This process was not helped by having to log the detentions, and missed detentions, in the Behaviour Management Database and so staff stopped using it for detentions and only used it for referrals – which would usually have to be typed out for emails anyway. It became in effect an ongoing log of serious incidents that was then used to judge which year heads were doing a good job or not.

During the summer holidays I ran into Kevin in school. He told me that he was steering clear of doing anything more to develop the Behaviour Management Database. Apparently the way Bob was using it was creating resentment among middle managers and for the sake of his career he needed to disassociate himself from it.

At the start of the next term I was surprised to hear Bob describing it as the Behaviour Monitoring Database rather than the Behaviour Management Database. Moreover the “follow up” option had mysteriously disappeared. The system could tell you what students had done but not what had been done about it. No record existed of any actions taken by anybody other than the class teacher. It became nothing more than a record of serious incidents, useful to the Head when trying to refer students to outside agencies, completely without advantage for dealing with individual incidents of poor behaviour. I found this out to my cost when I reported an assault on me using the system and nothing was done until he assaulted me a second time and I went to the Deputy Head and demanded action. The action consisted of a brief warning, which failed to prevent a third assault on me.

There are two lessons to be learnt from the saga of the database. The first is one that I had already learnt from Woodrow Wilson school: there is no point having systems for recording incidents if nothing is done about them. The second lesson is more interesting. The database provides an accurate record of how bad a student can be in a British secondary school and still be allowed to attend.

The worst offenders for the two terms before I left the school were:

Jack Kelps (Year 8): 96 incidents of which 16 were verbal abuse of staff.
Kieran Smith (Year 7): 77 incidents of which 20 were verbal abuse of staff.
Kieran Kennings (Year 8): 75 incidents of which 12 were verbal abuse of staff.

Now remember that this is for two terms, less than 150 days of school. Also remember that by this point staff had long since stopped logging minor incidents and so every single incident involves at the very least the sort of disruptive behaviour that requires a student be removed from the classroom. Year 7 are aged from 11-12 and Year 8 from 12-13 but because of the time of year most incidents would have occurred while they were at the lower end of that age range. None of these three were permanently excluded – the LEA had virtually eliminated permanent exclusions. Also pupils were taught mainly in their tutor groups, so sach child’s incidents would have taken place within the same class in front of the same small audience, (the two year 8’s were actually in the same tutor group). Now imagine the effect that sort of concentrated poor behaviour has on the students that witness it. Now imagine your child was a student in that class, and you could have sent them there secure in the knowledge that OFSTED had declared it to be a very good school with a small amount of unacceptable behaviour. Is this a system fit for your child? Or for that matter is it fit for the teaching staff on the receiving end of almost fifty incidents of verbal abuse a term, just from these three boys?


A Brief History of Education Part 2: The 1944 Education Act

November 26, 2006

In order to explain the system we now have I intend to start looking where it came from. State secondary education is relatively new to Britain. For much of the nineteenth century there was limited provision of any state education at all. Most schools were private or run by Churches and religious societies. The state could assist in providing education (including funding religious societies), but wouldn’t provide it directly. Gradually its influence grew. In 1839 HMI was created. Public funding for schools and compulsory education until the age of twelve were introduced in the 1870s under the authority of school boards. Fees for elementary schools were removed in 1891. In 1902 school boards were replaced with Local Education Authorities under the control of county and borough councils who were also able to fund church schools. For most of the first half of the twentieth century the education system consisted of all age elementary schools but with what we’d today consider to be secondary education reserved for the minority. This minority attended private grammar schools. As well as those paying to attend them there were a proportion granted scholarships to attend, first under the 1907 Free Places Scheme that funded the most able students regardless of background and later (in 1932) the means tested Specialist Places Scheme.

The 1944 Education Act sought to provide education for all, from the ages of 5-14 (to be raised to 15 in the next few years). Secondary education was to begin at the age of 11. It also created the system by which there was a ministry responsible for schools but they were administered by Local Education Authorities (LEAs). The curriculum, the dates of term, the length of the school day, remained under local control. The Act also created provision for Church Schools, which were to be brought into the state system under a number of arrangements, there running costs being met by LEAs but retaining control of religious education in the curriculum.

Although not required by the Act the grammar schools were to be preserved by the development of a “Tripartite” system in which students were to be placed in three types of schools. In addition to the grammars there were to be technical schools and secondary modern schools. Grammars schools were to take the most able 20% of the population (identified by the 11-plus exams) and were better funded than the other schools and more of their teachers had degrees. Technical schools were originally meant to provide for a similar proportion of the population but in practice never accounted for more than a few percent of the school population, less even than those remaining in unreformed elementary schools. Access to higher education was limited largely to grammar school students and a handful of students from technical schools.

The Act was at least partly inspired by Plato’s view of men of gold, silver and bronze and over the years that followed became widely seen as perpetuating class divisions by providing huge variations in educational opportunities. Sure enough the grammars remained overwhelmingly middle class with the proportion of working boys entering grammar schools actually falling after the 1944 Act. Moreover working class children, particularly girls, were far more likely to leave grammar schools early for working life. Different LEAs used difference entrance criteria but many adopted forms of intelligence testing – assuming that intelligence was fixed and measurable to the point where a persons potential was predetermined by the age of 11. Multiple injustices became apparent. Grammar school places were largely fixed meaning that difficulty of entrance to a grammar school varied according to how many children were in a particular cohort. Many LEAs wished to have equal numbers of boys and girls entering grammars, resulting in a higher level of academic being required for girls than boys. The proportion of grammar school places and the level of ability required to enter them also differed between LEAs. The arbitrary nature of testing for grammar schools became a source of resentment.

These forces eventually saw the grammar system replace largely by the comprehensive system we have today. However we still have a considerable legacy from the 1944 Act. A few LEAs remain committed to the selective model. Many more while mainly having comprehensives still have a few grammar schools. While there are less than two hundred grammar schools they dominate state school entrance to top universities and remain contentious. Moreover the experience of grammar school has shaped our education landscape. Any proposal to provide different education to children of different abilities, and any diversity in schooling is condemned as a return to selection. Many people who are discontent with the current education system see a return to selection as the answer. I would not join them. The injustices of the system are clear. We do not need a highly educated minority, we need a high standard of education for all. A two tier system would be even more untenable now that it was. Selection created not just an elite of students but an elite of teachers too. It is simply not credible to believe we could once more re-divide the teaching profession and a wider society along those old fault lines. It is tempting only because our current system is failing to the extent that teachers and parents will always look for an alternative. Instead of designing an escape route for a small minority of teachers and students, we should be looking at saving all students and all teachers from what secondary education has become.


Chitty, Clyde, Education Policy in Britain, PalGrave Macmillan, 2004
Fitz, John; Davies, Brian and Evans, John. Education Policy and Social Reproduction, Routledge, 2006
Lawton, Dennis, Education and Labour Party Ideology 1900-2001 and Beyond, RoutledgeFalmer, 2005
McKenzie, Janet, Changing Education: a Sociology of Education Since 1944, Pearson Education Limited 2001,

Efforts to start a discussion on this entry have been made on INFET (Blog Update) by me and by somebody else on the Reading Reform Foundation Message Board


The Anonymous Questionnaire: Part 2

November 21, 2006

“Would you mind having a chat about your behaviour questionnaire?” asked Neville, the assistant head at Woodrow Wilson School.“When you’ve got a minute”.

I readily agreed, although it did strike me odd that he wanted to talk about an anonymous questionnaire. It had asked for the department, and my handwriting is quite distinctive. I hadn’t held back. I’d long since decided I’d be leaving the school at the end of the year. Although I liked the other teachers in my department I couldn’t stand the Senior Management Team, and wasn’t keen on several of the Year Heads, for the simple reason that they would blame the teacher (or even the whole department) whenever discipline was a problem. My decision to leave had already been made by this time. In fact it had been made when I discovered that the Head had been telling at least one set of parents in my year 11 class that it was my fault their son was refusing to do his coursework or his homework.

With nothing to lose there was very little detail missing on the questionnaire. I had mentioned the year groups where all referrals went missing, Gemma in Year 8, Mary in Year 9, not to mention Roger the Head of Year 11 the previous year who had waited for the students to leave in June before returning referrals dating back to November for which no action had been taken. I had mentioned the detention policy (miss two detentions and you are excluded) that had been ignored. I had mentioned the shoddy treatment given to new teachers and to teachers in particular departments and the culture of blame in the school. I had mentioned that members of SMT didn’t even enforce their own policies or keep their promises.

Neville had been slightly more reliable as a Year Head (prior to his promotion) than many of his colleagues so I hoped he would be reasonable. Within a day or two I made it to my appointment in his office.

“The problem is that in some years students don’t do detentions. We have a policy that says if they miss the detention twice they are excluded. However last year some students missed seven or eight detentions and there was nothing done when this was repeatedly referred and those students became uncontrollable. This year the maths department have been monitoring referrals for the last month. Gemma has not returned any referrals at all out of the thirty the department have sent her in this time. Not one. Mary has returned only one or two, all without action being taken. You only get action from Gemma by confronting her. Even that doesn’t work sometimes, when one of her year group was disrupting my lesson she arranged for a chat between me and the girl and then spent that time asking the girl why she didn’t like me.”

“Well”, said Neville, “I can look into that. Let me know next time a referral doesn’t result in action. Now can you tell me what your department has done to support you.”

And so the quizzing began. They wanted me to blame my own department. The department who had stuck by me as an NQT. The department who had shared in my misery as SMT undermined us again and again. Andy, the Head of Department, had been through hell. His response when I told him I was leaving was to say “I don’t blame you, I’m sick of the place too”. However nobody could doubt his heart was in the right place although his health had given out – a particular problem in a school where supply staff couldn’t be retained. I defended him but it was pointless. He was their target and they were only interested in my problems in so far as they could undermine him. They even made it clear that they had studied every questionnaire from members of my department and identified who had written what from the handwriting.

A couple of days later I went to see Neville about the latest ignored referral to Gemma, one about Millie Lee Potter who had missed two detentions and therefore was meant to be excluded. It might not have helped that as I was explaining this Jake, another disgruntled member of my department, overheard and began yelling at Neville “Don’t get me started on Gemma, she’s completely useless” before detailing the three referrals of his Gemma had recently ignored. But Neville promised to look into it.

Later that day Gemma confronted me. She was my Year Head so it didn’t take long for the opportunity to arise.
“What did you tell Neville about this for?”
“He asked to be told about any referrals you failed to follow up.”
“I didn’t fail to follow this up. I spoke to Millie, she wasn’t in school the day of the detention.”
“Yes she was. I’m her form tutor I should know. I wouldn’t have referred it otherwise”
“Well she said she wasn’t”.
“It wasn’t true. And this is the third time she has done this since term began, and you haven’t followed the school policy once.”
“Well you are entitled to your opinion and I am entitled to mine.”
Neville caught up with me later:
“I spoke to Gemma. She didn’t exclude Millie because Millie had been away.”
“That’s what she told me. However it isn’t the case. Also she hasn’t acted on Jake’s referrals either.”
“She explained her reasons for that too”.
“But she hasn’t acted on a single referral from my department all term”.
“Well if you have a problem with a referral, come and tell me”.
“But I just did.”

Later Peter, another member of my department told me the facts:

“A couple of years ago I used to drink in the Metropolitan Arms. Gemma was always in there. Along with Neville. And Mary. And Gary, the Head. It was Gary’s little fan club, That’s why they all got promoted so quickly. They’ll stick together.”

“I’m so glad I’m going.” I replied. ”I can’t wait until next year and the chance to start at a normal school. I can’t wait until I move to Stafford Grove.”

(Incidentally the other anonymous questionnaire, the one that went to students, discovered that overwhelmingly they were fed up of having their lessons disrupted. Questionnaire after questionnaire asked for stricter punishments, stricter teachers and the removal of those students who stopped them working. I always think of this when teachers blame all students in a school for the poor standard of behaviour. Very often what seems like the majority is actually a small minority. There’s a big difference between a school with challenging students and a challenging school.)


A Brief History of Education. Part 1: Educational Thought

November 17, 2006

Many of the greatest figures of English and world culture, after all, were subjected to precisely the kind of rigid educational disciplines that so offend contemporary educationists. Conversely, we have hardly lived through a new Renaissance of creative endeavour since the elevation of creativity to its pedestal in British education; on the contrary, our culture is atrophying beneath the weight of the second- and third-rate. The idea that education is all about releasing what is already within the child has a long history, as will be discussed later. But education relies on input. The very word `education’ is commonly misconstrued to come from the third conjugation Latin verb `educo’, meaning `to lead out’. But it doesn’t. It comes instead from an entirely different first conjugation verb: `educo’ meaning `to educate’ or `to put in’. An elementary knowledge of Latin verb stems informs one of this fact. But then teaching Latin verb stems hardly complies with the contemporary prohibition against `useless’ facts.

Phillips (1996)

One way of looking at education is as a battle of ideas. I have already discussed the aims of education, here I discuss the means, and the differing viewpoints that shape contemporary education. Sometimes this is seen as a conflict between traditionalists and progressives. I prefer to see it as a conflict between those who wish education to be rigorous and structured and those who wish it to be undemanding and ill-defined.

The following is intended as a guide to the educational ideas that are shaping our current climate. As a result I have left out many major thinkers (for instance Arnold) and ideas that no longer seem to have influence.

The Classical Inheritance. Two ideas that are still influential from can be traced back to Plato (and by extension Socrates). The first of these is the concept of a Socratic Dialogue: a discussion led by a “wise man” who leads the enlightenment of another (less wise) individual through a process of questioning. The second idea (from The Republic) is the idea of human race composed of men of gold, silver and bronze – different classes of human beings deserving of a different type of upbringing and a different role in society. This idea was mentioned explicitly in the 1944 Education Act, but is also implicit in many current ideas, particularly those that seek to separate academic and vocational education.

Rousseau and Human Nature. From the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau we have the idea that human beings are by nature good and corrupted by society. The implication of this (explored by Rousseau himself in Emile) is that education seeks not to conform students to society but to liberate them. Teachers are no longer experts in instructing children with their knowledge, but guides who manipulate a child with the aim of creating a self-governing individual.

Child Centred Learning. This is a recurring theme of “progressive” thought in education, clearly owing much to Rousseau but also to Dewey, and to Neill’s Summerhill School. In essence the child is to direct their own education, teachers are reduced to being facilitators. This approach has often been discredited by the fact it doesn’t work at all with ordinary kids. An excellent case study can be found in Gretton et al (1976). However wherever there exist teachers who do not wish to, or cannot, teach then the ideas reappear.

Discovery Learning. The idea that students should discover knowledge for themselves is often associated with Bruner, a psychologist, who in challenging earlier psychological theories (eg. those of Piaget), emphasised developing understanding and exploring general principles. However, Bruner never imagined the extremes to which discovery would be seen as a substitute for teaching or for rigorous learning,. For instance he acknowledged that “computational practice may be a necessary step toward understanding conceptual ideas in mathematics” a far cry from the advocates of “the New Maths” who declared that even in the case of students who had failed to learn basic mathematical methods “further efforts towards mastering computational skills are counter productive” (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, quoted in Sykes (1995)). The classic example of discovery learning taken too far is the replacement of phonetic teaching of literacy with the “real books approach” in which children were meant to discover how to read by looking at books.

Affective Learning. A fashionable idea in America now being forced on us here, suggesting that how students feel about learning and about themselves is at least as important as what they learn. Perhaps the key text in this is Holt (1969) who argued that students felt afraid while in school, largely due to a fear of failure. The legacy of this can be seen in the often expressed belief that self-esteem is key to many educational problems, usually in direct contradiction to the evidence gathered by psychologists (Emler (2001)) and also in a belief in “cooperative learning” – (group work).

Learning Styles. Originally this simply concerned the fact that students learn through Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic means (VAK) and the fairly sensible suggestion that teachers should attempt to use all three. However at some point this suggestion has become conflated with Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences – a description of different intellectual capacities. Gardner explicitly stated that his intelligences were not learning styles (Gardner 1983). Somehow it has nevertheless become the accepted wisdom that each intelligence is also a learning style. Kinaesthetic learning (learning by doing) has been conflated with “bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence” (the intelligence manifested in bodily actions like dancing) while other intelligences have been turned from the ability to master a domain, to a way of learning material from any domain, leaving Gardner all but despairing at the misuse of his ideas in his most recent book on the topic (Gardner (1999)).

Assessment For Learning. AFL or Formative Assessment is the subject of an ever-growing series of pamphlets and books. The first pamphlet on the topic, Black et al (1998) was little more than an argument for more research into teaching methods (with the inevitable suggestion that more resources and less formal assessment will be necessary in order to achieve full benefits from such research). However, more recent material (Black et al, (2003)) includes far more details of Formative Assessment and how it works. Teachers should assess what pupils know and use it to decide what to teach. Questioning and feedback should be used extensively, pupils should be familiar with assessment criteria and targets should be given priority over grades. Some writers and educational commentators (for example, Lee (2006)) have attempted to use AFL (with its suggestions of peer assessment and self assessment) as a Trojan horse for group work and child centred learning.

School Improvement. Roughly speaking School Improvement, and its predecessor School Effectiveness, is the radical idea that schools should be trying to become better and possibly even be good. In theory this means lots of innovation and a culture of improvement (Harris (2002)). In practice it means a tiny number of schools improving and most schools doing what they’ve always done but with some new paperwork and maybe even a few extra meetings. There is some controversy (see Mortimore et al (1997)) as to whether improvement is possible if the students in the school are poor, but generally it is felt that it is in theory possible to improve schools.

My own view is that those methods that seek to improve the amount of knowledge learnt and the effectiveness of teaching and schools (such as Assessment for Learning, School Improvement and even Socratic Dialogue) make a positive contribution to education although at times they merely state the obvious. Those ideas that emphasise students’ understanding and emotions (Child Centred Learning, Discovery Learning, Affective Learning) amount to little more than the idea that students need not be taught in order to learn.

Two excellent polemics about these methods, one British, one American, are Phillips (1998) and Sykes (1996). More could be said about the way that ideas are turned and corrupted. Learning styles (and multiple intelligences) moved from being helpful observations to being entirely unhelpful suggestions of teaching practice. Assessment for Learning appears to be undergoing a similar transition. Teaching appears to be an environment where bad ideas will always reappear with new guises.


Black, Paul and William, Dylan, Inside the Black Box, nferNelson, 1998
Black, Paul; Harrison, Christine; Lee, Clare; Marshal, Bethan Marshall and William, Dylan, Assessment for learning, Putting it into Practice, Open University Press, 2003
Emler , Nicholas , Self-Esteem: The Costs and Causes of Low Self-worth, YPS, 2001
Bruner, Jerome, The Process of Education, Harvard University Press, 1960
Dewey, J. Democracy and Education. An introduction to the Philosophy of Education, (1966 edn.), New York: Free Press, 1916
Gardner, Howard, Frames of Mind, Fontana Press, 1983
Gardner, Howard, Intelligence Reframed, Basic books, 1999
Gretton, John and Jackson, Mark, William Tyndale, Collapse of a School – or a System?, George Allen & Unwin (Publishers) Ltd, 1976
Harris, Alma, School Improvement: What’s in it for Schools?, Routledgefalmer, 2002
Holt, John, How Children Fail, Penguin, 1969
Lee, Clare, Language for Learning mathematics, Assessment for Learning in Practice, Open University Press, 2006
Mortimore, Peter and Whitty, Geoff, Can School Improvement overcome the Effects of Disadvantage?, Institute of Education, 1997
Neill, Alexander, Summerhill School, Saint Martin’s Press, 1996
Phillips, Melanie, All Must Have Prizes, Time Warner, 1998
Plato, The Republic.,
Rousseau, Emile.
Sykes, Charles J., Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, or Add, Saint Martin’s Press, 1996


The Anonymous Questionnaire: Part 1

November 14, 2006

I asked Millie where her homework was. She answered “Up Jack’s arse, having a cello lesson”.

Referral on Millie Lee Potter from Woodrow Wilson School

Towards the end of my time at Woodrow Wilson School, SMT noticed that there was a bit of a discipline problem at the school. To this day I don’t know what tipped them off. It could have been the race riot. It might have been the racial assault that led one boy to be hospitalised with head injuries. It could have been the fact that some students wouldn’t come to lessons in the afternoon even when the Head had ventured out in person and directly instructed them to go in. (“Don’t worry, it’s only the Head” they said.)

I know which incidents didn’t tip them off. The bolted door smashed open in the Maths department in front of a room full of teachers didn’t give it away. The time a new teacher in the Geography department was spat on by Millie Lee Potter in his first week at the school didn’t signal anything to management. The Language class that walked into their lesson, turned over all the tables, and walked out into the corridor, wasn’t the clue either. Nor was the girl from my own form group who called me a dickhead when I politely asked her to stop interrupting me.

I know that none of these incidents had influenced management because all of these incidents involved Year 8 students. It had taken a little while for me to notice, but all incidents involving Year 8 were written down according to the school’s behaviour policy, sent to Gemma the Head of Year 8 as required and then they were either ignored, or they resulted in Gemma “having a word” with the child. “Having a word” seemed to involve the child telling Gemma that the teacher was at fault (sometimes in front of the teacher) and Gemma all but agreeing but asking the child to be nicer in future. The net result was that Year 8 did what they liked most of the time. They were behind the race riot. They were the ones that wouldn’t go into lessons. They were also the year group that for several days dared each other to verbally abuse teachers. (My colleague, Bill The Atheist, was called a wanker three times in one day.)

I was a year 8 form tutor and developed my own technique for dealing with the year group. I would follow the school discipline policy for anything I cared about. Then when it got to Gemma or her assistant year head (who changed every year) I would argue and get angry and threaten to contact my union (which sometimes I did) until they did their job. This seemed to work and even Millie Lee Potter (who was in my form group) usually did what I said. Other teachers weren’t so lucky. Referrals for Millie – for things that obviously deserved exclusion – were sent to me in the first instance and then passed on and ignored by Gemma. I know that she didn’t even read the referrals because after the first eight or nine times where I wrote “Form Tutor Action: have spoken to Millie about the incident. Referred to Head of Year” I got a bit fed up and began testing to see if my comments were being read. She never commented when I wrote “Form Tutor Action: I have told Millie she is forbidden from doing anything bad ever again”. She never commented when I wrote “Form Tutor Action: I will pray for Millie’s soul”. No acknowledgement either when my action after Millie’s third referral of the week was to tell her “if you haven’t been excluded for this one then this school is even madder than you are”.

With this background I was delighted to hear that SMT had decided to take action on discipline. Their plan was to get both students and teachers to fill in an anonymous questionnaire asking how they felt about behaviour in the school and how it was dealt with. This was an excellent idea and I was delighted to write at length about how angry I was about Gemma and the way her year group were running riot with the school’s discipline policy being comprehensively ignored. Others in my department did likewise. This could be the first step towards dealing with the problem that was blighting life at the school, I thought.


(Incidentally Sally, the girl who called me a dickhead, was given an hour’s detention from me as a punishment and there was no action from Gemma. There was some panic when her Dad insisted on meeting me and Gemma. We assumed he was going to dispute what had happened and insist his dear daughter couldn’t have been so rude. Far from it: “What I don’t understand is how she could have done this and not been excluded. We were going to send her to the Catholic school down the road. At least they’re serious about discipline.”)


Modern Education is Rubbish Part 3: Why Are Our Schools Failing?

November 13, 2006

We will start from a general presumption in favour of grouping according to ability or attainment unless a school can meet the heavy demands of a mixed ability approach. Every school needs to justify its approach to grouping pupils.

This entire blog is meant to be about what has gone wrong with our secondary schools. However before I go on I should sketch out roughly where the main problems lie. I will revisit most of these issues in more detail in the future. The following is meant to be a rough guide to how our system is currently set on failure.

The most pressing problem is behaviour. This has been an ongoing process, the law has changed to make it harder to punish, harder to exclude and harder to consider the interests of those who do behave. At the same time behaviour has not been addressed by those who shape our schools. There are still people with power and influence over education who see discipline as a minor problem caused by poor teaching rather than a constant hazard that is ruining the education of so many children. The net result is any number of schools where the standard of behaviour is set entirely by the pupils and the teaching staff are passive victims, powerless to change matters. This has been made worse by Inclusion, a deliberate policy of closing special schools, and forcing students into mainstream education. This has included many seriously disturbed children and other students who are completely unable to behave, and also students who cannot access any work thereby establishing in the minds of many students that learning and working are optional.

Next we can look at what Phillips (1998) called the “retreat from teaching”. Teaching no longer takes place as it used to, for the following reasons:

  • New teaching methods that emphasise discovery and cooperation
  • Behaviour that prevents conventional teaching
  • The use of mixed ability classes containing students with vastly different learning needs
  • The employment of teachers with poor subject knowledge

These factors have made many classrooms a teaching-free zone. It is no longer taken for granted that a teacher is an expert who is there to give direct instruction to students who will be all be ready to learn at a similar level. Appeasement of the most disruptive students, entertainment and “activities” are the basis of much modern pedagogy. The mixed ability classroom ensures that some students will understand nothing and others will find the material covered trivial. Some pressure to ensure learning takes place has been added in the form of tests and assessments. However these only cover a limited number of subjects and are generally treated with disdain by the educational establishment. Teachers in the subjects that are tested have to teach students who have done no learning at all in many of their other subjects.

Next we have the way schools are managed. Communication within schools is limited and informal. Information isn’t shared, convention governs decisions, and the appearance of action is prized more importantly than action. Communication between schools and other bodies takes place through the medium of paperwork, documentation is more important than achievement. Unfortunately this approach extends to the funding of schools leaving massive disparities in funding between schools based on the ability of management teams to chase funding and fill in forms. The basic requirements of school organisation, timetabling and setting, are done in a haphazard and ill-considered way. The logistical organisation of up to a thousand people would in most walks of life require specialists trained in operational research and administration. In schools timetablers can be trained in a couple of days, and setting is done without any training at all. It is commonplace to assume that egalitarian ideology is the reason why mixed ability teaching has taken hold in our schools. A more practical explanation is the simple fact that ordering students effectively according to a variety of criteria is beyond the ability of many Heads of Department. Use of Microsoft Excel for this purpose might seem an incredibly primitive way to carry out this task, but even that will be beyond many teachers. Haphazard organisation within schools also helps create a confusion of responsibilities and a culture of blame, in which every task is the responsibility of somebody else, and every failure is the fault of somebody else. Inevitably blame trickles downwards with classroom teachers being blamed for almost everything.

Finally we have the wider picture of how education is run. Schools are run at arms length from government. Governments set the legislative framework and put out circulars to Local Authorities (formerly known as Local Education Authorities). This has led to a bizarre diffusion of power. Tricky technical issues are dealt with by government; the content of the curriculum, the legalities of selection, the types of schools allowed. In practice these are too complicated for politicians and are placed in the hands of quangos and civil servants. The important issues that affect our schools at the moment – the use of exclusions, the consequences of non-attendance, setting, discipline systems, inclusion/special needs education – are all left to individual schools and Local Authorities. According to Fitz et al (2006) Education minister, Fred Mulley “once mused that the only direct powers he could exert over schools was to order the dismantling of old air raid shelters in school playgrounds”. That’s not to say politicians are still entirely powerless, but their influence is so strained and indirect that it is entirely possible for politicians to fail for years to get what they want to actually happen in schools. The classic example would be Tony Blair’s expressed opposition to mixed ability teaching – the anonymous quote at the start of this entry was made by him in a speech in June 1996 at Didcot Girls School – which despite his ten years as Prime Minister still seems to have had little effect on our schools.

Blair, Tony, New Britain, Fourth Estate Limited, 1996
Fitz, John; Davies, Brian and Evans, John. Education Policy and Social Reproduction, Routledge, 2006
Phillips, Melanie, All Must Have Prizes,Time Warner, 1998


The SIG Group

November 9, 2006

The SIG Group at Stafford Grove school reflected its importance in its composition. It was lead by the most junior member of SMT, Joyce, the head of the sixth form. Each department was represented by the least important person from each department (providing they were a permanent full-time employee that had been there more than a week). For my department that meant me.

SIG stands for School Improvement Group. I guess this means that calling it the SIG Group is technically inaccurate. However the word “Improvement” in the title is not just technically inaccurate, but better described as screamingly, blatantly, dishonestly, staggeringly, inaccurate. The last thing we were meant to do is improve the school.

Why not? Well the main problem the school had (and OFSTED had confirmed this) was discipline. The main scope for improvement was also therefore discipline. The previous year, before I’d joined it, the SIG group had looked at discipline and concluded that it could be improved by photocopying a sheet called “How to catch them being good” and distributing it to staff. This somehow failed to do the trick against the rising tide of assaults on staff. So we had another look. We looked at detentions.

First it was pointed out that at some schools teachers didn’t have to organise their own detentions – thereby no longer penalising teachers for enforcing the rules.

“The Head won’t allow that”, Joyce pointed out.

Then it was raised that children don’t turn up for detentions. We did a survey of staff and discovered the attendance rate at detentions was under 50%. We suggested there should be some consequence for not turning up.

“The Head won’t allow that” said Joyce.

So now we’d got to the core of the problem. The only punishment we had was a strain on teachers and completely optional for students.

So we came up with something. We photocopied some sheets about how to do detentions and distributed them to the staff. Then we waited to see if that did the trick.

My feeling is that the problems I had in the next two weeks getting students off of the roof were enough to suggest it didn’t actually solve our problems.

At the end of the year our exam results went down by over 10%.

Now that was something the Head did allow to happen.


Modern Education is Rubbish Part 2: What Should We Be Trying To Do?

November 4, 2006

… If a healthy body is a good in itself, why is not a healthy intellect? and if a College of Physicians is a useful institution, because it contemplates bodily health, why is not an Academical Body, though it were simply and solely engaged in imparting vigour and beauty and grasp to the intellectual portion of our nature?

Newman (1873)

Most public services have a clear aim in mind. The police are meant to deal with crime and protect the public. The health service is meant to treat the ill and improve public health. The fire brigade are meant to put out fires. However the education system lacks a clearly defined aim. Yes, we know we are meant to educate the young, but there isn’t a consensus on what “educating” is and how we can tell when it’s been done. In particular the purpose of education is disputed. According to Brouillette (1996) there are four main schools of thought as to the purpose of education:

  1. Humanist. From this point of view the ends of education are cultural and education is a process by which we gain the skills and knowledge to be informed and rational citizens of our culture.
  2. Social Efficiency. This is where education equips us for gainful employment and therefore serves the economic interests of society.
  3. Developmentalist. Here, education develops our potential as individuals, those attributes that are desirable to possess regardless of culture and employment prospects. The ends of education are therefore largely personal.
  4. Social Meliorist. This approach highlights the social benefits of education. A Social Meliorist seeks to improve society, in particular to make it more just, through education.

What these approaches require in practice allows for a remarkable amount of overlap. I would argue that it is possible to define aims for learning that go a long way to meeting several of these purposes at once. A literate, numerate individual capable of self-control is required for both the Humanist and Social Efficiency approach. Any likely dispute between those two approaches is going to be over the point at which the skills and knowledge a student learns are to be specifically vocational rather than academic.

If students from the most deprived backgrounds are to be included among those educated to the point of being literate, numerate individuals capable of self control then many Social Meliorist aims would also be met. After all there are clear links between poverty and educational failure. However, while I am happy to see social improvement as being about ending poverty and the existence of an underclass plenty of people involved in education don’t. Philosophically, I’m a “Rawlsian” here and see social justice in the sense used by Rawls (1973) as improving the condition of the worst off (”levelling up”). A lot of the people with influence over education have a “levelling down” view of social justice where it is not enough to improve the lot of the worst off but it is also necessary to worsen the conditions of the better off, often by closing any school seen as offering an “unfair advantage”. However, I would argue that it is not the purpose of education to make any social group less advantaged in terms of learning anymore than it should be the purpose of the health service to make any social group less healthy.

That leaves the Developmentalist approach. Of course it could be argued that the aim of creating literate, numerate individuals capable of self-control meets the aim of helping individuals reach their potential. In practice most Developmentalist approaches would go further – defining potential by reference to a particular ideological view of human development. Some of these viewpoints can, like the more extreme Social Meliorist approaches, be dismissed as inappropriate for an education system aiming to serve all sectors of society including those that don’t share a particular ideology. However, there is still a large amount of room for debating the finer points of the question “what type of human being should education produce?”

I suggested before that if students were to leave school literate, numerate and capable of self-control then much of the purposes of education would be met. The question regarding what academic and vocational knowledge is required remain unanswered, as does the question of what other attributes we would want from the educated. However, if we look at the tough schools I have been talking about in in this blog we shouldn’t have to concern ourselves with these issues, because the schools are failing to meet even the minimum standards. We don’t need to consider whether French is more important than Latin, or whether biology is better for children than history for it to be possible to identify a failure in education where large number of those leaving the system are unable to read, write or behave like civilised human beings. It is from that point of view that I suggest our current education system is a failure, and discuss why that should be so and what can be done about it.


Brouillette, Liane. A Geology of School Reform, SUNY, 1996
Newman, John Henry, The Idea of a University, University of Notre Dame, 1982 (1873)
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice, Oxford, 1973

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