The Culture of Blame

February 17, 2007


At Woodrow Wilson School it was a case of them and us. There was a split between the Senior Management Team and the ordinary classroom teachers. Middle management were similarly split, with the departmental staff largely on the side of the classroom teachers, and the year heads and assistant year heads mainly (but not excusively) on the side of SMT.

What the split meant in practice was that blame would be distributed away from management and year heads and to departments and classroom teachers. Nothing was the responsibility of management. Notes would appear in pigeonholes telling us what we crime we had most recently committed against the school, for instance: “there is a lot of litter around the school, you should be stopping this happening when on break duty”. The thought that a problem might be the fault of the students, or that management might be able to intervene to solve it, never occurred.

The worst burden fell on middle managers. They were repeatedly told that they were meant to be able to personally ensure order in their departments. How they were meant to oversee up to ten classes at a time, while teaching their own lessons was never made clear. Senior Management were meant to be responsible for removing disruptive students from a classroom, it was called “Senior Management Call Out” but as time went on the rules changed, and we were told that Heads of Departments were responsible for organising removals, even if they were teaching at the time. There was no restraint when it came to publicly blaming departments for problems, negative comments were often made about behaviour in my department at year briefings. Worse, it was declared at a meeting the term before an OFSTED inspection that if the school didn’t pass it would be the fault of my department.

Because classroom teachers were to be blamed for everything, we had to be checked up on in ways I’ve never encountered elsewhere. Our planners had to be handed over to the Head to check if we were planning our lessons (presumably they were worried we just made up our lessons as we went along). We weren’t allowed to use mock exam results to give grades for school reports, we had to estimate their grades which were then compared with mock exam results to see how good our estimates were (reports and exams were timetabled with this in mind).

As I mentioned before, my year head, Gemma, wasn’t up to much. She was a good friend to SMT and had risen despite no obvious ability to do her job. It soon became clear that she had lost the respect of the tutors. She could not be relied to support them, but would blame them for her own failures. In other schools a change of year head might have been considered. At Woodrow Wilson a failed year head was not considered possible. A better explanation was of course that the tutors must be at fault. Almost every member of the year team was made to move tutor groups (only Gemma’s closest friends were allowed to stay). Just in case having to change group might upset tutors to the point where they wanted to leave, the change was announced by putting notes in pigeonholes in the last week before half term, when it was too late to apply for jobs elsewhere. Teachers can of course leave mid-year, but generally don’t like to, as one of the tutors said to me “They use your professionalism against you”.

As I mentioned in a previous entry, I ultimately left Woodrow Wilson Schools because of the culture of blame. I had been having difficulties with a year 10 class that wouldn’t do coursework. I kept the class in Year 11 and attempted to get on top of their behaviour and low expectations. However they knew that at Woodrow Wilson they could use the culture of blame to undermine me. One student got his parents to complain to the Head that he hadn’t finished his coursework and it must be my fault. The student had had two weeks in class to do the coursework, and weeks to do it at home, and had never even asked for help from me. In a normal school this might be considered a fault on the part of the student. In Woodrow Wilson School this could never be the case. Apparently I must have refused to give help.

I was told to give extra help after school in order to ensure unfinished courseworks got done. I committed myself to a week of after school coursework sessions in order to get it done, and letters were sent home from the Head instructing students that coursework help was available and that they should turn up to get their work finished. Of course what happened is that no student turned up from Monday to Wednesday to get help. On the Thursday some nagging was done and three students turned up (not the one who had complained) and one of those three turned up again on the Friday. The overwhelming majority of students who hadn’t finished their coursework didn’t turn up.

This was reported back to the Head. A letter from him had done nothing to get the coursework done. He could have tried again or he could have acknowledged that if he was unable to compel them to do coursework then no wonder I couldn’t. Of course he did nothing of the sort. In a school where the teachers are to blame then I could still be blamed for something that even the Headteacher was powerless to do anything about. (Incidentally through my own efforts and hard work I did eventually get almost all of the coursework cleared before the end of the year. But it did take months of hard work and effort.)

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