My Dream School: Part 1November 18, 2007
The Oldandrew Academy for Boys (in the Utopiashire Local Authority) looks a lot like other schools from the outside. It is only as I walk inside it that I see that it is very different in style from conventional comprehensives. As I walk into the plush carpeted reception area I see there are no students in sight. I ask casually about this and am told that this is because student reception is around the side of the school. This helps to establish that there are areas of the school for students and areas for staff, parents and visitors.
The receptionist lets me through a set of double doors using a thumbprint. Apparently all doors between student areas and staff areas are similarly protected. I am directed down several corridors to the Deputy Head’s office. On the way I notice there are no carpets in the corridors, but instead polished wooden floors, unstained by chewing gum. In place of the usual displays of work on the walls there appear to be photos of past and present students emblazoned with their exam results and other academic achievements. Each corridor has the same notice repeated several times:
Please do not make the following choices:
Eating or drinking
Using a phone
Disobeying a member of staff
Being Out of lessons without permission
Arguing with a member of staff,
I arrive at a door with a shiny copper name plate with “Mr J. Hardbastard BSc (hons), M.Ed” emblazened on it. I knock and a gruff voice invites me in. An imposing shaven-headed man greets me with a handshake and introduces himself as Jonathan Hardbastard, and explains that he is the Deputy Head and has responsibility for running the school’s discipline system. I immediately ask him about the nameplate. Is it really necessary to declare his qualifications on it? Are people really impressed by letters after a name?
“Look, nobody in their right mind chooses their child’s school because of the degree qualifications of senior management. Unlike a lot of schools we don’t include the Head’s qualifications on a sign outside the school or on letters to parents. However, at every opportunity every single member of teaching staff will have their academic qualifications revealed to students. Children in an area like ours don’t plan to get degrees, there may be no graduates in their family, the only place they are ever going to acquire the basic vocabulary of academic aspiration is here in the school. Here it is a big deal whether you make it to university or not and a big deal as to which university you go to.”
“Isn’t that elitist?” I ask.
“Yes of course it is. If we want boys from deprived backgrounds to escape from poverty and become part of the middle class then there is no point pretending there aren’t class divisions in society. That doesn’t mean we are saying that such divisions are a good thing, but we are telling them that those divisions will matter in their lives.”
Changing the subject I ask about the discipline system. How does it work? He passes me a document explaining it.
All students are responsible for behaving in a way that preserves the school as a learning environment. This involves choosing to learn, choosing to allow others to learn, and choosing to maintain order within the school. In order to make it easier for students to understand their responsibilities they are displayed on posters in every room.
If students choose not to live up to their responsibilities then they are choosing a penalty for themselves. Penalties include:
Detention after School – 45 minutes sat in the hall
Isolation – a day in The Inclusion Room working in silence
Internal Exclusion – Enrolment in The Behaviour Unit
Permanent Exclusion – Removal from the school
Prosecution – It is the policy of the school to involve the police where behaviour is illegal.
“Isn’t this very Draconian?” I ask. I can see that Mr Hardbastard is angered by the suggestion.
“The standard of behaviour is one which would be expected in almost any professional workplace in the country. The fact is that schools spend most of their time dealing with the consequences of poor behaviour in terms of lost time and lost learning. Allowing this poor behaviour in schools does not provide freedom, it cripples schools. Students who disrupt lessons are thieves. They are stealing from the other students, they are stealing their education. Most schools accept this theft as inevitable and refuse to countenance the suggestion that this shows a moral failure on the part of the perpetrator. They accept that children cannot control themselves or exercise responsibility. They see the discipline system as something to be used only where persuasion and encouragement has broken down and they blame the teachers for resorting to punishment. We don’t see it that way. The purpose of the discipline system is to identify poor behaviour wherever it exists and punish it. We are proactive rather than reactive on discipline. That’s why the corridors all have CCTV cameras whose footage is monitored for breaches of the rules. That is why all members of staff have a day’s training in using the discipline system every year. That is why we ask all job applicants to provide evidence that they have been regularly issuing punishments during their teaching career. That is why we have a program of lesson observations which we use to ensure that all staff are using the discipline system.”
“All this must use an incredible amount of time and resources? Your Behaviour Unit is almost like another school in itself, and employs many staff. Your brochure says that the facilities exist for up to five percent of the school to be in the unit at any one time. It must be expensive to keep all those students in another building behind a high rule, never mixing with the rest of the school.”
“A properly run behaviour system saves money in the long run. CCTV saves us a fortune in vandalism and cleaning. Having a centralised detention system staffed on a rota uses a fraction of the time it would take for staff to run their own detentions. Removing students from the main school and putting them in the Behaviour Unit where there is a high staff to student ratio is costly but because it stops bad behaviour before it is copied by other students it saves us a fortune. It allows us to teach larger classes where necessary, it reduces staff absence due to stress, and it reduces staff turnover.”
Afterwards Mr Hardbastard escorts me to the office of Dr Goodscholar, the Deputy Head, in charge of curriculum. As we walk from the main school building across the quadrangle to the Faculty of Letters the school bell rings and through the many large windows through which the corridors are visible we can see students simultaneously leaving their classrooms walking quietly to their next lesson, fully aware that running, stopping to chat, or even having their uniforms out of place would be picked up by the cameras (or the teachers who are now appearing at their classroom doors) and would result in a detention or, for the worst offenders, time spent in the Behaviour Unit. At first it’s a shock to see hundreds of boys walking quietly and sensibly, without any of the running, pushing and shoving I had assumed to be normal for teenagers. Has Big Brother produced a school of automata in perfect school uniforms, robbed of their natural exuberance? It is only as I look at their faces that I realise the truth. They are smiling, full of confidence, with the bearing of young adults rather than oversized toddlers. They don’t need to jostle for position, or run away from their peers, because they feel safe, secure and happy where they are. This is probably more than they can say about their lives outside of school. What’s even more jarring though, as they walk contentedly and calmly down those corridors, is that many of the teachers stood at the doors of their classes, many of them veterans of the anarchy that persists in other schools, are smiling back at their students.