Archive for February, 2008



February 23, 2008

This is a rewritten version of an entry that has appeared previously but is no longer available. Apologies if you have read it before.

I’ve noticed that I read a lot of the same questions being asked, often by NQTs (Newly Qualified Teachers), on teacher forums on the internet. So I have decided to answer those questions here.

Are there any good books about dealing with behaviour?

Yes. For ordinary schools read “The Craft of the Classroom” by Michael Marland. It’s an excellent description of basic classroom management, and recommends unfashionable but effective methods such as sitting at the front of the class and asking students to come to you. For “challenging schools”, i.e. schools where the discipline system has broken down, read “Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms” by Paul Blum. It tells you how to cope in the battlefield that many of our schools have become and is worthwhile just for the effort it takes to remind you it is not your fault. Bill (William) Rogers has also written many useful books.

A well known but unhelpful book is “Getting the Buggers to Behave” by Sue Cowley. Avoid it, as it would be better named “Letting the Buggers Misbehave”. It makes suggestions such as letting older children swear, chew gum and keep their coats on. It even suggests pretending to eat dog food as a way to win the students over, which is, quite frankly, as demeaning a suggestion as you are ever likely to hear.

Update (August 2012): Since I wrote this a couple of other excellent books have come out. I would also recommend “The Behaviour Guru” by Tom Bennett and “Teach Like A Champion” by Doug Lemov. Both offer excellent advice.

What can I do about low level disruption?

Firstly, make sure you have the students in a seating plan. This means you will have everyone’s name to hand, half the battle with low level disruption with a new class is just knowing the names of students that are talking. Then use a system of warnings (either noted down on a paper register or written on the board) for each interruption with escalating sanctions such as detentions and removal from the room for any student who gets too many warnings. Do not tolerate shouted answers (or questions), insist on hands up and waiting for quiet.

If the problem is not deliberate disruption, merely an excess of noise, then getting the students to stand up and wait for quiet often works and can be a good way to start the lesson. This is more effective with younger classes that actually want to learn than with hardcore troublesome classes where individuals may be looking for a confrontation.

One of my classes hates me, what can I do?

Stop caring. It’s probably their fault not yours. In particular, if it’s year 10 it’s to be expected and you should worry more if they don’t hate you.

I have been verbally abused/assaulted and nothing’s happened, what can I do?

Something should have happened. You have to chase this up immediately. Make sure you have a written account of the incident. There is a hierarchy of steps you can take to follow up. You take each step in order until something is done. The more steps you take the more you will be seen as a troublemaker, however, it is better to be seen as a troublemaker by SMT than a walkover by the kids.

  1. Talk to the Head (or Deputy Head, according to availability) and give him/her your written report.
  2. Talk to your union rep and get them to talk to the head.
  3. Ask to fill in an “accident/assault form”. (This is a report for the LEA that schools must provide but rarely tell staff about). Keep a copy.
  4. Contact the police (for assaults or the very worst forms of verbal abuse)
  5. Go to your doctor and see how long you can get off with stress.
  6. Contact the press.

Alternatively, if you actually do want to be seen as a troublemaker start at the bottom of the list and work your way up.

I’m not enjoying my job because of behaviour, does it get any better?

Yes. But it takes time. In my experience it takes a couple of years at a school to have real authority around the site. With classes I find year 8 improve after Christmas, Year 9 take slightly longer, Year 10 take a couple of terms minimum and Year 11 classes only improve if you’re lucky and the worst kids start truanting (which happens quite often for bottom sets or in tough schools).


RELOADED: More from the Behaviour Management Database

February 22, 2008

This is a rewritten version of an entry that has appeared previously but is no longer available. Apologies if you have read it before.

I described in a previous entry the Behaviour Management Database at Stafford Grove School and how there were students with many incidents of poor behaviour still in school. The following are the reported incidents from many different teachers for just one child:

  • Kieran was calling out and generally off task. When removed from the room he was making faces through the door window and even returned to the classroom to hide under one of the desks.
  • Kieran ran past the maths office and yelled “Mr Adams is gay” into the office as he went.
  • Kieran persistently ignored instructions in the lesson, which lead to a detention after school. During the detention he refused to listen to me, the Head of Department or The Assistant Head. In the end he left the room without permission.
  • Kieran walked into me as I stood in the doorway then said “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? I’ll fucking knock you down”. He then shoved past both me and the Head of Department before running away.
  • During a gym lesson, Kieran had made an unpleasant comment to another boy about his mum starting a fight, I then went over to see what was happening and I had to hold Kieran back.
  • Kieran sat in the wrong place and refused to move even for the Head of Department
  • He kept on chatting, and turning around and interrupting me while I was teaching. He totally ignored my instructions, was asked to move but still kept on chatting and shouting out. He was then asked to stand outside the classroom, which he refused to do at first. By the end of the lesson, he was being mean to a pupil, and pushed his desk against another boy.
  • Kieran today entered the wrong classroom and refused to leave. Then he walked into the cupboard, stole textbooks, and was generally very disruptive. I left him with the Deputy Head, but when she was dealing with something else he lay in the hall punching the wall calling things “fucking gay.”
  • Kieran was continually interrupting the class and being argumentative, referring to me as “Bill” when I asked him to stop. When I did not give him good marks on his report and explained the reasons why he shouted that I was gay as he left the room.
  • Kieran threw a bag at Manny. I asked him to leave the room and as he did so pulled other student’s coats off of the pegs. He was then abusive to me. He sat on the floor and when asked by other staff to stand up refused to do so.
  • He started to make inappropriate comments and was removed him from the lesson. At the end of the day he came back to the room and was abusive both to myself and his tutor.
  • He started to spray water around the room out of a tap. He was asked to stop doing this but refused. He was asked to go outside the door. He then wandered off.
  • He took Abdul’s glasses and began imitating him, he continued with similar disruptive behaviour, eventually leaping across the table to grab Manny and trying to strangle him.
  • Kieran began to try and spray another pupil using the tap. I asked him to stop. As soon as I started talking to the class he began trying to spray water again. I told him to leave, which he did but carried on wandering off down the corridor.
  • He shouted at me and told me that he didn’t care what I said I removed him at this point. When I went to speak to him I was reasonable but he was rude and arrogant frequently saying that he didn’t like me or maths any more and that he was going to move to another school anyway so it didn’t matter what he did here as he would behave there with his friends. I calmed him down and let him back in and he was okay for a bit but then kicked off again when Miss Dish came in accused me of “liking her”. He was so rude when I spoke to him again in response to me stating that he was normally good for me and what had changed that I had to remove him again to talk to the class. The class appear to be getting sick of Kieran because they want to learn and have a good relationship with me.
  • Kieran tried to start a fight with Mark. – he flicked his work and then grabbed Mark’s tie and started pulling on it.
  • Kieran refused to comply with any instructions during the lesson today. He was aggressive and antagonistic towards me, continually shouting abusive comments across the room at me and at other students. He ended the lesson by shouting “penis” and refusing to remain at the end before returning to the room repeatedly because his friend had been kept in.
  • Kieran did not bring his P.E. kit for the second week running, and he was lent kit. Also on several occasions during the lesson he was rude when speaking to me.
  • In my maths lesson Kieran became abusive when I asked him to stop and listen. He left the lesson and proceeded to strangle himself with a piece of string. He had done this at the start saying he was trying to break a world record! I told him to stop and he did on this occasion. I went out to speak to him and he would not listen and went in to the toilet. He tied himself to a pipe and refused to come out. I sent Jordan in to speak to him. Kieran listened to Jordan and came in but was disinterested and did not take part in the lesson. At the end of the lesson he was fine with me but then climbed out of the window when dismissed.
  • Kieran during this lesson displayed extreme behaviour
    1. Hiding in the cupboard
    2. Refusing to work
    3. Eating take away chicken
    4. Shouting “you gay batty hole” out of the window and at other pupils (who were calmly working)
    5. Leaving the lesson without permission to punch Guraj
    6. Unrolling posters
    7. Not letting me back into the room when I went to check on the class next door.

    There was no provocation for this behaviour, everybody else was calm and working.

  • As we were coming in from the fire drill I saw Kieran kick another boy. I asked him to stop but he walked past me. I called after him but he kept walking. I followed him, touched him on the shoulder to get his attention as he was still not responding to me and he said “Don’t you fucking touch me”. I was startled by this response but he said he often swore at teachers. I told him I only wanted him to come in quietly and not cause any further fuss after we had all been outside. There had been some incident over a pen apparently which led him to kick this other student. He said ‘Alright I won’t kick him, next time I’ll punch him in the head.’
  • Kieran arrived at registration tonight at 3.25, just in time to receive detention slips from other members of staff. He screwed these up and threw them at me. I then escorted him to his detention. On the way over he jumped up and hit me on the back of the head.
  • He proceeded to be abusive and swear at me – he told me that he “didn’t give a crap”, “I don’t care”, “I’m going to get you”, “fuck off” squared up to me and swore in my face. He was told to leave and did so briefly, only to return and disrupt my after school lesson three times. On the third occasion I asked him to either leave or I would have to make a ‘phone call and have him escorted off-site. I explained that he was making the situation worse and tried to calm him down, he then told me to “fuck off” a further four times, at which point the Assistant Head arrived and assisted in removing him form the corridor. He then went outside and started banging on the windows of my classroom.
  • Kieran was continually interrupting the lesson, he kept lying down on the floor and crawling around on the floor under the desks despite being asked not to and agreeing to behave appropriately. A written note was passed to him by another student, when I asked for it he ate it.
  • Kieran made verbal threats of violence against me
  • At the end of lunch Kieran walked past and began to shout comments about my glasses including: “see you later four eyes”. I didn’t bother to respond as he was obviously looking for a reaction/argument. The Assistant Head then brought Kieran to my office to apologise but he clearly thought the whole thing was very amusing.
  • Kieran was swearing at one of the dept staff, also very disruptive. He was moved into my class where he continued to be outspoken and disruptive.
  • He pulled the hair of other pupils and engaged in other threatening behaviours as well as poured water into the bag of another pupil until all of their belongings and books were soaked.
  • At the end of my history lesson on Thursday period 3 I was dealing with a boy in the class While my back was turned Kieran got involved in a scuffle with Mark. It appeared serious as they were both red faced and grabbing each other.
  • He, along with others, proceeded to throw paper around the room. At the end of the lesson the room was left in a complete state.
  • Kieran came to the wrong lesson but he ignored me and threw pencils with considerable force at other children instead. He then pulled his jumper over his head and shouted “Fucking hell, I can’t see”. By this time I had approached him and asserted that he had to leave the room. He told me to fuck off several times but eventually he stood outside the door. While I was taking the register he kept trying to open the door despite another teacher reminding him that this was not appropriate. Finally as the group left the room he grabbed hold of my arm and shouted “run away Jordan, I will hold him”.
  • Kieran hit another student in the face during a Design lesson. Previous to this he used inappropriate language in the company of visitors from the University and splashed water over the floor by the sink by turning the tap deliberately on full blast so that it would spray everywhere.
  • Kieran punched a student in the face during the lesson. This followed him using foul and abusive language in the company of visitors from the University and spraying water by turning the taps in the Art room on full blast.

A question: How long a period do you think this covers? (I’ve missed out all the minor incidents from the list.) A year? Two years? Or maybe you’re more cynical. Perhaps a term? Half a term?

The answer: A month. That is the work of one eleven year old boy all within the space of four school weeks.
How much longer did it go on? I don’t know. He was still attending the school when I left months later.


Blood and Guts

February 21, 2008

If the Centre For Policy Studies gets its way (“Retrain Troops as Teachers”) staff briefing will be very different:

Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever taught a lesson by listening. He taught it by making the poor dumb bastards listen.

Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about teachers not wanting to teach, wanting to facilitate learning, is a lot of horse dung. Teachers, traditionally, love to teach. All real teachers love standing in front of a class.

When you were kids, you all admired the best explanation of equations, the longest list of irregular verbs, the highest academic achievements, the most challenging books. Teachers love a bright spark and will not tolerate a dullard. Teachers educate all the time. Now, I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who scheduled a “fun lesson”. That’s why teachers have never had fun in lessons and will never just “chill”. Because the very thought of “chilling” is hateful to teachers.

Now, a school is a team. It lives, marks, teaches, punishes as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The bilious bastards who write about personalised learning for the Times Educational Supplement don’t know anything more about real teaching than they do about fornicating.

Now, we have the finest classrooms and equipment, the best spirit, and the best men in the world. You know, by God, I actually pity the poor bastards we’re teaching. By God, I do. We’re not just going to instruct the bastards. We’re going to rip their mobiles phones from their ears and use them to phone their parents to complain about their behaviour. We’re going to educate those lousy chav bastards by the bushel.

Now, some of you boys, I know, are wondering whether or not you’ll chicken-out at the chalk-face. Don’t worry about it. I can assure you that you will all do your duty. The students are the enemy. Give them detentions. Instruct them. Set them textbook exercises. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was a brand new exercise book, you’ll know what to do.

Now there’s another thing I want you to remember. I don’t want to get any messages about Performance Management. We’re not managing anything. We are advancing constantly and we’re not interested in managing anything — except our classes. We’re going to put them in a seating plan, and we’re gonna educate their asses. We’re gonna teach the hell out of them all the time, and we’re gonna go through the syllabus like crap through a goose! Now, there’s one thing that you men will be able to say when you get back home, and you may thank God for it. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee, and he asks you, “What did you do in education?” — you won’t have to say, “Well, I worked as an LEA consultant .”

Alright now you sons-of-bitches, you know how I feel. Oh, I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys on break, lunch or bus duty. That’s all.


RELOADED: The Behaviour Management Database

February 19, 2008

This is a rewritten version of an entry that has appeared previously but is no longer available. Apologies if you have read it before.

OFSTED had committed Stafford Grove to improving the “small amount of unacceptable behaviour”. The Head, Jim Bulmer, decided to turn to technology for a solution.

Well I say “a solution”. Perhaps “a cost free activity that can be included 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 Jim.

The following term the system was launched, firstly 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. 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.

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 Jim 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 Jim 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 who 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 two dozen incidents of verbal abuse a term, just from these three boys?


RELOADED: They Call It PSHE, I Call It Hell

February 18, 2008

This is a rewritten version of an entry that has appeared previously but is no longer available. Apologies if you have read it before.

There’s a rather trendy argument, put forward by “progressive” types, that says the problem with education nowadays is that everything has to be assessed and tested and this leads to boring and unimaginative teaching and stress for students and teachers. Logically therefore if we want to find exciting and innovative teaching and high levels of enthusiasm then we should start with those subjects that aren’t ever subject to exams of formal assessment.

PSHE and Citizenship must be the definitive place to look.

(Just in case you’re not familiar with the subject, PSHE stands for Personal, Social and Health Education and mainly covers sex, drugs and bullying and anything else that might be quite important to teenagers which isn’t really part of the curriculum. Citizenship was a last ditch effort to fight political apathy by requiring schools to teach how democracy works, with lots of stuff about charities and rights thrown in. Some schools teach Citizenship as a subject in its own right but most seem to just lump it together with PSHE).
Anyway, if the anti-assessment lobby are right PSHE lessons, freed as they are from the pressures of exams, should be the place to see schools at their best.
Well my experience is this:

  • Teachers who don’t want to do it are conscripted into it. I teach a shortage subject and most of the schools I worked in lacked a fully staffed department for my subject, yet somehow I was forced to teach PSHE instead of my actual area of expertise for an hour a week. In fact as far as I can tell most teachers absolutely hate it. Far from feeling freed from pressure they feel out of their depth and/or bored.
  • It is taught by teachers who are in no way qualified for it. I’ve been there for PSHE meetings prior to teaching about local government where not one teacher could name the councillors for the area or which party ran the local council. That was one of my stronger areas, I had far greater dread of teaching anything to do with relationships (I’m not in a relationship myself so what do I know?), charities or study skills. Actually since I last had to teach study skills in PSHE I have read up on “the Theory of Multiple Intelligences” which our resources were based on and I discovered that almost everything I taught was factually incorrect.
  • The resources used are rubbish. Usually thrown together by year heads who, like most teachers, have no qualifications in the subject, they would range from photo copied worksheets, to word-searches, to “do a poster”. I can’t emphasise enough how much “do a poster” is the soul of PSHE. It’s often all you can do – spend two minutes talking about the subject you know nothing about – then tell students to design a poster about it. One warning though, posters are fine for bullying, drugs and road safety but not good idea for sex education. I learnt this when a well intentioned outside speaker came to talk to my Year 7 (11-12 year olds) form at Stafford Grove school about sexual harassment and sexual offences. She was shocked that her brilliant suggestion that in groups they draw a picture of a victim of sexual assault (showing how they might feel) led to two pictures of rapes and one of bondage being drawn. One group did draw a girl’s crying face which may have been closer to the intention of the speaker, however, the fact that they then clearly named the victim in it as one of their group meant that even theirs had crossed beyond the bounds of appropriateness.
  • It is taught mainly in form groups. There is no setting, there is no provision for different needs. Moreover as it is normally taught by form tutors with no qualifications in the subject it can only help undermine relationships between forms and their tutors. I had a far better relationship with members of my forms who I’d taught for my subject (they thought I knew my stuff and cared how they did) than those I taught for PSHE (they thought I was an idiot obsessed with posters).

On a more positive note the Metropolitan School where I now teach uses a mix of specialist Citizenship teachers and outside speakers to cover most of this curriculum. It actually works and has made being a form tutor a far more pleasant experience. It’s the next best thing to having a school system based on academic learning rather than on being a substitute parent.

However, it remains in many schools the worst hour of the week. No assessment, no testing, very little scrutiny of what you teach, no clear boundaries, discussion and group work, an emphasis on how you feel – all the trendiest parts of teaching practice – make it a learning free zone where teachers are actually trying to tell students the things their parents should be telling them: “don’t take (too many) drugs”, “don’t get pregnant”, “racism is bad”.

A friend of mine does his marking in PSHE and lets his form group do their homework and sit and chat, with an understanding that the students have to keep watch to check that nobody’s in the corridor checking up. This arrangement suits both students and teacher. I think they have the right idea. Of course if the educational progressives had their way and removed all assessment, subject specialisms and inspection then all lessons could be like this


The Year 11 Tipping Point

February 17, 2008

For several decades now the thrust of education policy has been to keep students in school for a larger and larger part of their life. A leaving age of 15 became practice in 1947. This was raised to 16 in 1973. From 1998 it was established that students could not leave until the end of June (previously they could leave at Easter or the end of May according to when their birthday fell) and any student leaving before then would be counted as absent. The school leaving age is currently being raised to 18, to the horror of many teachers.

In a tough school there are many year 11s who would have been better off leaving earlier rather than later. They think they are adults and as long as the adults around them, parents and teachers, insist on indulging them they are unlikely to think otherwise. From about the Christmas of year 11 students start dropping out. Nobody bothers to chase up the attendance of students of this age. Worse though are those students who remain in school, but have completely opted out of any activity that they don’t personally enjoy. Internal truancy (also known as “wagging lessons”) becomes a popular strategy and one that often serves the interests of their teachers and classmates.

Unfortunately, many students remain in attendance but completely divorced from the reality of being students. This is a separate phenomena from the usual resistance to education that students exhibit. This is not the worst kids, it is not designed to thwart efforts to educate them, and it is not done to disrupt the learning of others. It is simply that they have reached their personal Tipping Point, the point where they have decided that their presence in school is unconnected to learning (or at least learning some particular subjects) and, unlike disenchanted students earlier in their school careers who are actively seeking confrontation, they expect everyone else to have acknowledged this. Week by week, one by one, one student after another will start exhibiting the following pattern of behaviour:

  • Turning up later and later to the lesson.
  • Not working at all.
  • Losing their temper if given an instruction (any instruction).
  • Walking out of lessons and encouraging others to join them.

Sometimes they can be brought back from the brink by intervention, usually in the form of Head of Year or SMT telling them that they need to cooperate with all their teachers or go on study leave. Often they can’t cooperate and their teachers are left waiting for somebody more important who is willing to carry out the threat and send them home.

The whole process is made even worse by the presence in the curriculum of various vocational courses that are assessed purely by coursework. When the coursework is complete students are left with nothing to do. In subjects with a large ICT component they can be given free time to play on the computers, for several hours each week, making it even worse for anyone teaching a subject where they are still expected to work.

The situation deteriorates continually from Christmas onwards. Teachers begin counting the days until Year 11 leaves. Often disorder becomes so bad that a week or two before the scheduled end date year 11 are sent away. Some schools do not declare the leaving date in advance. If students are pre-warned and expecting the end they will carefully plan their last day. If a school is fortunate this will take the form of an unprecedented amount of truancy. If a school is unfortunate it can take the form of bringing eggs and bags of flour onto the site and throwing them around or even seeking physical retribution on members of staff they have a grudge against. Many schools benefit from a police presence on the last day of term. Even after Year 11 have left staff often have to guard all the doors to stop them forcing their way back in to cause trouble.

And now we look like we are going to have the situation where four months after they are escorted off the premises to the collective sigh of relief of all the teaching staff, we, or other local colleges or training providers, have to take them all back again. God help us all.


RELOADED: A Brief History of Education Part 4. The Assault on Professionalism

February 16, 2008

This is a rewritten version of an entry that has appeared previously but is no longer available. Apologies if you have read it before.

Since 1979 the issue of how students are divided into schools has become less central to the question of how schools are run. Despite the rhetoric and the celebrated battles between progressives and traditionalists the big changes have been in where the power lies. The following are some of the main developments:

The National Curriculum: Introduced in the 1988 Education Act this dictated the contents of the curriculum. Although it has been much changed since, and no longer holds as much sway at Key Stage 4 (ages 14-16), it has led on to central control of not only teaching content but also teaching methods.

League tables (and greater use of assessment): Another result of the 1988 Education Act. This has made it possible to monitor schools more closely, calculate added value and compare results. It has also given parents more opportunity to choose between schools.

Changes in Assessment: The introduction of the GCSE and the abolition of O-levels and CSEs helped cement changes in the nature of assessment. No longer would a pass indicate success, meaningless low grades were added, moreover use of coursework and later modular exams would move the emphasis away from one off performance in exams making qualifications far easier to obtain.

Devolution: The creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly has led to greater diversity within the United Kingdom’s Education system. Most noticeably the teaching unions appear to have far more influence as a lobbying group on these devolved authorities than they ever did on the Whitehall or the Scottish Office.

Inclusion and greater tolerance for poor behaviour: In theory Inclusion refers to efforts being made to allow the disabled and those with learning needs the option of being educated within mainstream schools. In practice it has resulted in the mass abolition of Special Schools for those in need, against the wishes of parents, and the bullying of schools into accepting students that will be unable to behave or learn there. The Warnock Report into Special Educational Needs in 1978 and the 1981 Education Act that followed it laid the groundwork for inclusion. The subsequent tolerance of poor behaviour can be traced to the abolition of physical punishment in several Education Acts through the 80s and 90s, the 1994 circulars that demanded schools avoid exclusions, and the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act that dispensed with the requirement that exclusion appeals panels take into account the interests of staff and students (other than the student being excluded).

Changes in types of school: In recent years the government has pushed for greater diversity in schools, encouraging the setting up of Faith schools, Specialist Schools and Academies. All of these have led to allegations of a return to selection but there is very little evidence to support this allegation.

The greatest effect of these changes has been to the role and status of the teacher. No longer were teachers to be trusted, understandably when the entrance criteria for teaching courses was falling to unheard of depths. Talk of “left wing teachers” hides the fact that teaching was overwhelmingly a Conservative voting profession up until the mid-to-late eighties where the Conservative Government’s distrust of teachers came to the fore. It had become normal for Government to see teachers as the cause of problems in education. The changes in the curriculum that could have been used as a method for limiting the power of LEA bureaucrats have instead seen power removed from schools and teachers. The changes in assessment could have been used to identify failures in school management. Combined with the creation of OFSTED as a replacement for LEA inspection, they could have made it possible to identify and transform the schools that were failing to educate. However this has been prevented by the belief that changes in teaching are necessary rather than changes in management. Attainment data is now being used to identify teacher failure – as if any teacher’s ability can be accurately judged on the exam results of one or two classes – rather than school failure.

The changes in school discipline (mainly centred around inclusion) have ensured that it is now normal for teachers to be subject to physical and verbal abuse and for school management to be engaged in concealing it. Even more than the removal of trust in teachers’ judgement, this has downgraded the role and status of teachers. The ability to survive in the jungle of modern secondary schools, to put up with the abuse, to have patience with the unwilling and uncooperative, are now more important than subject knowledge or the ability to explain material. By extension school management cannot be about managing the students, this battle is already lost, it must instead be about managing teachers, scrutinising them for signs that they are not doing their job rather than creating the climate where they are best able to do their job.

The other changes, for all the sound and fury in the media and with the unions, are actually fairly minor. Reform of qualifications has invariably made them easier to pass, making it difficult to use results to judge whether the education system is getting better or worse. The efforts of the government to makes schools more diverse have very little effect. Schools will do the paperwork but will rarely change their ethos. League tables can highlight schools falling to the depths of ineffectiveness, but they are only competing with other ineffective schools and they will always find people ready to excuse their failures as a result of having a “poor intake” or “serving a deprived area”. No league table can expose a failing system, it can merely rank the failures.


Lowe, Chris, Pupils, Their Education and the Law, The Questions Publishing Company, 1999
McKenzie, Janet, Changing Education: a Sociology of Education Since 1944, Pearson Education Limited, 2001


RELOADED: A Brief History of Education Part 3. The Rise of the Comprehensive

February 15, 2008

This is a rewritten version of an entry that has appeared previously but is no longer available. Apologies if you have read it before.

“If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England,” he said. “And Wales, and Northern Ireland.”
“Why not Scotland?” I asked out of pure curiosity.
“Because their schools come under the Secretary of State for Scotland.”


The above sentiments were expressed by Education Secretary (1965-67) Tony Crosland and quoted by his wife after his death. The first sentence in particular is often quoted in books and articles about education, to suggest the abolition of grammar schools was one embittered individual’s personal crusade against grammar schools, rather than an inevitability

A number of pressures for change had gradually developed under the grammar school system. It became clear that some Secondary Modern children were able to pass GCSE O-levels. The Labour Party became converted to the idea that schools should not divide the social classes. Teachers became resentful that they were divided into two separate professions, complete with separate unions. It became clear that the technical schools were too scarce and underresourced to achieve their aims and they never really took off. Perhaps most importantly criticism developed of the methods used to sort the wheat from the chaff as middle class parents became resentful when their children failed to pass the 11+ exams, or lost out due to the many inconsistencies in how students were allocated to grammar schools.

The move from tripartite education to comprehensive education is often associated primarily with Wilson’s 1966 Labour government, and Crosland as education secretary. However, the process of comprehensive schools replacing grammars and secondary moderns had begun earlier and actually continued right up until the late 1970s. Even when Margaret Thatcher was Education Secretary (from 1970 to 1974), and making herself unpopular by abolishing free school milk, the number of comprehensive schools doubled (Lawton 2005).

Years later the idea that all students should go to the same type of school is still controversial with comprehensives being seen as inferior and failing. Although there are some drawbacks – larger schools, a shortage of teachers capable of teaching to a high academic standard, the continuing division of schools by geography – this shouldn’t have had a major effect on academic standards. There is no reason that a single school shouldn’t be able to provide both a grammar school education and a secondary modern education on a single site. Indeed if schools had kept with the vision Crosland had outlined (Crosland 1956) it seems unlikely there would have been as much controversy:

“Both common sense and American experience suggest that [mixed ability teaching] would lead to a serious levelling-down of standards, and a quite excessive handicap to the clever child. Division into streams, according to ability, remains essential.”

Many schools attempted to retain a distinct grammar stream, but mixed ability teaching became more and more common. The academic curriculum became less and less demanding in state schools. It is here that the comprehensive education became known for its failures rather than its successes. Comprehensive education became less and less the idea that students shouldn’t be separated into social classes and more and more the idea that they shouldn’t be separated at all, no matter what the consequences were for their academic achievement. As a result the education system never achieved the best of both worlds but began to head towards the worst of all possible worlds.


Crosland, C.A.R., The Future of Socialism, Jonathon Cape, 1956
Crosland, S , Tony Crosland, Cape, 1982
Lawton, Dennis, Education and Labour Party Ideology 1900-2001 and Beyond, RoutledgeFalmer, 2005


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

February 14, 2008

This is a rewritten version of an entry that has appeared previously but is no longer available. Apologies if you have read it before.

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, their 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,


RELOADED: A Brief History of Education. Part 1. Educational Thought

February 13, 2008

This entry is now available here.

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