The Driving Lesson Revisited

May 12, 2008

Before you read this have a look at The Driving Lesson dialogue which featured in my blog in November 2007. It was well received at the time and I revisit it now because it, and the reaction to it, illustrates some of the recurring themes of this blog.

Firstly (as you may have noticed), I have often explained that the behaviour of learners in our schools is terrible. Arguing over where to sit, blaming the teacher for poor achievement, refusing to listen and all the time arguing with the teacher is not just commonplace, but actually routine in many classrooms. I have seen it in the schools I have worked in and many teachers who read the story of the Driving Lesson responded to say they recognised it too. In fact the behaviour is worse than terrible it is absurd. It doesn’t consist simply of silly, childish behaviour or, to borrow a phrase, “low-level disruption”. It has reached the point of a ritual conducted out of habit no matter how inappropriately. For this behaviour to exist widely it is not enough for us to assume that children are simply awkward at times, or that teachers haven’t persuaded them to appreciate the benefits of an education. We have to accept that the education system has initiated them into bizarre patterns of behaviour. Arguing for five minutes over where you are going to sit is as pointless in a classroom as in a car. A couple of the teachers who contacted me about The Driving Lesson asked permission to use it as a role-play with their students in the hope that it may bring home to them the ridiculous nature of their behaviour.

Secondly, a major consideration in that behaviour is the belief on the part of students that teachers are to be held responsible for the students’ behaviour and effort. This is not at the basic level of expecting teachers to enforce the rules and spell out what is required for students. It has reached the point where a student can choose to break the rules, or choose not to work, and then tell any teacher who confronts this behaviour that they are at fault. This spills out from accusations into verbal abuse and even violence.

Finally, although large numbers of teachers can recognise the behaviour described there is another possible reaction to the story of the Driving Lesson; denial. When the original website that my blog was hosted on ceased to exist I looked into moving it to one of the top education sites in the UK. I was told

I’d be interested in publishing your blog, but it would need to be firmly focused upon education, so although I really enjoyed the driving school piece, it isn’t really suitable for [us].

Unbelievably, there are people in the wider field of education who are simply oblivious to how children are behaving in our schools. The web journalist quoted above is merely the tip of the iceberg. A far more important denial of the realities of behaviour in secondary schools is the following:

… most schools successfully manage behaviour to create an environment in which learners feel valued, cared for and safe … in our experience, where unsatisfactory behaviour does occur, in the vast majority of cases it involves low level disruption in lessons. Incidents of serious misbehaviour, and especially acts of extreme violence, remain exceptionally rare and are carried out by a very small proportion of pupils.

Steer (2005)

This quotation is from the Introduction to the Steer Report a review of behaviour in schools commissioned after school discipline became an issue during the 2005 general election campaign. It was put together by a team of headteachers, school managers, an OFSTED official with responsibility for behaviour, and various union representatives. Somehow the behaviour that is so commonplace that I could satirise it in my blog, because I could be sure teachers would recognise it, exists in a world that the leading lights of the educational establishment are unaware of.

I tend to see denial as emanating from the education establishment and the associated education bureaucracies, rather than the politicians. But what I want to see as soon as possible is a politician willing to face up to the truth on education, and say about the education system what John Reid (whatever happened to him?) said about the Home Office, that it’s “not fit for purpose”.


Alan Steer (chair), Learning Behaviour: The Report of The Practitioners’ Group on School Behaviour and Discipline, DFES



  1. Thanks for pointing out the driving instructor piece – funny but so true. The phrase ‘low-level disruption’ really annoys me – it makes it sound like something mildly irritating but which doesn’t really affect things – but the sort of behaviour it describes can means a whole lesson goes down the pan. And the next one. and the one after that. There IS a lot of denial about behaviour, and a lot of putting the onus on teachers to sort it out. Like so many things, it’s something caused by society which we are expected to put right!

  2. I love the driving story. It hits so close to the truth about the way a lot of kids see things. It’s all about them, and if something goes wrong, it’s not their fault.

  3. […] it now because it, and the reaction to it, illustrates some of the recurring themes of this blog.http://oldandrew.edublogs.org/2008/05/12/the-driving-lesson-revisited/Small L.A. Unified campus showing large gains Los Angeles TimesThe success of the Student […]

  4. Oldandrew ‘the driving lesson’ allegory is a stroke of genius. I agree with everything you have written in the ‘the driving lesson revisited’. Back in the sixties and seventies when pupils failed they weren’t working hard enough, now it seems that if pupils fail the teachers aren’t working hard enough. It’s time for a serious debate about education, but that won’t happen while we have the two main political parties trying outdo each other on the standards debate by introducing ‘Enron style’ accountability systems for schools rather than tackling the real issues – over complicated funding structures, class sizes, inclusion, social deprivation…

  5. The Steer Report. What a joke! Page after page of platitudes from old duffers who have no experience of inner city schools. It offers no practical advice for teachers at the sharp end other than plan better lessons. For this pile of useless nonsense the man was given a knighthood!

  6. What gets me is that it appears to be just the latest in a long list of such reports by the great and the good.

    How many of the reports here made a difference:


    And those reports that did, how often would it have been better if they hadn’t?

  7. […] this entry I expressed my disagreement with Steer’s (2006) claim that behaviour was effectively managed and […]

  8. Why is the absurdity of the behaviour obvious in the case of a driving lesson but not so obvious (at least to some) in the classroom?

    In the case of the driving lesson, we have two, free (autonomous) parties voluntarily entering into a contractual agreement because it is in the self-interest of each to do so.

    In the classroom, on the other hand…

    • This is why I get wound up by opponents of compulsory education. Every example of our failing education system and every example of good non-compulsory learning gets selected as “evidence” while the evidence that goes the other way is ignored.

      What happens in British battleground schools is not what happens in compulsory education in all institutions, eras, countries and cultures.

      Moreover, some of what happens is making it into British non-compulsory education, particularly school sixth forms.

      The compulsory/voluntary distinction does not explain the pattern of where we see unnacceptable behaviour. If it is tolerated, excused and expected, it occurs. No other explanation is necessary.

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