A Brief History of Education Part 5. The Battleground School

May 18, 2008

I discussed previously the rise of comprehensive schooling and the deteriorating position of the teaching profession. I didn’t explain the phenomena that followed on from this. The Battleground School is the type of school I have been writing about.

To be precise I am using the term to refer to schools of the following type:

  • They are large, usually secular, mixed (or boys’) comprehensives.
  • They have a limited or ineffective discipline system, in particular, referrals of serious incidents regularly result in no action against the student responsible and such incidents are common.
  • School management explicitly avoid endorsing punishment as part of the school discipline system.
  • The ethos of the school prioritises socialisation, but not socialisation into academic, religious or (conventional) moral values.
  • Management deny the existence of the behaviour problems identified by staff, and see behaviour as primarily the responsibility of the teaching staff.

No figures exist for what proportion of schools are like this. My personal experience suggests that it has become the norm. I have direct experience of schools of this sort being praised by OFSTED as if nothing was awry. They form the overwhelming majority of schools in the Local Authorities where I have worked and I know from the reaction to this blog that a large number of teachers in other parts of this country are in such schools. The question I am interested in is not “how common are such schools?” I know that I am unlikely to get a more precise answer than “very common”. What intrigues me is how long such schools have been a feature of our education system.

The first point is that they have existed since at least the early sixties, before comprehensives had even became widespread. The first reference I can find to such a school is that of Risinghill which was established in 1960. Berg (1968) writes a glowing review of a school serving the deprived based on principles she finds agreeable. The headmaster, Michael Duane:

  • announced to the children there would be no more corporal punishment
  • claimed “I personally have no time for punishment at all”
  • concluded the discipline problems were the fault of “second-raters” on the teaching staff who “did not know how to deal with children who are uninhibited and therefore a threat to the authoritarian standard”
  • refused to expel any child
  • did not support staff with disciplining the students

To him good teachers were the ones who “treat people [children] with respect, as friends”. “Humanist assemblies” and “child centred lessons” were introduced. Sex education became X-rated in its language and explicitness. A School Council was introduced.

In prize day speeches Duane declared:

“To measure a school by exam results is like estimating the quality of a man’s life by the number of calories he burns … They bear no relation to the real purposes of living… vigour.. spontaneity.. and a zest for life. These are important.”


“You cannot educate against the climate of opinion or attitude in the family, or neighbourhood or society.”

Despite the writer’s spin (apparently traditionalist teachers and unprincipled politicians are to be blamed for everything that went wrong at the school) it soon becomes clear that violent gangs formed among the pupils. Staff wouldn’t stay at the school and were often off sick. Inspectors found obscene graffiti, internal truancy, and unruly and uninterested children. Staff complained of having been attacked (including with a gun) and were often sworn at. One teacher, of the most liberal variety, describes a boy pulling a knife on her and a girl in a class being molested by a boy, with no punishment given (apparently this approach shows you are “a special kind of teacher”).

It is hard to read Berg’s account without concluding that she is describing the archetype for modern British schooling. However, this was not when such schools became normal. Risinghill became a national scandal and was closed down. Other comprehensives did not follow suit. Some schools that became comprehensives made a virtue of retaining a grammar school ethos, such as Highbury Grove Boy’s School. But over time things changed. Francis Gilbert’s two books (Gilbert 2004 and 2005) describe Battleground Schools in the early 1990s which, although not named, are easily identifiable. McNulty (2005) describes something similar, again dating back to the early nineties.

The creation of OFSTED led to the identification of failing schools, some, such as Hackney Downs and The Ridings became infamous. Others became infamous for other reasons, such as St Geroge’s in Westminster where the headmaster Philip Lawrence was murdered at the school gates before entering Special measures (I include St George’s despite it being a Catholic school as Stubbs (2003) suggests that at its low point it lost any Catholic ethos). These schools are, however, the extreme cases and can no more be considered to be representative of a wider class of schools than Risinghill was. What’s more indicative is Blum (1998) and Johnson (1999).

Paul Blum’s book is an excellent survival guide for teachers in Battleground Schools, or in his phrase “difficult classrooms”. In his introduction he describes the problems faced by teachers:

“There will often be situations in which they will be faced with defiance, aggression and verbal abuse… [and] low-level energy-sapping daily routines in which they struggle to get the pupils to stop talking and actually listening to what they are saying.”

The success of this book (I recently saw large numbers of copies in the library of a university well know for its teacher training, far more than any other behaviour book) suggests his advice is widely applicable and that challenging classrooms are very common indeed, but he nevertheless writes as if the “rough schools” he’s describing are only those schools “which [are] bottom or near the bottom of the examination league table in [their] local area”.

Martin Johnson’s book has a similar viewpoint, despite being written as a polemic rather than as advice. He describes perfectly life in a Battleground School, including the anarchy in the corridors and the hostility faced in the classrooms. Like Blum he condemns those who suggest that “good teaching” is a panacea to classroom chaos and claims that he is talking about a minority of schools. He identifies these as “schools for the underclass” and assumes they exist only as a result of deprivation.

So as I’ve said the battleground schools have existed for, five decades. However, for most of that time they seemed exceptional. By the nineties they were easily found and by the late nineties and this decade they were common enough for people to write books about them as if they were an unavoidable widespread feature of UK education system. All the tough schools I’ve worked in have had a history, passed on by the old hands, that explains when they become tough. The nineties and the turn of the twenty-first century figure prominently in those stories.

As I said, I am convinced that they have become the norm, that they are actually the bog standard, at least in England. A short scan of the British education blogosphere and teacher forums seems to confirm this impression. Many of the books I mentioned carefully tried to explain the exceptional nature of the experiences described, and carefully and sympathetically explained the plight of the urban poor. By 2006 no such niceties were necessary, teachers were willingly buying a book, with a cover that stated:

“The kids are thick, the parents are scum, there’s drugs everywhere and half the girls are giving birth.”

Chalk (2006)

The Battleground school has now taken over.


Berg, Leila, Risinghill:Death of a Comprehensive School, 1968, Penguin Books

Chalk, Frank, It’s Your Time You’re Wasting, 2006, Monday Books.

Gilbert, Francis, I’m a Teacher Get Me Out Of Here, 2004, Short Books

Gilbert, Francis, Teacher On The Run, 2005, Short books.

Johnson, Martin, Failing Schools, Failing City 1999, Jon Carpenter

McNulty, Phil, Extreme Headship, 2005, Trafford

Stubbs, Marie A Head of The Class, 2003, John Murray



  1. […] that followed on from this. The Battleground School is the type of school I have been writing about.http://oldandrew.edublogs.org/2008/05/18/a-brief-history-of-education-part-5-the-battleground-school…AT THE LIBRARY: Picnics planned perfectly The Herald BulletinDo you love to go on picnics? I do. I […]

  2. Yep this all sounds familiar. Here an example to highlight todays education system. Friday 16th May – Literacy Exam level 1 (we usually expect an ‘average’ 10 year old to be able to do this.I work in a college the youngest student is 16 but most are 17-18.
    No. of students entered = 10
    No. who arrive on time = 2
    No. who ariive with a hang over = 3
    Total number of students who took exam = 4
    Toatal amount wasted on exams not taken = £54 (might not seem alot but thats just one group. Times the figure by ten and thats probably an accurate assessment of the amount of money we waste each week on exams student’s dont turn up to!!

    This is how the exam actually went =
    Me “Put your bags, phones, Ipods, MP3’s etc, at the front and turn them off”
    Student A “can’t we put them at the front and leave them on?”
    Me “No! Right you have an hour just let me unlock the test. Don’t bother putting in the password yet as it wont work”
    Student B “f*cking hell its not working”
    Me “I know, thats because I haven’t unlocked it just give it a minute”
    Student B “All the I ever f*cking do is waste my time at this college”
    Me “C’mon no need for language like that and I’m sure you’ll cope wasting 4 seconds re-typing a word”
    Student C “Can you stop shouting I’ve got a hangover”
    Student A “So have I and we have to do stupid test”

    (I wasn’t shouting just talking loud enough so everyone could hear)
    Me “Its important you pass you literacy exam as you’ll need it to get a job”
    I ignore them for a bit and unlock the exam.
    Me “you can start now”
    Student B “Can I start now”
    Me “Yes, but you must not talk at all through the exam”
    All goes quiet for a 5 mins. I notice intense concentration, I’m hopeful.
    5 mins goes by… very few questions, if any in some cases answered… (dont forget a 10 year old could do this)
    Student A “I cant concentrate with the noise next door can you tell them to shut up” (the noise next door is another teacher instructing her class, its hard to make out what she is saying as its too quiet)
    Me “No I cant tell another teacher to shut up, just try your best”
    Student A “This is shit I can’t do it”
    Me “Well at least try”
    30 mins go by
    Student arrives – “can I sit the exam”
    Me “No your too late and you need to keep your voice down. Go to IT 1 your normal teacher is there”
    Student then ignores me and start chatting to her mate. I promtly tell her to leave. Technically i should of thrown the other student out but she’d only e allowed to resit and she wasnt actually cheating.
    5 mins go by.
    One student finishes (the one without a hangover and on time)
    Suddenly 2 more finish, even though they were no where near the last question, but thats ok they can resit.
    Only Student A left and she pipes up “How come I cant go”
    Me “because your not finished”
    Student A “this is shit”
    2 mins go by – I noticed Student A on question 17…out of 40. Suddendly she has completed the other 23 questions and wants to leave.
    Me “are you sure you dont want to check them through?”
    Student A “No!”
    I let her go, hold the door open for her and say well done (not even sarcastically)Well its nice to be nice.
    I get no response.

  3. They’ve got a point though haven’t they? As you yourself say, they can resit ad infinitum; the real reason they have to do it isn’t that it will help them get a job but that the colleges are barely funded for anything but these tests now, therefore the college will probably go to almost any lengths to ensure a near 100% success rate; they are in post-compulsory education and this isn’t their chosen learning outcome: why should they value it in any way? I’m playing devil’s advocate to a certain extent (chasing up work for Key Skills portfolios as I type…) but I do think the problems here are more complex than just a lack of respect and discipline amongst the ‘kids’.

  4. There would appear to be a problem that hopeless kids have ended up in FE doing pointless courses. However, the fact that kids can go though more than a decade of full time education and still be hopeless, particularly at behaving like civilised human beings, suggests that discipline is the bigger problem.

  5. AH Dunan the old keyskills portfolio what a nightmare!!! I agree the problems are more complicated than a simple lack of discipline, however, a vast number of problems could be solved instantly by there being more discipline in education.
    Its all very well saying that they can take the exam over and over but they must still pass it.
    Secondly maybe i’m just being madly optimistic but I assumed the students may see it in their interests to pass, so might actually turn up.
    Finally it is not pointless if you haven’t pass GCSE with a C or above.
    Ultimately I can sympathise with the students because no one will punish them for not turning up etc. so why shouldn’t they just do what they like.
    The college is fighting a losing battle really because by the time students get here behaviour is dreadful, as it literacy and numeracy.
    Hey at least we keep them off the streets – oh and the unemployment stats

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