The Denial Twist

April 8, 2011

The Local Schools Network wound me up again recently.

This wonderful article described something commonplace (schools hiding bad behaviour from OFSTED) and simply claimed that it couldn’t possibly happen. Here’s what Tom Bennett, the TES’s behaviour expert (and writer of The Behaviour Guru) had to say when I brought it to his attention:

It’s a curious thing, that someone would deny that this kind of thing happens. As it goes, I’ve seen it happen in schools. The idea that such a thing would be impossible because it would be a public scandal assumes that it would be viewed as scandalous by many schools. It isn’t- many schools would see this as absolutely normal practice. Right or wrong, it’s common. Denying it, is akin to imagining that MPs wouldn’t, say, fiddle their expense accounts, because that would be just dreadful.

It got me reflecting, again, on the Local Schools Network. As you may be aware they are an internet-based group of activists committed to the (in my view, fairly sensible) idea of supporting local schools. However, often they do this by pretending that the school system isn’t broken and by being as vicious and unpleasant as possible to anybody who reveals what is going on in our schools.

The one member of their team who you’d think might know better is Francis Gilbert, who is a state school teacher. He is as keen as the rest to attack anyone who blows the whistle on state schools. So when Charlie Carrol and Katherine Birbalsingh wrote books describing what goes on he told us:

The schools described in these books are not “normal” and it’s worrying that the authors have promoted them by pretending they are.

As evidence he cites OFSTED as an authority:

There are not many schools at the moment that are categorised as “unsatisfactory” by Ofsted, indicates that only 4% of schools were in 2009, which puts Birbalsingh’s failing school in a small minority of schools. For the Tories and Birbalsingh to suggest that all schools are like this is a total nonsense

In a post, which for the sake of Katharine’s privacy I won’t link to, he quoted from positive OFSTED reports about a school she worked at in order to suggest the experiences she described are not real and, in a disgraceful attempt to trawl for dirt, asked other people to send him information. When challenged, he told me that an OFSTED report was “a sound evidence base” and suggested I wasn’t a real teacher as I was commenting anonymously.

Anyway, I’m not going to attack Francis and the Local Schools Network (I think I did enough of that here), I’m just going to draw attention to what Francis was saying about The Behaviour Crisis just a few years before he got in with the LSN (and I am deliberately picking recent examples here rather than the books he wrote about teaching in the 1990s).

In 2009, after the GTC struck off whistleblower Angela Mason (and remember this is a person who used my anonymity against me),  he wrote:

What Mason suffered as a supply teacher is endured by many in the profession across the UK. Usually they are too scared to report poor behaviour because they will be blamed by the school’s management for letting it happen. In Mason’s case, the full of weight of a duplicitious educational establishment in the form of the General Teaching Council has tried to crush her message. Will any teacher who now admits that there is bad behaviour in their class be hauled in front of the GTC?

Also in 2009, the TES reported:

It was the steady drip-drip of poor behaviour that pushed Francis Gilbert over the edge. He had endured pupils throwing things at him, barricading his classroom and fighting with each other, but the day he grabbed a Year 7 boy by the arm and threw him out of the room, it was over a relatively trivial incident.

“He refused to do any work and persistently disrupted my lesson,” Mr Gilbert says. “What he had done was quite minor, but I was at the end of my tether, constantly dealing with his misbehaviour.”

Although the boy complained about being manhandled, he was persuaded by the deputy head not to take it further.

But Mr Gilbert recounts daily battles to try to get his pupils to learn. One class was studying Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and after Mr Gilbert explained how Eddie was attracted to Catherine, his niece, the class started to chant “Eddie wants to fuck Catherine”, followed by throwing things, shouting and pushing the furniture against the door.

Mr Gilbert, who has chronicled his experiences of teaching in east London in the best-selling book I’m a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here, says when he raised the issue with senior managers he received neither support nor sympathy.

“They said it was my problem I couldn’t control the class and that I should improve my lessons, but no one came in to help – they told me to get on with it,” says Mr Gilbert, who now combines supply teaching with writing.

In 2005, he wrote in the Telegraph:

Every weekday morning, thousands of teachers go to work with a sick feeling in their stomach. I know, because I endured years of such stress as a teacher in various comprehensives around the country.

Why? The reason is simple. These teachers are entering classrooms in which the pupils are out of control. They are talking very loudly, perhaps fighting, and generally not listening. In a typical class, it probably takes at least 10 minutes to settle a class down, by which time a worksheet has been dished out. Some pupils make paper aeroplanes with it, the truculent rip it, the idle doodle on it, and a few actually follow the instructions and start the work. These pupils do so furtively, because being a “boff” is definitely not cool: work has to be done under the cover of nonchalance.

In the “New School Rules” (2007) he wrote:

Unfortunately far too few schools in the country are well managed …even the ones with good reputations.  If you think the discipline policy in your school looks vague and unclear, bear in mind that there may well be mayhem as a result. I have been attacked by many teachers and educationalists for highlighting the shoddy discipline in many of our schools. For me it is a national scandal. … A cover-up mentality occurs… don’t be deceived. It is a major problem. In a recent survey by Teachers TV 66% of teachers felt there was a discipline crisis in our schools.

In “Parent Power” (2008) he wrote the following about OFSTED whose judgements he now praises:

…if a school has been wonderfully politically correct, it can get away with a good report – but it may be a hotbed of bad behaviour and indiscipline.

In “Yob Nation”  (2006) he wrote:

I have been teaching for nearly 15 years in various comprehensives in London. During that time I have had classes that rioted, pupils smoking in my lessons, missiles thrown at me and ripped cans and spikes left on my chairs. … I am not an exception – that is normal life for a teacher these days. I know that even if you are a good teacher with interesting lessons, and effective discipline, you will have a hard time teaching in many of Britain’s schools, whether you are doing so in a deprived area or a middle-class one.

Interesting contrast, don’t you think?


  1. It seems clear that Francis Gilbert is a pure hypocrite. What has caused him to be this way?

  2. You’ve forgotten the most obvious. Before that, he wrote a book “I’m a teacher get me out of here”, a description of his first school “Truss School” (Sir John’s Cass apparently).

    Clare Short reviewing it wrote “This is a funny, moving and worrying memoir. It follows Francis Gilbert’s experiences as he goes through teacher training and takes up his first job at an inner-city comprehensive. The story is one of disorder, low achievement, and disillusioned and burnt-out teachers.”

    • I didn’t forget it or the follow-up “Teacher On The Run”, in fact I mentioned them both here: https://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2008/05/18/a-brief-history-of-education-part-5-the-battleground-school/ and briefly referred to them in this post when I said “I am deliberately picking recent examples here rather than the books he wrote about teaching in the 1990s”.

      However, I was really more interested in establishing that he hadn’t just changed his mind since his experiences in the 90s (written up 2004-2005) but had consistently been blowing the whistle on The Behaviour Crisis right up to at least 2009, before forming the LSN in 2010 and declaring that people who had agreed with him in the previous few years were liars.

      I get the impression that his change of heart on ideological matters seems to have taken time and I actually think that this is fair enough. However, his change of story on the more empirical issues of whether OFSTED are credible or the honesty of people who claim there is a crisis of discipline, has been too fast to be convincing and certainly too fast for me to be comfortable with the contempt with which the LSN denounces anyone who dares acknowledge The Behaviour Crisis.

      • Fair comment.

        It baffles me that anyone who has any recent experience of teaching of any sort (perhaps if they have only ever worked private ?) could deny the behaviour problem.

        Especially so in Gilberts case given his history as documented in his schools. I think it’s worse than the 1990s personally, but it certainly hasn’t improved much !

        I actually have most of his books ; they are quite readable and consistent about school behaviour. This volte face is jaw dropping.

  3. I don’t understand why they would be denying this behavior. I wish you had gone more into that in your post, WHY you think they are denying it.

    I once read that in a history book of fun facts that in ancient Greece each student was not allowed to attend school without his own personal slave sitting next to him. The reason for this is that the slave was there to control the student’s behavior, and so that the teacher could get on with the teaching! I’ve often shared that interesting fact with my misbehaving pupils–it didn’t fix their behavior, but at least they enjoyed hearing it as much as I enjoyed sharing it!

    –Lynne Diligent,
    Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor

    • I avoided discussing motivation because Francis Gilbert’s motivation is largely incomprehensible, even when he tries to explain it.

      With regard to the Local Schools Network generally, it is about politics. Two of the 4 founders have links to the hard left, and the agenda is one of opposing various education reforms, private education and parental choice. Pretending that state schools are absolutely wonderful is simply a tactic, although in my view it is a counter-productive one.

  4. What a twat. Obviously there much be some invested interest in him now pretending everything is peachy. The only question is, what that invested interest is.

  5. It’s like politics sometimes teaching isn’t it? The way everything has to be spun, and there is a fundamental denial of what is really going on and what they really think about it.

    Trouble is, once you start speaking out, especially under your own name, there’s no going back. Why does he think that no one will notice this giant U-turn? Weird.

  6. Hmm, OFSTED say all is rosy in the secret garden. And I imagine that the Queen imagines that the world smells of paint even when she’s not visiting.

    Incidentally, I won’t be happy until the Denial Twist is a compulsory component of Strictly Come Dancing, and Bruno’s getting his knickers in a twist about it.

  7. No government in power likes to admit there is a behaviour crisis as it would mean spending cash and it makes them seem like Victorian uncles.
    The pity is I believe we should be honest about it because it is solvable. And it needn’t cost cash. It just needs a common sense, determined approach.
    A national tariff for misconduct. (eg swearing at a teacher= 2 day exclusion)
    Behaviour training for teachers.
    Standing up to bullying parents
    Limited chances to bad students
    Expelling bad students if needed
    On site Referral units
    You may think these things are obvious but schools just won’t follow things through so kids begin to run the place.
    A terrible injustice to the students that lose out in uk schools.
    I wish more tv companies would send in hidden cameras into good often schools to reveal the reality and stimulate national debate

  8. Excellent post and definitely one that fits a lot with my own experience. Your blog is so intelligent and well put together, it’s a big inspiration for my own.

  9. Seen this?


    • Yes. I linked to the story in one of my comments on that LSN page.

  10. My new novel details a school where the behaviour is poor, and I certainly think that Ofsted has got it about right, with 1 in 10 schools having behaviour which is basically not good enough; that’s quite a lot of schools, teachers and pupils affected. I certainly am no “denialist”, I just feel strongly that these figures need to be put into perspective. KB specialises in saying the WHOLE system is broken, which I don’t agree with. Yes, I am sure “thousands” of teachers do wake up dreading to go to work; and that there are schools where poor behaviour is a problem, but that doesn’t mean the whole system is broken. That’s just scare-mongering which puts parents off the state sector completely.

    • You do get that we can read above what you used to say about the scale of the problem, and the reliability of OFSTED?

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