Another Summing Up…August 3, 2011
Every so often I like to stop and sum up the main points of what I am blogging about, and the position I am blogging from. Apologies to any regular readers who have heard this all before.
This blog is an attempt to describe the state of our secondary schools. There are three main issues which mean that for large numbers of children a decent standard of education is impossible.
The first issue is that there is a Behaviour Crisis. By this I mean that learning is often prevented by poor behaviour. Although poor behaviour can at times include severe incidents, the usual obstacle to teaching and learning is what is euphemistically called “low level disruption” and actually amounts to students repeatedly disobeying instructions to the point where their learning and the learning of others is prevented. The scale of the problem is such that a new teacher will not know where to begin to bring about order in the classroom, and an experienced teacher will find that students will be outraged by successful efforts to bring about order. This outrage will frequently result in managers taking action against the teacher for upsetting the students. It is normal for teachers to feel they have to appease badly behaved students and lower the amount of work expected for a quiet life and to avoid trouble. Teacher authority is not respected by students or by managers. This is part of a culture in schools, where students are not held responsible for their behaviour. Either their teacher is to blame, or their background, or worst of all, their poor behaviour is considered to be a “Special Need” a catch all category which covers not only genuine disabilities but is also used to medicalise difficult personality traits, although actual medical expertise is only involved in a tiny minority of Special Needs cases. The emphasis in schools is on “inclusion” of students with Special Needs, and this is interpreted to include those who cannot or will not behave. The education establishment seek to conceal the Behaviour Crisis, often by making bogus comparisons with other eras, but also by persecuting those who reveal the problem. They are supported in this by those who have ideological problems with adult authority and see any attempt to acknowledge the chaos in our classrooms as politically motivated.
The second issue is dumbing-down. Children are not pushed to achieve academically. They are kept busy with activities that actually don’t cause them to learn very much. Sometimes this is because it is believed that non-academic aims, like making students happy, good or socialised, should take priority over academic aims. Schools are not actually seen as institutions for making children smarter. At other times the problem is that there is an unrealistic idea of what it means to be smart. The vital importance of knowledge is ignored; as is the importance of effort and practice in acquiring it. In a situation where teachers are not meant to have expert knowledge, and where students are not meant to work hard, or to acquire great knowledge, then schools become preoccupied with activities that simply aren’t educational. Mixed ability classes are common place. Direct instruction is seen as bad and to be replaced by discovery learning or independent research. Group-work and project work replace practice and study. Futile attempts to teach generic abilities such as thinking skills, creativity or “learning to learn” replace the teaching of core disciplines. Fantastic explanations are invented in order to explain how students are to develop in the absence of effort. Some explanations involve pseudo-science such as “Brain Gym” or “learning styles”. Others just involve creating extra work for teachers, for instance insisting that their lessons are entertaining or that they fill out endless pages of assessment information. A further difficulty is created by politicians attempting to intervene in order to solve the problem. Typically a centralised solution like the National Curriculum, OFSTED or the National Strategies is captured by those who seek to dumb down and used to lower expectations. Where measures of achievement such as exam results or qualifications are used to achieve accountability, then those measures become devalued by exams becoming easier or challenging qualifications being replaced by worthless ones. As with behaviour, there are those who will simply deny this is happening, nevertheless, any attempt to raise the bar is loudly denounced by the education establishment and also by those who believe that it is somehow compassionate to save children, particularly working class children, from having to work hard.
The final issue is management. Schools are bureaucracies where it is more important that activity appears to be taking place than that anything is achieved. Paperwork is endemic. Pointless activities are thrust upon teachers. Systems work only on paper and not in practice and elaborate frauds are perpetrated on parents, governors and inspectors. An excess of managers and management responsibilities is used to make sure that everybody is kept in their place; there is little professional autonomy and responsibility, and therefore accountability, is as obscured as possible. Finding ways to blame others becomes a major part of the manager’s job and bullying is commonplace. Promotion and appraisal is largely by patronage making loyalty to the bureaucracy the main concern of managers. A bureaucratic system of performance management is used to obscure the genuine professional responsibilities of teachers, with a single, highly subjective, observation of one lesson likely to count more than a year of teaching effectively. Few people in management positions have the statistical or logistical skills to be an effective manager, or the imagination necessary to be an effective leader. Managers are not marked out by academic qualifications, experience, personal effectiveness, or a record of achievement. If anything, they are marked out by enthusiasm to spend less time in the classroom and to seek out status or financial rewards. While good managers exist, the further up the career ladder you look the more “Cupboard Johnnies” – people who are paid generously to manage a school but are rarely seen around the school – you will find. Politicians, particularly those who are newly elected to government, are often very keen to point out the problems of the Behaviour Crisis and dumbing-down, particularly if they can find a way to blame their opponents. The issue of poor management is rarely addressed as this is where the true power lies in education and few politicians will want to expose how powerless they are to change anything.
This is the world of the English secondary school. This is the world I work in and blog about. I am optimistic that it can change, but it will only do so when there can be honest debate rather than denialism and cover-ups. This blog is my contribution to that debate.
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