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.



  1. Excellent post.

    And its all filtering through to the FE sector which is supposedly “Adult Learning” – which to me is offering courses to ADULTS to help them learn for learning sake, or to change career etc, but actually ends up being a net to catch students between 16 and 19 who have not achieved their full potential in the school system due to the behaviour crisis, dumbing down and management issues. All of these are then perpetuated in the FE Sector! This leads to the HE sector having to dumb down THEIR courses cos the students they receive simply do not know how to learn.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. An excellent summary of the climate within which we work.

  3. Yep have read it all before but that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying (if that’s the correct term) what you write. I despair that my daughter is subjected to 3 hours per week of ‘learning to learn’. Why not another hour of French, History or Geography? I despair every time I have to spend hours on some pointless, bureaucratic task which invariably involves meaningless statistics. I despair when either myself or a colleague are made to feel professionally inadequate when we attempt to deal with poor behaviour head on. Apart from that I love teaching – wouldn’t (couldn’t at this point in my life) do anything else.
    So glad the writer’s block has lifted.

  4. Why are you optimistic?

    • Damn, I wish I could come up with a good answer to that question. I guess I have always doubted the sustainability of a consensus based on denialism.

      • I was really hoping you were going to come up with some reasons to be cheerful , some glimmer, some cracks you’ve noticed? please…

        • Well, the government aren’t on the side of the denialists now and some of these issues are part of public debate for the first time in a long time. The recent strike over behaviour at Darwen Vale was also a positive development. I don’t want to declare that everything’s going to be fine, as I seem to have spent most of my teaching career discovering the system is even more dysfunctional than I thought it was, but there’s definitely something worth fighting for.

  5. OA, I wanted to mention something to you as I think you may find it interesting.

    I used to teach Cypriot students English language and literature in a private school in Cyprus; these children aim to take IGCSEs at 16, and A2s and A levels between 17 and 18. There were some behavioural issues, but nothing like we see in Britain today. It is also important to note that the school was also not an “academic hothouse” nor did it have a top British public school ethos.

    However, I recently caught up with some of my former pupils on facebook, and was rather fascinated to discover that a significant number of those I taught in year seven and eight went on to sit IGCSE English literature and language at 14 and 15, and achieved As and Bs.

    Let me just reiterate this: 14 and 15 year old ESL children, from an okay-ish school, with no selection criteria apart from parental ability to pay fees, sitting IGCSEs and passing with As and Bs.

    Now I am not being awkward here, but I cannot help feeling that this says something alarming about British examinations and grades. It should be difficult for a British 14 year old to pass an IGCSE with an A grade, never mind a teenage ESL pupil with only five years of formal English language tuition.

    And you know what else is rather startling? Neither my teacher colleagues or I “taught to the test”; these children were not drilled to pass exams …

    … and the strangest thing is that I used to worry my pupils were not strong enough in English to sit IGCSEs whatsoever.

  6. As if I wasn’t depressed enough already.
    Inspector Gadget’s blog today describes Britain as broken. His summing up of why the Police force is shot bears some remarkable similarities to your description of why Secondary education is too.

  7. “low level disruption” — this is so true, my daughter went to a well thought of caring girls secondary school. But low level disruption (chatting, cheek, giggling) disrupted many of her classes. We are in the inner city and the teacher who got the best out of her was a ferociously disciplinarian African immigrant with immensely high standards and an intensely demanding nature.

    My daughter went to a local authority music school on Saturdays — entry by audition so predominantly middle class. In choir nicely brought up girls used to sit at the back and chat all the time they were not singing. The teacher would appeal to them to stop. They would stop for as long as she was looking at them and the moment she moved her eyes away they would start again. I don’t think they were being cheeky or confrontational, they simply did not know how to be quiet and not talk.

  8. A Cupboard Johnny! I’ve never heard that phrase before! Haha.

    I liked this post, and it’s prompted me to update my about me page and make it a bit more detailed. Really the only bit where we overlap is when you say, “Finding ways to blame others becomes a major part of the manager’s job and bullying is commonplace,” although I really enjoyed what you say about crap management.

    I’m not sure if I think there is more bad management in education than in other industries – I think there are crap managers everywhere. However I think the issue in education is that they are super devious, and seem to exist just to bash teachers down and work against them whenever they can.

  9. Thank you for this wonderful post. I taught in London for about two and a half years after having been recruited to teach there by a company who visited our teaching college shortly before my class graduated. I spent an absolutely miserable two years doing supply and long-term relief teaching in London while I paid off my university fees that I owed back home. Your “summary” summarises exactly what the problems were that I encountered in London. I am sorry to say that they are also very prevalent here in New Zealand schools. It is such a relief to read the bolg of someone who can accurately describe exactly what is wrong.

    My problem both then while I was in London and now while I still teach here is that I cannot find anyone who is willing to help to fix the problems you describe. I am trying very hard to stay positive, but with so many people in power dead set against change and the students along with their parents also against teachers themselves, I just do not see the point of carrying on in the profession.

    Are there any groups or bodies within the UK or even here in New Zealand that you know of that I could join or log in to that would help with advice?

    • In the UK the best advice for people who aren’t coping is, I think, from the Teacher Support Network.

      For those just looking for practical advice the best places to go are probably the various teacher blogs and forums.

      Wish I could be more help, but for obvious reasons I’m not terribly familiar with New Zealand, although I have noticed a disturbing trend for progressive educationalists in this country to put forward various New Zealand schools as a model, which is not a good sign.

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