Archive for January, 2012


The Attitudes Which Cause the Behaviour Crisis

January 23, 2012

Every so often I end up arguing with somebody who claims that I am addressing “straw men” positions. They claim that I am arguing against positions that would never be held by anyone who could be taken seriously. I suspect most of my readers, particularly the teachers, know that the positions I argue against are all too common. However, just in case, here are 3 examples of the attitudes a teacher can face in school.

1) A prominent headteacher who disapproves of using detentions as punishment rather than relationship building.

In front of the Education Select Committee (minutes here; video here) Mike Griffiths, Head of Northampton School for Boys and witness for the Association of School and College Leaders said:

Detentions are not terribly useful. People tend to try and find a more creative way of dealing with issues, because to get good discipline you need to work with youngsters and get their co-operation. Simply penalising and depriving them of time and so on isn’t always helpful. The only time when I think it can be useful is when that time is used by the teacher to constructively work with that individual child, in a way that they don’t normally have time to, to actually rebuild the relationship. Personally, I am completely against the notion of what I think in some schools is called faculty detention, where somebody else runs it. As far as I can see, the only reason for keeping a youngster behind is to enable me, as the teacher, to improve relationships with that youngster, but that’s unlikely to occur if the youngster perceives the detention as being a period of almost imprisonment.

2) A head of department who believes children shouldn’t have to do what they are told.

I quite like a lot of David Didau writes about on his blog, but I have no confidence in his attitude to discipline. From a blogpost that I particularly disagreed with:

…students are in school to learn, not to behave. It’s no good bleating about ‘behaviour crises’ if all you’ve got to offer is some rules to follow. Frankly, I wouldn’t follow ‘em. I’m a bugger for asking ‘Why?’ which accounts for my personal struggle with recipe books: I always want to be given a reason why the onions have to be cooked for 5 minutes or why the water has to be ice cold or why you have to keep on stirring. I’m interested in knowing the thinking behind these instructions and really struggle to follow them unless they’re explained. Possibly the reason I’m bad at following recipes is also the reason why I enjoy teaching? Robert Sylwester, Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Oregon said, “Misguided teachers who constantly tell their pupils to sit down and be quiet imply a preference for working with a group of trees, not a classroom full of young people.

3) A child who cannot admit to doing wrong, even after assaulting a teacher.

Please take a look at this.  (If anyone can help me embed this for viewing on my blog then I’d be very grateful).

Of particular note is this section of the interview with Chloe, a girl who is treated as a victim throughout the report:

Voiceover:  So Chloe was statemented [a bureaucratic procedure under which a child is treated as if they have no responsibility for their own actions], registered as having special educational needs, but after an incident in which a teacher tried to confiscate her phone, the school had had enough.

Chloe: Because I was playing with it and she told me to hand it in and I said “no”. And she tried taking it off me. And so I put it down my bra so she couldn’t get it and then she took it. Then ran down the stairs with it because she asked me to leave and I said “no”. Then, so she took my phone and she started shouting in my face when I took it out of her hand so I pushed her out of my face.

Interviewer: So you pushed her? Hard?

Chloe: I didn’t exactly knock her over, so it can’t have been that hard.

You really have to have seen the whole Newsnight report to see just how seriously this girl was taken. (Tom Bennett demolished the programme here.)


The Education Spectrum

January 9, 2012

A version of this post has already appeared at

What is often most noticeable about education debate is the extent to which people, who are apparently addressing the same issue, talk past each other without even comprehending the opposing view. I think that this is because there are two different debates going on simultaneously. It suits people to focus only on a debate where they feel they have a strong argument and ignore the debate where they have a weaker argument. I hope that what follows might help clarify what is actually disputed in a lot of discussion about education.

The first of the two debates is about the content of the curriculum. Opinions differ on the extent to which there is a recognised body of knowledge to be passed on to the next generation. Traditionalists believe that there is a body of knowledge (which we can call a tradition) composed of the best that has been thought and known. Accordingly, traditionalists will tend to describe the aims of education in terms of the academic above everything else. They will advocate: the employment of teachers with expertise in academic disciplines; the use of clearly identified subject areas, and methods of teaching, organisation and discipline that allow for teachers to directly pass on their expertise. Radicals will reject the existence of any particular tradition to be passed on, and will instead suggest that skills and dispositions are more important than knowledge and that learning is to be based on the interests or needs of the individual child, or the requirements of a future which is unlike the present where people will value different knowledge and skills to those which are valued now. They will doubt that present forms of organisation in schools are appropriate, particularly the role of knowledge and the position of discrete subjects in the curriculum, and the position of teachers and adults as authorities over children. They will favour teaching methods which avoid the need for teacher authority or subject expertise, seeking to maximise the amount of activity and autonomy on the part of children, and to allow for the acquisition of qualities other than the academic. This debate between traditionalists and radicals is reflected most clearly in the discussion of “standards” and behaviour, which breaks out on a fairly regular basis in the media.

The second debate is about entitlement to the curriculum. Opinions differ about who should be able to get particular types of education. Elitists believe that the full benefits of education can only be gained or appreciated by a minority. Educational institutions will be expected to differ in their aspirations, and those schools with the strongest academic aspirations will be expected to find students who are suited to academic achievement and the system will be judged to a very large extent on its provision for those most able students. Egalitarians will want all schools to provide the curriculum to all types of children. The benefits of education are for all and attempts to discriminate between children will be viewed with suspicion, as will attempts to create a hierarchy of schools. The traditional faultline in this debate is, in England, over selection at 11: the division of academic children into grammar schools and other children into secondary moderns which was the norm for two decades from the mid-1940s and still exists in some parts of the country. Similar arguments are also had about the place of private schools.

Now, obviously, in sketching out these two debates I have tended to simplify or exaggerate positions. Few people are complete traditionalists; almost everyone accepts that the curriculum can change to accept new disciplines and contemporary concerns. Few people are complete radicals; everyone identifies some knowledge that is useful to all, even if it’s just the ability to read and write. Most elitism is moderate enough to accept some form of academic provision for the masses, and often to accept routes into the elite by those who missed them the first time. Most egalitarianism stops at some age, usually 16, and I have never met anyone who advocated that everybody should study for PhDs. We are talking about two spectrums of opinion as opposed to two divisions into binary categories.

The important thing here is that we understand that these are two separate debates even though both are often considered to be debates between political left and right. Traditionalists and elitists hold what are often recognised as “right-wing” positions. Radicals and egalitarians are typically described as “left-wing” positions. However, traditionalism and elitism are not the same position at all, nor are radicalism and egalitarianism. A lot of reason for the poor quality of much education debate is due to attempts to conflate this into a single spectrum, where the two alternatives are the “right-right” position of combined elitism and traditionalism and the “left-left” position of egalitarianism and radicalism.

This can be seen more clearly if we put our two spectrums of debate on a pair of axes.

Most of the volume in the education debate comes from the “progressive” top-left quadrant of the diagram (where we’d find the likes of Melissa Benn , Fiona Miller and Lord Hattersley) and the “conservative”  bottom right quadrant (where we’d find the likes of Melanie Phillips, Chris Woodhead and Lord Tebbit). It suits people who hold these two positions to act as if they are the only positions available and so most media debate seems to take place on the red-arrow above. Both camps know that there are limits to which they can gain public support for their positions. Grammar schools, if reintroduced, would not be popular with the vast majority of parents whose kids would not go to them. Trendy teaching methods are held with contempt by parents who actually want their kids to achieve academically. It is far easier, therefore, for educational conservatives to focus on standards and the educational progressives to focus on structures when having the debate anywhere the public can hear. It is in both their interests to maintain the debate along the red line, and to pretend that everyone is arguing from a position on that line. It suits both camps to pretend that everyone is either a left-wing supporter of child-centred education or a right-wing supporter of selection and no other position is possible.

Astute politicians have discovered the benefits of arguing for rigorous academic standards and comprehensive schooling (or at least no increase in selection), which places them somewhere low in the top right quadrant. This is the territory that Tony Blair and David Blunkett staked out in the mid-to-late-nineties. It is probably where the current government is, although one cannot be certain as it is unclear where the push for academies and free schools is meant to lead and the Tory backbenches seem keener on grammar schools than the coalition front benches. It is key political territory, because it is what most parents want for their children. They want their children to be entitled to a good academic education, without having to fight for a place among a privileged minority. It is also the territory with the strongest arguments in its favour, as it combines both a call for justice and a resistance to educational fads. It is opposition to both dumbing-down and to writing off a large section of the population.


Top Posts Of 2011

January 1, 2012

In case you are interested, these have been the twenty most viewed posts in the last year (although some of them were actually written earlier). This doesn’t actually mean they were the best, some of them just come up a lot on popular searches like “should I quit teaching?”.

1) A Guide To Scenes From The Battleground
2) The Top Five Lies About Behaviour
3) 10 Reasons Why I Shouldn’t Tidy my House
4) The Porpoise of Education
5) More Myths for Teachers
6) Why it is Annoying to Discuss Teaching Methods
7) The Job that Never Ends
8) You Know it’s Time to Quit Teaching When…
9) Never Forget: Learning Styles are Complete Arse
10) RELOADED: How To Find Out If Your Teacher Is Gay
11) The Denial Twist
12) Mixed Ability Teaching Doesn’t Exist
13) The Aim of Education
14) Thinking Skills
15) The Three Main Debating Strategies of Behaviour Crisis Denialists
16) RELOADED: A Brief History of Education Part 2. The 1944 Education Act
17) Bad Ideas About the Aim of Education #2: Improving Emotional Well-Being
18) These Riots Prove Whatever the Hell it was I was Already Saying
19) Failing The Most Vulnerable
20) Creativity

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