Archive for August, 2014


The Behaviour Delusion (or “Why do Kids Kick Off?”)

August 29, 2014

Those who work in schools seem to spend a lot of time asking themselves questions like:

  • Why do Mrs Jones’s classes always behave well?
  • Why are students worst behaved in the afternoon?
  • Why does Ryan get into trouble in geography and not in maths?
  • Why is behaviour worse on rainy days?
  • Why does no child do what I ask without the threat of a detention?
  • Why is Tammy-Lee so polite and pleasant one-to-one but awful in  lessons?
  • Why do students act as if it is a surprise that I punished their poor behaviour?

The answers a lot of the worst school managers like to give to these sorts of questions tend to involve two bad assumptions. Firstly, that students are like automata, they respond automatically to certain input (rain, being shouted at, having to work hard) and what follows is an unavoidable reaction to a specific situation not a deliberate choice influenced by the consequences of previous such choices. Secondly, that the input students get from their teachers is far more important than the input they get from their peers.

I was reminded of this by some of the discussion following my last post. Probably the most controversial part of it was my disdain for schools in which teachers have to run their own detentions. I should probably say that I don’t mind if teachers ask students to stay in for 5 minutes at lunch, break or after school to talk to them, or hear their apology, but I do have a problem with expecting teachers to set and run half hour (or more) detentions. The usual justification for what seems like an unproductive use of time is that it can (in some way) be used to discuss what happened and repair the relationship between  student and teacher. Where these justifications have been made the assumptions I described above have usually come into play. Firstly, it is assumed the student behaved as they did in reaction to a particular situation, and the specific situation has to be addressed rather than the principle that the student should behave in all situations. Secondly, it is assumed that the teacher, and their relationship with the student, is the key to what happened and the student cannot have been set off by factors unrelated to which teacher was present. It is because I think these assumptions are based on an inaccurate model of how students behave that I don’t think detentions set by individual teachers can be the basis of a discipline system.

What is being missed, with regard to the level at which detentions are organised and by anyone asking the questions above, is that students rarely act independently of their peers when they misbehave. Most poor behaviour stems from interaction between students and shared expectations held by students. Students coordinate their behaviour. They behave badly when their peers behave badly. They behave badly when their peers expect them to behave badly. They behave badly when it will increase their standing with their peers. They behave badly when their peer group thinks they will get away with it, or when they think they should get away with it. Behaviour incidents do not happen uniformly across the school. They cluster. Certain lessons, certain teachers, certain times of the day, certain times of the year or certain combinations of students will prompt more bad behaviour than others. Kids work together when they misbehave. Sometimes they test the boundaries together, at other times they convince themselves that the boundaries should never have existed and that any attempt to impose discipline is unfair. One student’s behaviour or attitude will set off others. That is why seemingly insignificant things, like the weather, can result in large amounts of bad behaviour, because it only takes a small change to prompt major problems. That is why some departments have more problems than others. That is why some year groups are worse than others even when comparing their entire time at the school. That is why some teachers get targeted and others see little poor behaviour. That is why management being seen to be unsupportive over one incident can sabotage a teacher with every class they have.

If the approach to discipline is piece-meal and ad hoc then you are more likely to move poor behaviour around rather than reduce it. If you try to devolve all behaviour management to the lowest possible level, the teacher, behaviour will start breaking down in some classes. The clustering effect means that some teachers will have to deal with more poor behaviour than others, making consistency with setting detentions or calling parents impossible. Good managers ensure those teachers don’t have to manage the detentions or call parents themselves and say, “You are doing the right thing, keep following the behaviour policy and they’ll eventually get the message” while also helping to confront the students. Bad managers assume that the teacher must have done something wrong and start trying to change the teacher, often by getting them to lower expectations. They’ll even assume that getting involved directly to improve expectations will undermine the teacher.

It is true that teachers can make a difference to which teachers get the worst behaviour, but this can happen in good or bad ways. Good classroom management and following up incidents thoroughly can help deter bad behaviour, but so can appeasing ringleaders and making lessons less demanding. If teachers are working to make sure they are not the one that gets the hassle, rather than ensuring that nobody gets the hassle, the school as a whole will not have great discipline. Students will change who they target so individual teachers may feel they are making progress, but they will still act up somewhere. Perhaps for new teachers; perhaps for those that simply don’t have time to set enough detentions; perhaps for certain subjects; perhaps for those that SMT have failed to support. I have seen schools go into an academic nosedive when it becomes the teachers that make kids work hard who get the worst hassle. It’s not that teachers can make no difference to behaviour in their own classroom; it’s that the biggest factor in behaviour is student expectations and these can be set outside the classroom.

The best behaviour management is about setting universal expectations in a school. It is about creating a situation where every student sees their peers behaving. Some of the biggest mistakes in behaviour management involve digging too deeply into the reasons individual students behave or misbehave. People start imagining that if a student behaves only out of fear of sanctions then it is a bad thing, or that if they behave in lessons where they like the teacher then every teacher should try to win them over. However, in my experience, most poor behaviour has something to do with the expectations of the peer group. There’s no point asking “well why did this student misbehave today?” when the reasons are sitting all around them. Most students behave in the way they think is normal, for somebody of their status, according to the values they have arrived at in collaboration with their peers. Discipline systems that work on a whole school level have a much better chance of changing what is normal across the school than leaving every teacher to compete to be seen by kids as one of the teachers for whom behaving is normal. It also gets the best out of teachers if they know there is a standard to maintain, rather than an ordeal to be avoided. No headteacher should want teachers to be asking before a lesson, “What can I do for a quiet life?” rather than “How can I get my class to learn a lot?” but this is what happens where the workload for dealing with behaviour, and the responsibility for setting expectations, falls mainly on the classroom teacher.


Seven Signs of a “Good Enough” Discipline System

August 27, 2014

Last time I talked about what made a school discipline work. I was glad to see a really positive response from a number of headteachers and SMT members about the post, there were really only one or two disappointing ones. A few years back any suggestion that discipline was a management responsibility rather than about classroom relationships was highly controversial. It does feel like there are now just too many schools that have become effective on the back of sorting out discipline properly for that kind of denial to continue to be widespread, particularly among those members of SMT who are active on social media and can be challenged by hundreds if they make the types of excuses for poor discipline that we still often hear in schools such as: “kids like these cannot be expected to listen quietly” or “if lessons were engaging there wouldn’t be any discipline problems”. However, it is not so long ago that a committee of heads (and a few other establishment figures) were asked to look into behaviour in schools and produced a report concluding that there was nothing much wrong, and I do think that this has a lot to do with the idea I mentioned in my last post of a school with “good enough” discipline.

A school with “good enough” discipline is a school where it is possible for those in authority and those who are well-established to have no real difficulties with discipline, particularly in lessons. It is one where OFSTED is more than likely to say behaviour is “good” on the basis of how students behaved for the day and a half when they visited the school. It may even be that less established teachers who have low expectations of effort or concentration may also thrive, never really needing to confront behaviour. However, at the same time, it is a school where a certain proportion of staff are going to faces classes which do not expect to work or learn. The most obvious people in these categories will be new staff and supply staff. But it might also be teachers who are newer to the school, or younger teachers. In some schools it may be teachers of particular subjects. Or it may be teachers who are singled out for their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Sometimes it may just be teachers who have got on the wrong side of a particular ringleader or clique among the students. In the worst cases it may be those who have been undermined by SMT, as if one student is let off for treating you terribly, others will usually try. Tom Bennett refers to this situation as the “two schools“, the one with the good behaviour inhabited by the powerful and the lucky, and the one with the poor behaviour inhabited by the marginalised and the unlucky. I think of it as the “good enough” school. It tends neither to be a school with a really challenging intake (they would collapse into anarchy without a decent discipline system) nor a school whose intake have really high expectations (they can implement even quite complex discipline systems without too much effort) but one that is somewhere in the middle. It is one where there are enough challenging students to terrorise some staff, but not so many that those who are powerful or influential within the school cannot protect themselves from the worst of it and consider behaviour to be “good enough”. There is neither too much risk of immediate disaster, nor ambition to stand out for being excellent.

The basic feature of the school with “good enough” discipline is seen in the direction of travel of the workload relating to behaviour. Responsibility is always pushed downwards to those who are less senior and have less power. If you want to spot the signs of a “good enough” school discipline system, you are best looking to see if most, but not necessarily all, of the following apply:

1) The headteacher (and other SMT members) would not consider discipline their top priority. It would probably not be in the top three. They simply don’t seem to be part of the system either in terms of leadership (telling staff what is expected of them) or management (actually making sure things happen). In schools with decent discipline systems, even those with a very well-behaved intake, SMT are really keen on telling staff to enforce the rules and to raise their expectations. They feel that if there is a classroom in the school where the teacher cannot or will not enforce the rules then it is a problem for everybody and they will exhort teachers to punish more, ask for support and to refer incidents upwards. Managers also have a very clear role in the discipline system dealing directly with the worst offenders and a strong presence around the school site

2) There are two discipline systems. I wrote about this here. Reflecting the “two schools” there is a paper discipline system that will be shown to governors and inspectors that seems very thorough and supportive and there is what staff are actually expected to do, which will often involving lowering expectations and leaving struggling colleagues to sink. Often discipline is very informal, and sanctions are highly arbitrary. Students know that what they do is less important than who they do it to. Teachers who follow the letter of the system are seen as “inflexible” and lacking in behaviour management skills. If you could end up being complained about, or told off by managers, for following the behaviour system then you are most likely to be in a school with “good enough” discipline.

3) Departments have a major responsibility in the discipline system. The capacity of school departments to deal with behaviour varies massively. They differ in size; they differ in experience; they differ in available time. One department might consist of two part-timers, another might consist mainly of full-time staff who have been at the school for two decades.  One department might include two members of SMT and three year heads, another might be mainly NQTs. One department might teach every child in the school, another might mainly have sixth-formers. No school can ever hope to have a consistent discipline system if departments are heavily involved. Even delegating too much to year heads can create inconsistency, but at least year heads have a clear jurisdiction. Detention systems run by departments struggle because the same student can be in detentions in more than one department. Systems of removing students based on departments can be worse than useless if everyone is teaching at once, or you have multiple challenging classes in the department at the same time.

4) Teachers have to administer most sanctions themselves. What goes for inconsistency between departments is multiplied many times for teachers. Leaving it to teachers to supervise their own detentions, or call parents, guarantees that some staff will be unable to comply with the system. Schools might have a policy where you put every student who doesn’t do their homework in detention, but it is not a serious policy if in the first week of term a teacher finds that they have fifty students who haven’t done their homework. Asking teachers who have suffered verbal abuse or physical assault to call parents is idiotic, it just makes the whole experience even more stressful. Even the most dedicated staff will have to limit themselves to enforcing only those rules that they know they can enforce without running out of time in the week.

5) Inadequate sanctions. There are certain policies that will never work. I can give multiple examples but here I will mention a few of the most obvious ones. One is a policy of “telling them to put it away” in response to use of mobile phones in lessons. It has to be at least a detention, where practical it should be confiscation of the phone as well, although that will need an effective behaviour system to enforce. Anything less will ensure that the benefits outweigh the costs and students will invariably have their phones to hand. Another place where sanctions are often inadequate are those for being sent out of the classroom. It has to be significantly more than a detention (particularly if detentions are hit and miss). The gains in terms of establishing a reputation and getting out of work from being removed from a lesson are such that a detention is not enough of a deterrent. Also, problems exist where the discipline system allows for multiple warnings without a punishment. There seem to be a remarkable amount of schools that have adopted systems in which punishments are administered on the third warning, that have also decided that every warning should be given only for prolonged and repeated misbehaviour rather than low level disruption. Warning systems work where behaviour management involves multiple students misbehaving and you need to ask them individually to comply. They do not work when a warning is considered a sanction rather than a sign that a sanction will be coming without immediate cooperation. They do not work where they simply make it harder for teachers to punish wilful and persistent misbehaviour.

6) The existence of “outlaws”. Outlaws are students who exist outside of the normal constraints of the discipline system. Some exist simply through how much of their behaviour is ignored because there is no capacity to deal with it. They will never attend the detentions that they have earned because there is nobody to chase them up or schedule them. They are the sort of student who owes forty detentions which are then written off when they attend just one. They have tested every system to the limit, have found the gaps, and now walk through them knowing precisely who to act up for, which days to be absent, and which detentions to run away from. The other sort of outlaws are those created directly by well-meaning intervention. Often on the SEN register, it has been decided that they cannot be held responsible for their actions and teachers are deterred or prevented from enforcing normal discipline with them. Any attempt to enforce normal classroom rules will result in protest, such as walking out or swearing at the teacher, and teachers will be blamed for having provoked them. These students already know their rights and privileges and will often tell you they have “anger management” in order to intimidate you before you ever try to enforce a rule.

7) Behaviour INSET is not about using the discipline system. If you want to have effective behaviour management then everyone needs to know exactly what they are meant to be doing and how the behaviour system works. It is not a good sign, then, if INSET on behaviour management is not aligned to that aim. While new teachers might need more training than that, it is never a good sign if whole school behaviour training is not about rules and sanctions. If managers hire somebody who will tell teachers that if they were just nicer to the kids, or made their lessons more engaging, then their problems will go away, then you can guarantee SMT has lost the plot on behaviour and are looking to ensure that those they are not supporting will blame themselves. The consultants who spread this message, some who actually make a living from this sort of nonsense, are no help at all and nothing would delight me more than seeing schools have the sense to put them out of business by concentrating on raising expectations not spreading blame.

Behaviour is about expectations. Students behave in the way they think is normal. Over time effective teachers (particularly in smaller schools) can raise those expectations. That is why, even in some of the worst schools, you will find veteran teachers who everybody behaves for. Sometimes a single department in a school manages the same thing and the students just know that is the subject they must behave in. But for a whole school to be effective then the expectations are part of a culture which has to be set across the board and consistency is what matters most. This is dependent on leadership setting a high standard, but also on well-managed systems that ensure everyone can easily maintain those standards even in the most trying circumstances. Judging by the reputations gained by those schools that collapse into chaos and those schools which crack discipline, most secondary teachers face schools with “good enough” discipline, where plenty of lessons are disrupted but there is enough order to protect key staff and to pull the wool over the eyes of inspectors. Though many schools seem to maintain this situation indefinitely, allowing this situation to continue risks spiralling into decline. Those schools that don’t settle for this, that push for better behaviour than the conventional wisdom accepts, and do so on principle rather than as a response to failure, usually become celebrated examples of high achievement.


What Makes A School Discipline System Work?

August 24, 2014

Before I get into describing how school discipline systems work, a little explanation of where I’m coming from. There was a bit of discussion recently (for instance, here, although I admit that once again I may be blogging about a discussion on Twitter) about the Guardian Teacher Network’s Secret Teacher feature. While I sympathise with those who complained that it’s not always very good, I’m quite keen to defend both the principle of anonymity and the usefulness of saying negative things about the education system. I think that there are issues where things have moved on because teachers have spoken out anonymously. I think teachers who wouldn’t have spoken in public did a lot to change perceptions about the unfairness of OFSTED and the conduct of observations, as well as the extent of dumbing-down, gaming and cheating in exams, at a time when much of the education establishment claimed no problems existed. I think there are other issues such as workload, behaviour, teacher mental health and bullying or incompetent managers where little progress has been made but those writing anonymously are the best sources of information. I also think teachers criticising the education system prevent those with power in it from claiming that any criticism of it is an attack on teachers, which is still an old standby for those who want to dismiss legitimate concerns.

I think there is a further, and more relevant, point that describing how failures happen is often a greater source of insight than studying successes. For instance, I had a really positive response from so many managers to my How to be bad SMT post. It is also why I found it easy to comment on this post from Tom Sherrington in which he discussed his intention to get a whole school behaviour system in place and working. I have lots of experience of failing behaviour systems. So much so that when I passed on my advice and opinions in the comments, I realised that it was enough to fill a blogpost. My worst experiences (and a few positive ones) have taught me quite a bit about school discipline systems. It is remarkable how much failing behaviour systems in different schools have in common. Invariably responsibility for behaviour has been pushed down the chain, (serious incidents are dealt with by middle managers, detentions and contact with parents by individual teachers) with the worst schools having managers who see their responsibility as punishing those teachers who don’t cooperate with concealing the bad behaviour. The level at which sanctions are organised is key. If seeking to challenge behaviour creates hours of work for a teacher with little effect then they won’t use the system; often it is simply impossible. Where behaviour is good, it is usually the case that it is easy for a teacher to enforce the rules. Where behaviour is bad, it is usually the case that it is difficult for the teachers to enforce the rules. Where behaviour is terrible, managers are usually working to prevent teachers enforcing the rules. For a behaviour management system to work there has to be capacity to deal with everything that arises and only SMT have the power to create that capacity.

If it is agreed that there is to be a whole school detention system (something I generally favour unless behaviour is already very, very good) there are key things that will make a difference.

1) Capacity (both raw numbers and keeping those who attend in check). I have seen such systems fail because there were too many students in detention or because those who were supervising them had insufficient power or authority to do so effectively. Having an SMT member (supported by other teachers) all in the hall with kids sat in silence is the most efficient I’ve seen, but it requires a lot of effort to ensure it always happens and that disruption in detention is dealt with. The quickest way I’ve seen schools overload their behaviour system is to use it to enforce homework.

2) What happens when students don’t attend. I have seen such systems break down because in the event of non-attendance it was up to the class teacher to chase up and reset and there was no increased sanction. This is even worse if the class teachers are in charge of scheduling the detentions or if kids are used to arguing the toss over detentions. I’ve seen schools where it was well known that non-attendance at whole school detentions was the best strategy and teachers would rarely even know if detentions had been sat or not.

3) The response to escalation. The worst failures of whole school detention systems I’ve seen are ones where the schools did not deal adequately with serious incidents such as swearing at a teacher or walking out of lessons. Students came to realise that when faced with the prospect of a detention (for instance having got one or two warnings in a three warning system) it was safer to walk out of the classroom or swear at the teacher than to get a detention. A behaviour system is only as good as its response to the most serious incidents.

4) The response to system failure. These systems usually have teething troubles. Perhaps some perverse consequences; perhaps a loophole; perhaps somebody not doing their job, or most likely a bottleneck which means somebody somewhere suddenly has more work than they could possibly do. What happens when these problems occur is absolutely vital. If people try to deal with it by getting those below them to generate less work (i.e. set less detentions, enforce fewer rules), or by losing the paperwork, then the system will fail. There has to be an understanding that problems can be referred upwards without blame. Broken behaviour systems usually break the moment somebody in the system will not support classroom teachers who are setting a lot of detentions or dealing with a lot of serious incidents either by telling them to stop confronting poor behaviour, or by not following through on that teacher’s paperwork.

It is fairly easy to get to a point where the behaviour system is “good enough”, i.e. where all SMT, HoDs and the most established teachers have enough support not to have to worry too much about behaviour. I think that is the equilibrium the average school ends up with: poor behaviour is endemic but not universal. It is far harder to get a school to the point where good behaviour is expected in every lesson and around the site. In fact, I think that’s why behaviour in schools is often so poor, because those with power settled for the “good enough” option, with the blame for the remaining poor behaviour being placed with those with least power to change it.

Anyway, I hope this is of use to some managers somewhere. Nothing makes a school ineffective like endemic behaviour issues, and I have never yet encountered a secondary school that sorted behaviour simply by nagging, or even training, classroom teachers. It’s always a whole school issue because expectations are contagious, and sensible managers will want their teachers to concentrate on teaching, not compensating for the low expectations students had when they arrived at their classroom.


That Primary School Teacher Post

August 9, 2014

There were lots of comments on twitter about that post yesterday from a new primary school teacher. I thought it was genuine and worth sharing because:

  • The ideology described was consistent with what I had been describing in my previous post;
  • The ideology criticised was consistent with so much of what I’ve seen expressed on primary school teachers’ blogs;
  • It was consistent with what I have heard from plenty of others who have gone into primary teaching, particularly the academically able;
  • The effects of the ideology are very consistent with what I see as a teacher of year 7;
  • It is consistent with what we know about academic attainment in basic skills, not just in year 7 but throughout the population, i.e. they have declined over time as the teaching methods have gor more progressive;
  • I assumed that the many primary teachers doing a good job and opposing this ideology would either agree with the post or want it debated, rather than claim to be personally insulted at the suggestion that anyone ever disagreed or that everything wasn’t perfect.

I knew it would be controversial. As I said in my previous post, when it comes to early years there is a general hostility to questioning around methods. I also know from long experience that criticism of anything in the primary sector gets a far more hostile and personal reaction than criticism of anything in secondary. Criticise a fad in secondary or FE and everybody says “aren’t our managers idiots for forcing this on us?” Criticise a fad, or even the same fad, in primary and it’s like you just appeared on the News at Ten to declare that everyone in primary, staff and students alike, are completely shit and should be put down. Despite a number of brilliant exceptions among primary bloggers, there just doesn’t seem to be the same capacity for debate as in secondary or FE.

Some of the response was predictable. It was part of a fairly heated debate and was originally in the comments, so, of course, any passing member of the “tone police” could complain about the style of writing. Inevitably there were those who, having seen that I’d recently asked for evidence for some bold and apparently technical claims about the psychology of child development, thought it must, therefore, be appropriate to ignore context and ask for evidence for personal experience and opinion. And, of course, people were all too willing to interpret any general claim to be about what was universal rather than what was normal. But apart from these obvious time wasters, I was actually surprised at a lot of the other comments. There were a lot of attempts by primary teachers to claim nobody among their number held the opinions that were criticised in the post (what a relief) but these seemed to be arriving in my twitter timeline alongside those primary teachers who were claiming that nobody in primary education (other than the author) disagreed with the opinions criticised in the post. Simultaneously, I was seeing two arguments that appeared to refute each other. Additionally, there were people who simply seemed unaware that any of the debate from the last few years has happened. Some defended the criticised position on the basis of learning styles (although the worst offender later found reasons to delete her tweets). Others defended it on the grounds that discovery learning works well. One person even tweeted me this: 

Also surprising to me were some of the ad hominems. In particular:

  • It probably isn’t a primary teacher who wrote it (alongside claims it’s a wind up and declarations of disbelief and shock to be reading such views);
  • They show a lack of understanding, particularly of play, development, learning etc. (said several times over and it was also claimed they cannot be educated or that they needed to be trained);
  • “I hope this teacher never teaches my kids”;
  • It’s depressing or bad they want to be a teacher;
  • If they cared they’d come and visit us (really appealing when said to somebody saying something controversial anonymously);
  • They are attacking the professionalism of other teachers including those who say they don’t use the methods criticised;
  • The author is projecting their own problems onto the system.

I wasn’t so much surprised that ad hominem attacks were made. I was surprised how familiar they were. Look at the comments on my blog (and other blogs) from when I started and you will see pretty much all of them. This is exactly how I used to be dismissed. Of course, as time went on and lots of other tweeters and bloggers appeared expressing similar opinions, and it became obvious I had a significant following, this sort of attack has become rarer and rarer. It was a way to stop the debate and it didn’t work. I don’t think it’s going to work here either. Of course, the author might have had a bad experience but they haven’t had a rare experience. Of course, there are other views about pedagogy, but isn’t it time they were defended on the basis of evidence and reason not by demonising those who oppose them?

Oh, and just one more point, it was remarkable how many people assumed the author of the post was a man (and the only exception that really stood out was a male primary teacher). Any suggestion as to what that signifies? It could be stereotypes about former accountants, or it could tell us something about the sexual politics of primary teaching. Your opinions on this would be appreciated.


A New Primary Teacher Writes…

August 8, 2014

This was a comment somebody left on my last post, but I thought it deserved to be a post in its own right.


I’ve been following your posts having switched from a career in accountancy to primary teaching. This is the first time I am piping up with an opinion.

My training has been pretty much a cult-like initiation process into progressive teaching, however, my academic background (scientific/mathematical) has led me to question everything I am expected to do/believe. In order to avoid a even longer post, I can simply state that I agree with everything described in the book ‘Progressively Worse’.

As a rare logical-rational type in a primary school setting I have also come to question the orthodoxy ‘Children must (and can only) learn through play’. I firmly believe that the some of the behaviour issues that secondary teachers must endure have their roots in play-based primary education. That old adage ‘Bring me the boy of 7 and I will give you the man’ is so acutely true when I observe how increasingly difficult it is to teach year 5 and 6 children who have been left to do whatever they like, in the name of ‘play-based learning’.

Essentially, I think two rather odd myths collide. The first is the myth ‘out there’ that all children are subjected to some kind of Gradgrindian school experience. This, coupled with the child-led parenting approach, has led to children being given free reign outside of school to do whatever they like. No controls, no structure, no discipline. Just do whatever you like and ‘Be free to discover yourself by having bad manners and playing violent video games until 1am’.

The second myth, which exists in the world of state education, is that all ‘working class’ children are subjected to some kind of Gradgrindian home experience. This, coupled with the child-centred teaching approach, has led to children being given free reign inside of school to do whatever they like. No controls, no structure, no discipline. Just do whatever you like and ‘Be free to never discover long division, so long as your self-esteem is enormous and you really enjoy Art’.

I fail to see how the answer to lack of parenting, that would otherwise install self-control in a child, is a play-based classroom that has no structure and no discipline. Surely this would re-inforce bad behaviour? Such bad behaviour in the infant classes tends to be excused as ‘They’re only cute and cheeky little children’ by teachers who have adopted a motherly approach. By the time they enter junior school, complete with an inability to read, it is too late and the bad behaviour is no longer cute, cheeky or indeed funny. This behaviour is annoying, tiring and increasingly dangerous at a time when you are trying to prepare them for SATs and being able to access secondary education. You can turn things around, by being strict, but this is not advised………

By the time these badly behaved children enter secondary school, complete with their inability to read, write or add up, it is too late. When children enter puberty they cease to want to take advice from adults and instead follow their peers. That window for an honest message about the rewards of self-discipline and hard work, and how it is the single most important thing that can transform your life, closed back in Year 6, because primary teachers believe that children should live in a bubble of self-centred happiness.

Apparently children miraculously grow-up in the 6 week holiday between junior school and the secondary school? No I don’t think so.

I have begun to question why everyone thinks that the Victorian classroom was so inherently cruel (although we can all agree that The Cane was). These days I think that possibly those Victorian teachers steeled themselves in order to do the right thing, because they saw the home conditions of the children they taught, and knew that basic education was too important for children to fail.

Children these days are just not being taught to sit still, listen and be quiet. That basic, numero-uno most important skill for learning either never installed, or, if the child is from a home where the skill has been taught by decent parents, driven out by play-based learning in the infant classes.

The whole ‘Let children learn through play’ thing seems to come from a place of misplaced kindness, whereby adults just do not want children to experience any kind of struggle, or work, or inconvenience. It is a very emotional interpretation, and emotive types seem to dominate in primary education.

When I look at a child, I see, from my previous experience, the young working-class woman in my office who is facing a bleak career because she hasn’t been taught the basics, including the self-discipline to turn up to work on time. There is no safety net for her: government benefits are severely restricted for young people, and her parents cannot afford to support her indefinitely. I am busy reporting to clients and management, so cannot teach her basic grammar! Where is the happiness when, at the age of 16 and at the end of her apprentice probation, we do not keep her on?



August 7, 2014

I should have learnt from the experience described here, or from phonics denialists, that for a lot of tweeters and bloggers, the methods used in the teaching of younger children is not a subject open for debate or even the mildest form of questioning. I don’t really have any views on the details of early years teaching, and don’t really have much insight into what small children are like. I’ve so very little to say on the issue, and yet it’s really easy to lose a day on twitter just dealing with misrepresentations and attacks dealt towards anybody who is seen as questioning the orthodoxy. But I suppose I might as well state the grand sum of my views here; ask the questions that I am actually interested in, and then let it drop.

Let’s deal with my only real opinion on something to do with early years. Back in March of this year, Sir Michael Wilshaw wrote what seemed to be a fairly sensible letter pointing out that OFSTED did not require a particular method of teaching, even in early years, and instead said he expected “inspectors to apply common sense when observing how well children learn and how effectively adults teach children to develop skills, knowledge and understanding”. He made some pretty uncontentious (to an outsider) suggestions about looking into whether the early stages of maths and English were taught and whether children were being prepared for school. However, the response was intense.

A bunch of the usual suspects wrote a letter to the Telegraph describing this as a “Gradgrind for tiny tots”.

This utilitarian shift from experience to content betrays an abject (and even wilful) misunderstanding of the nature of early childhood experience. The determination to dragoon England’s young children into unconscionably early quasi-formal learning is catastrophic for their well-being, and is setting up many for failure at a very young age.

They even ended with what appeared to be a call for civil disobedience. Much of the comment I saw on Twitter considered it a threat to “play-based” learning. One NUT activist  who was a signatory complained:

We know exactly what Wilshaw means when he makes a pronouncement such as this- an erosion in children’s right to learn through play and exploration.

Another signatory made the following complaint:

This leads me to my one opinion on early years teaching methods: OFSTED are right to judge them by outcomes rather than acting as the “play police” and seeking to enforce play-based learning. I tend towards letting teachers choose their methods unless they are outright harmful or so dumb as to undermine the profession. While I don’t really get play-based learning or how it works, I know it hasn’t always been the in-thing and other countries (well, France) are rumoured to manage without it, so I don’t see why it needs to be compulsory here. I don’t have views on the the best ways to teach in early years. I don’t have views on how much play small children should have during the school day. I don’t even claim to really understand what play-based learning is. I just think that children should be expected to learn and that teachers should have freedom over methods.

Now, you’d think that might be the end of it. I don’t know much about it; I don’t have much to say about it; I don’t have a method to push.

But of course not. There have been multiple objections to what I said back then.

Firstly, there’s an ideology here:


To question the need for play-based learning was taken to be indicative of a whole attitude to children. No distinction was made between being against compulsory play-based learning in schools and nurseries and being against any play-based learning in schools and nurseries. Nor between that and being against children learning from play at all. Nor between that and being against play. Nor between that and being against children enjoying themselves. You either wanted compulsory play-based learning or 2 year olds behind desks being lectured in Latin and kept in cages. Nothing in-between was allowed as far as I could tell.

Away from the ad hominems, there were two main arguments. One was that play-based learning was unavoidable. Either there were no other teaching methods (which is odd as play-based learning seemed to have been in and out of fashion in my lifetime). Or alternatively, everything really small children did was a form of play. Not knowing anything about small children, I can’t reject this out of hand as a claim, but it seemed self-defeating as an argument. If play-based learning was unavoidable then there was even less reason for OFSTED to compel it. Another variation of this was to demand I define “play” and pick fault with that. This was interesting in as much as it turned out that I actually seemed to have more of a positive view of play, as something enjoyable and worth doing for its own sake, than many of the advocates of play who seemed to present it only as a means to an end. But again, this seemed a self-defeating argument. If play couldn’t be usefully defined then that was another argument against making play-based learning compulsory.

The other argument was about the benefits of play-based learning. Remarkably some of the people keenest to dismiss the masses of evidence about how best to teach reading, were far keener to accept the evidence on play-based learning. As I understand it, there are some positive studies, but nothing so overwhelming that it could justify making it compulsory. But, and this is where I drifted into controversy again, and this is why I was controversial today, there was considerable opinion that play was very, very necessary for learning and development. Not being against play I tended to accept this at first, but as time went on I started wondering. How does anyone actually know this? Are there case studies of children who were deprived of play and nothing else? Are there ethically dubious RCTs where children were stopped from playing and the effects measured? There might be correlations between play and development, but the obvious explanation for that would be that development drives play, not that play derives development. It’s not that I thought that depriving children of play wouldn’t harm their development, it seemed likely that it would, I just wondered how we knew that it would, and generally, how could we know how important it was.

And this is where I seemed to have caused most offence. A lot of advocacy of play-based learning seems to start from making assertions about the benefits of play, then jumping to the idea that, given these benefits, it only makes sense to use play in teaching. To actually ask about the empirical evidence for these benefits and their extent is to undermine the arguments. There were a few pointers towards the benefits of particular types of play, but these were often contested. There were a lot of theories from any number of disciplines to explain why play should, in theory, have benefits. There were any number of reports from advocacy groups which made claims about the benefits of play, but there was a distinct lack of empirical evidence. There were those who insisted there was huge amounts of evidence out there, but seemed unable to narrow it down in such a way that I  might actually find any of it. Mainly I had to deal with people who were outraged that, as far as they were concerned, I must have suggested that children don’t learn from play. Of course, children do learn from play, but that does not establish how necessary play is for learning. It is also, again, a self-defeating argument as far as the controversy over OFSTED goes, because the objection hinges on the idea that by looking for learning OFSTED are undermining play.

A few interesting things did come up, and I hope to find time to read some of them, but I think we are still as far away from as ever from having any real justification for so many of the claims made about play, let alone anything that would justify making play-based learning the only permissible method of teaching in the early years.

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