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Shamed Schools 2 – Edutwitter Trolls 0

March 30, 2018

I’ve written a lot in the past about school shaming.

School shamings are the phenomena whereby a named school is singled out by the press or by people on social media and criticised in public. The most noticeable elements of big school shamings have been:

  • Disgruntled parents complaining about a school’s rules or the fact they are being enforced;
  • The “journalist” Warwick Mansell leading the charge;
  • Twitter progressives claiming they are just holding the schools to account;
  • Online abuse directed at the staff of the school. Often this is the use of the c-word directed at the teachers and claims from trolls and educationalists that whatever they don’t like about the school is child abuse and comparable to Nazism;
  • A desperate trawling of the school’s website and social media, followed by freedom of information requests, all looking for dirt;
  • Claims that no matter how unpleasant the campaign the victims deserved it because everyone knows they are up to no good;
  • Criticism of the school for things that almost every secondary school in the country does like giving detentions or banning extreme hair cuts.
  • Complete disregard for people who had actually visited the school and could say the criticisms were unfair and ongoing attacks on anyone that challenges the narrative of the shamers.

I always recommend So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson to anyone interested in how apparently normal people can get involved with online activity that creates genuine misery without seeing themselves as part of the problem. He describes how online shamings work: “The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche”. He also writes about how easy it is to be drawn into a Twitter mob, something that can be seen in the behaviour of school shamers who often seem utterly unaware of the harm they are causing and angry that those outside the mob do not see it as benign.

The most common defence of these witch hunts is that there is genuinely something scandalous going on in the shamed schools that requires immediate action by the authorities. I think it’s worth commenting on what happens when the authorities do go to these schools and look for the terrible things that the online trolls describe. Unfortunately this will require naming two of the shamed schools, but you will see why this is unlikely to harm their reputation.

One of the first big Twitter campaigns against a school was against Michaela Community School in Brent. The school’s discipline system was repeatedly described as abusive and cruel and outrageous claims were made about the kids being unhappy. Here’s what inspectors actually found in a report that found the school to be outstanding in every category:

Personal development and welfare

  • The school’s work to promote pupils’ personal development and welfare is outstanding.
  • Attitudes to learning are exemplary. Pupils know how to be successful learners because leaders and teaching staff actively encourage pupils’ social and emotional development.
    Pupils typically said that they understand how hard work now will help to prepare them very well for the next stages of their education.
  • Pupils’ self-confidence matures rapidly. Teachers and leaders challenge pupils to speak in front of their peers and adults and share their views. Pupils learn how to speak publicly and do so with self-assurance. They constantly show that they understand the importance of listening carefully to the adults and one another.
  • Pupils are readily appreciative and caring. They acknowledge enthusiastically what members of the school community have done well and generously celebrate the successes and achievements of others.
  • Pupils have an extensive understanding of possible risks to their safety. They are in no doubt that leaders and staff will deal quickly and effectively with any problems that may occur. Pupils are consistently clear that any instances of bullying are exceptionally rare.

Behaviour

  • The behaviour of pupils is outstanding. Pupils are polite, well mannered and very respectful. They conduct themselves exceedingly sensibly around the school. In class, they are reliably composed and attentive to teaching staff.
  • Pupils behave responsibly and are highly self-disciplined. They follow the school’s conduct guidelines conscientiously so that lessons run very smoothly and without interruption. The school is an extremely calm and safe learning environment. It is very well maintained, and graffiti- and litter-free.

The most recent campaign against a school was against Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. A previously failing school, attempts to improve the school under new leadership from September last year had been met with aggressive resistance. This became particularly unpleasant due to a facebook group, involving both disgruntled parents and online trolls (and people who were both) campaigning against the school in the local community and claiming to speak for parents. Claims were repeatedly made about discipline being cruel and SEN students being mistreated. It may even have been complaints from parents that were organised by this campaign that led to an unannounced inspection focusing on behaviour and safety. Here’s what the inspectors found:

A large number of pupils told inspectors that, prior to the introduction of the school’s revised behaviour policy at the beginning of the current academic year, they often felt unsafe at school. They described ‘dangerous’ behaviour in corridors and during breaks from lessons, including regular fights, and said that abusive language was very common. Pupils explained that, very often, serious disruption during lessons prevented them from learning anything at all. Some said that in the past, they had ‘dreaded’, and in consequence sometimes avoided, coming to school because of these fears. Teachers and other staff told inspectors that they often found it difficult to teach because behaviour was so poor, that they were frequently the target of verbal, and occasionally of physical abuse, and that at times they too felt unsafe.

During this unannounced inspection, all of the large number of pupils who spoke with inspectors said that they now feel safe at school. Pupils moved around the school site in an orderly manner and behaved very politely and respectfully to their peers and to adults. They wore their uniform with pride, arrived at lessons promptly, and settled down to learning quickly. In all lessons visited, learning took place in a calm and orderly environment. Relationships between pupils and teachers were positive, and consequently pupils had the confidence to ask and to answer questions. Pupils behaved well, both when interacting with their teachers and when working on their own. As a result, they worked hard, completing tasks in a focused manner. During break periods, pupils socialised with each other amicably.

Pupils and teachers told inspectors that behaviour has improved significantly and that, as one put it, ‘today is just what things are like now’. The school’s records also indicate a considerable decline in the incidence of repeated disruption, and of more serious misconduct, particularly since the beginning of the current term. The incidence of permanent or temporary exclusion from school, or of internal isolation, though falling, remains too high because the behaviour of a small number of pupils has not improved. These pupils are removed from lessons when necessary so that learning continues. Pupils said that typically sanctions deter poor behaviour on the part of others because they are enforced consistently and quickly. The increased emphasis on rewarding pupils for their punctuality, behaviour and achievement is also promoting good conduct. Staff feel supported by leaders in dealing with misconduct; all of the large number who responded to the Ofsted staff survey agreed that, overall, behaviour at the school is now positive.

Staff and pupils attribute the improvements to leaders’ introduction of a new behaviour policy at the start of the current academic year. Leaders and teachers respond to poor behaviour robustly, but also priority is given to encouraging and rewarding positive conduct and relationships through what you describe as a ‘warm, but strict’ approach to discipline. Some parents expressed concern that a rigid application of the rules might punish, unfairly, pupils who have SEN and/or disabilities who are unable to follow particular instructions. Other parents were anxious that a rule designed to keep pupils within the classroom whenever possible would prevent pupils with medical needs from visiting the toilet during lesson time. You have ensured that the text of the policy makes clear to staff that they must be flexible when applying it. Teachers and pupils told inspectors that in their view, the
behaviour policy is applied with due regard to individual needs. Such an approach was evident during the inspection. Governors have considered carefully each of the small number of concerns about the application of the behaviour policy that individual parents have asked them to investigate.

In both cases, what the inspectors found was what other visitors to the school had also observed, and what the schools claimed was actually happening. There was nothing to confirm the claims of the online mob, and in both cases the mob seemed to dramatically change their story, from ongoing terrible cruelty to quibbling over single incidents and moaning about anyone who supported the schools on social media. No apologies were forthcoming and many trolls seemed furious to learn that children were safe. Of course, OFSTED is far from perfect, but the claims of the witch hunters about these schools had been so extreme – a culture of fear with kids being deprived of food or made to vomit in public – that no inspector would have missed it if they had been true.

So next time you see a Twitter witch hunt against a school, remember that online outrage is usually completely at odds with what independent visitors to shamed schools actually find. You don’t have to defend any school, but challenge the trolls for their behaviour, particularly if they claim they are only asking questions or holding the school to account. And remember, even if their claims were ever true, social media is never the place to raise safeguarding complaints about named schools.

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4 comments

  1. How true this is. School shaming is a disgrace and the dreadful popular press delight in it. School reputations are hard won and quickly lost. I took over a large coastal primary school in special measures and one of the biggest battles we had to fight was local reputation. We were saved by Ofsted when the report triggered a local headline about strong leadership. But we also has a press officer, posting good-news stories to anyone who would listen. A pity that, a couple of years later and after my time there, the school went over to an academy chain and dropped back into special measures and so the reputation battle started again.


  2. Perhaps I’m lucky. In Ontario, Canada there isn’t much in what could be called ‘school shaming’. That might be because staff can move fairly freely between schools (when openings present themselves, do a voluntary exchange and the like). As well, the Board rarely enforces boundaries so a poorer performing school can still get its share of stars. All that aside and my reason for writing is that you are fighting the good fight and I am thrilled that you do. Thank you.


  3. Yup, visited schools in Lincoln County, Ont – seemed like a very sensible system.


  4. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.



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