Archive for December, 2018


The campaign against discipline

December 16, 2018

It seems a long time since the days of 2013, when putting more knowledge in the curriculum could inspire 100 educationalists to write a letter claiming this:

….could severely erode educational standards. The proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.

Progressives have retreated. These days they are more likely to say that they are the true advocates of knowledge, while putting forward teaching methods and curriculum ideas that obstruct the learning of knowledge, than claim knowledge is harmful. In fact, these days they hardly seem to be trying to win any arguments with teachers about pedagogy and curriculum.

The traditionalist viewpoint has become mainstream. It seems like you can’t throw a brick in a secondary school these days without hitting a teacher who is talking about knowledge, explicit instruction, retrieval practice or interleaving. While much of what is happening is just lip service, and plenty of schools have just added a few techniques that work to a list of things that don’t, things have moved on. Perhaps not at all levels, and certainly not so much among teacher trainers, but the debate has turned round on curriculum and pedagogy.

However, if you did throw that brick, then progressives probably would take the time to argue that you can’t be held responsible for that and that the person you threw it at had brought it on themselves by ignoring your unmet needs. The battleground is once again behaviour. And while few secondary teachers, even those who are entirely progressive on the curriculum and pedagogy, have much sympathy for the progressive cause on behaviour, there is a receptive audience in the media and among politicians. As well as repeated school shamings for any school that makes a big deal of enforcing rules and routines, there has been a lot of commentary about what schools do about the students with the most extreme behaviour.

So far this year we have seen:

  • Media coverage, reports from charities, inspectors and politicians saying that exclusions are a bad thing. Much of this has referred to both fixed term and permanent exclusions.
  • Media coverage and online campaigns saying that internal exclusion (i.e. when a child is taken out of lessons but not sent home) is a bad thing.
  • OFSTED and political comment on “off rolling”. While rightly critical of attempts to manipulate league tables by removing kids from school rolls, or to do permanent exclusions unofficially, this has led to a lot of blanket condemnation of schools that lose kids for any reason. This includes managed moves (i.e. a change of school due to behaviour) or the unfortunate situation where parents refuse to cooperate with a school that expects their child to behave.

Unfortunately, any idea associated with OFSTED and any idea getting press coverage, immediately becomes currency. Anecdotally, there are already tales of LAs and MATs telling schools to reduce exclusions and inspectors asking lots of questions about internal exclusions. A school leader trying to play it safe would be looking to avoid exclusions, managed moves, and internal exclusions. But this leaves an obvious question about what to do about the most extreme behaviour.

The alternatives to actually removing kids with extreme behaviour are:

  • Tolerating extreme behaviour.
  • Er… that’s it.

Non-teachers (particularly those offering their services to schools for a price or writing about social justice in academia) will claim that the problems can be dealt with by “meeting unmet needs” or “restorative justice”, but teachers know that these things are never sufficient. Kids behave badly because they can get away with it and because it has become normal. When discipline systems have no strong sanctions, behaviour breaks down; teachers are left with nothing but appeasement as a discipline strategy. “Behaviour management” becomes a matter of begging, bribing and ignoring. We have seen behaviour go wrong here, particularly in the 2000s, and we have seen it in other countries. And once discipline breaks down, and teachers are not coping, there will be a concerted effort by progressives to claim we need to reconsider pedagogy and curriculum to address these problems.

Could this campaign succeed? My view is that it will only happen if politicians lose sight of the big picture. If they take action against exclusions, internal exclusion and off-rolling, without realising that this will leave schools with no options, we will lose control of behaviour in our schools. Whenever one of these issues is raised we need to ask “What is the alternative?” And if it doesn’t involve actually removing kids from classrooms or schools when their behaviour is out of control, then we need to object as a profession. We also need to see political leadership. We need politicians willing to say “I stand for safe and orderly schools and those who don’t like this are dangerously wrong”.


Can ideology blind us to what is genuinely dangerous?

December 8, 2018

Recently I have been discussing at length the opposition to permanent exclusions.

I wrote about the ideology behind some of this.

I also wrote about what happens when schools don’t permanently exclude:

There have been a few recurring arguments that permanent exclusions, as they currently happen, are unfair. I wrote posts addressing whether they are unfair because of SEND or because of racism.

Ultimately the strongest argument to protect the right of schools to exclude is that of safety. While opponents of school exclusions seem to think that young people are permanently excluded to manipulate exam results, or due to racism, the reality is far more alarming. The Mirror reported that:

Sexual violence and harassment in schools will be probed by MPs for the first time after figures showed 200 pupils claim they have been raped every year.

The Commons Women and Equalities Committee launches an investigation today after shocking figures revealed the scale of sexual offences between teenagers.

Data last year showed 5,500 alleged sexual offences were recorded in UK schools – including more than 600 alleged rapes – over three years.

Another 4,000 alleged physical sexual assaults were recorded, the data revealed.

Research has claimed some teachers are turning a blind eye to the problem as the rise of practices like ‘sexting’ raise issues of personal privacy.

A YouGov poll of 16-18 year olds in 2010 found 29% of girls had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school and 71% said they frequently heard sexual name-calling towards girls at school.

Permanent exclusion for students who show themselves to be dangerous is one of the key ways we would expect schools to keep their children safe from serious assaults and sexual harassment. Out of control children are also a danger to themselves. The following news stories that I found for a blogpost a few years ago all involve students being killed or maimed in circumstances where students disobeyed teachers:

It seems incredible that anyone could endanger children by demanding that schools either stop excluding, or be constrained in their right to exclude on the basis of whether the student facing exclusion is of a particular ethnicity or has been labelled as having SEN, but that is precisely what we are seeing at the moment. Some proposed alternatives to exclusion are ridiculously naive. Some seem to think it could be sufficient to explain to a dangerous child that their bad behaviour is wrong, or ask them to talk about their feelings and what the school can do to make them happier. At times the willingness to endanger children would actually be funny if it wasn’t so serious. And this has made me wonder how common it is for people to be so blinded by ideology that they will put themselves or others at serious risk of harm. Are there examples of this from outside of education?

The first example that springs to mind are the many “humanitarians” who think that dangerous criminals should not be in prison. It is easy to find examples of violent criminals being treated leniently despite the risk to the public. The most recent case I’ve seen was that of rapist John Warboys who was due to be released from prison. The head of the parole board resigned after it was found that Warboys, who was convicted of one rape, five sexual assaults, one attempted assault and 12 drugging charges and was believed by police to have committed crimes against more than 100 women between 2002 and 2008, had his release approved without sufficient attempt to find out if he was likely to still be dangerous. His release was only stopped after 2 of his victims launched a legal challenge.

While those who are simply overly sympathetic to criminals and apparently unconcerned with their victims are common in criminal justice systems in western democracies, there have been those who, blinded by ideology, have been exceptionally unwise. In his book, The Psychopath Test, John Ronson describes the pioneering work of Elliott Barker at the Oak Ridge Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Ontario in the 60s and 70s.

[Elliott Barker] successfully sought permission from the Canadian government to obtain a large batch of LSD….handpicked a group of psychopaths…led them into what he named the Total Encounter Capsule , a small room painted bright green, and asked them to remove their clothes. This was truly to be a radical milestone: the world’s first ever marathon Nude Psychotherapy session for criminal psychopaths.

Elliott’s raw, naked LSD-fuelled sessions lasted for epic eleven-day stretches. …they were encouraged to go to their rawest emotional places by screaming and clawing at the walls and confessing fantasies of forbidden sexual longing for each other even if they were, in the words of an internal Oak Ridge report of the time ‘in a state of arousal while doing so’.

Elliott himself was absent, watching it all from behind a one way mirror. He would not be the one to treat the psychopaths. They would tear down the bourgeois constructs of traditional psychotherapy and be each other’s psychiatrists.

Other experiments, equally unbelievable, also took place and this chapter of Ronson’s book is genuinely fascinating. Incredibly, some psychopaths showed signs of improvement and were even released following their treatment and apparent cure.

I learnt that, fascinatingly, two researchers had in the early 1990s undertaken a detailed study of the long-term recidivism rates of psychopaths who’d been through Elliott’s programme and let out into society…. In regular circumstances 60 per cent of criminal psychopaths released into the outside world would reoffend. What percentage of their psychopaths had?

As it turned out: eighty per cent.

The Capsule had made the psychopaths worse.

The crimes of some of the released psychopaths were absolutely horrific. Yet the authorities had condoned these ridiculous, experimental treatments and people had died as a result. Yet even now some of those involved defended what they did.

Not every case of ideological blindness to human evil endangers others. Sometimes people only endanger themselves. Two American cyclists and bloggers, Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan, had a very strong belief in the kindness of human beings. According to the New York Times, they formed a plan to cycle all over the world. While on their expedition, they affirmed their positive view of humanity:

“You read the papers and you’re led to believe that the world is a big, scary place,” Mr. Austin wrote. “People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted. People are bad. People are evil.

“I don’t buy it. Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own … By and large, humans are kind. Self-interested sometimes, myopic sometimes, but kind. Generous and wonderful and kind.”

“No greater revelation has come from our journey than this,” he wrote.

In July this year, they were cycling in Tajikistan when they were spotted by men loyal to the Islamic State and were murdered.

Two days later, the Islamic State released a video showing five men it identified as the attackers, sitting before the ISIS flag. They face the camera and make a vow: to kill “disbelievers.”

It is not just dangers from human beings that we can under-estimate if influenced by the wrong ideology. Eccentric millionaire, John Aspinall, who died in 2000, owned a number of zoos and wildlife parks that regularly appeared in the news for all the wrong reasons. From his Guardian obituary:

The parks have been dogged by controversy after five zookeepers were killed in 20 years, three of them mauled to death by tigers. Yet Aspinall maintained his belief that keepers should be allowed to enter the enclosures where tigers roamed and bond with them.

Aspinall said his philosophy was to encourage keepers to come into close contact with potentially dangerous animals.

However, in 1980, he was forced to shoot two Siberian tigresses that killed two keepers at Howletts, and four years later a keeper was crushed to death by an Indian bull elephant in Port Lympne.

In 1994, the head keeper at Howletts was killed by a Siberian tiger. The most recent victim was Darren Cockrill, 27, who was crushed by elephant La Petite in its enclosure at Port Lympne in February.

In 1996, Aspinall won a high court case to maintain the controversial practice of keepers mingling with tigers, even though in May of that year, a boy was awarded £132,000 because his arm was ripped off by a chimpanzee at Port Lympne in 1989.

There is something in human beings, that means we can adopt belief systems that endanger ourselves and others. We can become convinced that multiple rapists need a second chance; that psychopaths can be cured with nude acid trips; that there are no parts of the world where people will murder us for the sake of it, or that wild animals just want to be our friends. In some of these cases, those who endangered others were in positions of power and influence, and could use their position or their wealth to put others at risk.

I am, obviously, not arguing that excluded children are the same as rapists, psychopaths, ISIS terrorists or wild animals. But we should be wary of those who refuse to see the danger in letting children run wild. People can endanger themselves and others with naive beliefs. People will use their power, influence and “expertise” in ways that put others at risk. I would argue that what we are seeing in the anti-exclusion movement is exactly that kind of ideologically-driven, dangerous naivety.


Are the words “progressive” and “traditional” biased against educational traditionalists? Part 3

December 1, 2018

For over one hundred years, the standard words used for the two main camps in educational philosophy have been “progressive” and “traditionalist” (in recent years, these have often been shortened to “prog” and “trad” on Twitter). Descriptions of what they mean can be found here from John Dewey writing in the 30s, or here from Alfie Kohn writing ten years ago. In countries where progressive education is unchallenged, or has gone unchallenged for a long period, progressives often deny this history and resent the fact that language exists to describe a debate that they thought they had won forever. However, a more coherent objection to the terms comes from traditionalists. They argue that “progressive” is a positive word, suggesting progressives look to the future, are influenced by science and are politically on the left. “Traditionalist” by contrast sounds old fashioned, uninfluenced by contemporary science and politically right-wing. In Part 1 and Part 2, I shared blogposts relevant to this topic written by others. Here I will put forward my own views.

I am happy to be described as an educational traditionalist. There are three reasons I don’t have a problem with the term.

Firstly, although in recent political discourse “progressive” is seen as a positive word, meaning little more than liberal and supportive of change, these are not the only way to view it. Firstly, I accept the arguments in Part 2 about not wanting to support change for the sake of change. It is okay to consider yourself left wing, yet want to conserve some things. Just because you want political action to make society more just, does not not mean you have to believe that everything needs to change or that the very fabric of society needs to be torn down. Although I do believe we can change society through politics, ill-thought-out change can destroy trust and divide. More importantly, political progressives don’t always appreciate the history of the word. The “Progressive Movement” in the United States, from which we seem to have inherited the word, while having many achievements to be proud of, was associated not only with progressive education but also with Prohibition and eugenics. Even in this country we often forget that “enlightened” left wing intellectuals supported eugenics. If you feel uncomfortable being on the side of G.K. Chesterton, rather than Bertrand Russell, on education; you can reassure yourself that you probably also side with Chesterton over Russell on eugenics.

Secondly, the word “traditionalist” implies something more than “old fashioned”. Tradition is something that is passed on. The origins of the word “tradition” are in the Latin for “handed over”. Those of us who think the basis of education is in handing over knowledge from teacher to student, should not have a problem with that idea of a tradition. While some subjects may teach things that are being handed over to the next generation for the first time, some of us share knowledge that has been being passed on for over two thousand years. If we celebrate the passing on of knowledge, then we are loyal to a tradition. We need to be clear that the tradition is “the best of what has been though and said” rather than simply what’s oldest, and that we don’t necessarily believe that what is old is always better, or that values and knowledge shouldn’t change. But there’s nothing wrong with seeing teaching as being about handing over something which already exists. Nor is there anything wrong with being sceptical of the idea that we can force the world to “progress” by changing what we teach to fit in with contemporary concerns. Those who want to throw out great books and great thinkers, or even great thought, in order to save the next generation from thought crime are not really seeking to educate. The tradition changes with culture, but the point of education is not to change culture through selective ignorance. Those who want to engineer utopia through schools, may be more progressive than traditionalist, but they are the enemies of education.

Thirdly, even if “traditionalist” is not an attractive name, that’s not without its advantages. Whenever traditionalism is repackaged to emphasise some element of traditionalism, such as “knowledge led teaching”, “a knowledge rich curriculum”, “high expectations of behaviour” or “whole class interactive teaching” it seems to take about 5 minutes before progressives claim the title for themselves. Progressives have a remarkable knack of being able to explain how the ideas they have supported all along are actually “knowledge led”, or are also “high expectations of behaviour” whatever the evidence to the contrary. In fact, it has almost become a cliché in education debate that the moment traditionalists get the upper hand in the debate for and against X, then progressives will claim that “nobody was ever against X”; “all teachers support X”; “we should stop having this divisve debate about X”, and before too long they will be promoting an expensive training course about X which somehow seems to be indistinguishable in content from the very same ideas they had back when they were against X. If the opponents of systematic synthetic phonics now claim that everyone supports phonics, why would they not do the same for any other part of traditionalist education? An attractive name for traditionalism actually ends up being devalued. The single best reason for calling traditionalism by the name “traditionalism” even if it might put some people off, is that the only reason to call yourself a traditionalist is because you actually believe it. I cannot say the same about any other title or aspect of traditional education. Whatever momentary advantage there is in saying “I don’t consider myself a traditionalist, I believe in X” is immediately diluted as a hundred progressives tell you they also believe in X.

So let’s stick with the name. If you really believe in passing on knowledge, explicit instruction and discipline based on adult authority, call yourself a traditionalist, and at least then we’ll know you really mean it.


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