Archive for February, 2022

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Book Review: ASBO Teacher by Samuel Elliott

February 26, 2022

ASBO Teacher: An irreverent guide to surviving in challenging classrooms. Crownhouse 2021

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2021 was to read more books and I intend to continue that into 2022. I will be reviewing those books that are relevant to education. Two warnings though. 1) Any links to Amazon will be “associate” links potentially earning me a few pennies. 2) A lot of these books have been sent to me by people I know, so I’m completely biased.

I’m probably more biased about this book than any I have reviewed. I know, like and use the same barbers as the author, and he kindly sent me a copy of the book. I worked in, or visited, many of the schools he writes about including the one he attended as a pupil. Despite his use of pseudonyms for those schools, throughout the book I was picturing him in classrooms I’d taught in. (Although with hindsight I think I was imagining him delivering his history and geography lessons in maths departments.)

This book is written as advice, but the appeal is that the advice, the examples and the description of the author’s own experience is the apparently unvarnished truth, unlike the many books aimed at teachers that make you wonder whether the author has ever met a teenager, let alone taught classes of thirty in a tough school. He has written the first guide to teaching in terrible schools since Paul Blum’s “Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms“. Its coverage of school life is not so much “warts and all” as “what to do if your school is nothing but warts”.

It is extremely funny, with a deliberately humorous style, which is what you need to avoid crying, or becoming angry, that schools like these exist. The subject matter, of what to do to get the best for your students, when those in charge are doing everything to make that harder, is potentially grim, so the jokes and anecdotes are needed to avoid traumatising the reader. Despite having taught for years in schools like that, I found myself realising that there is no way I could cope with all that now in middle age.

The book would be most useful to the new teacher in a bad school, best read when approaching one’s first nervous breakdown, as a chance to realise “oh, it’s not just me”. This is good advice on how, through force of personality and a willingness to invent your own systems, you can survive until the opportunity comes to work somewhere else; anywhere else. There’s also a lot of solid advice about how to plan and deliver lessons where children will actually learn, even though they weren’t expecting to. I wish I’d been able to read it back when I was teaching in schools like those represented in the book. I wish I’d been able to read it when I was teaching in the schools featured in the book.

When the author was a pupil, and I was teaching at his school, I remember how I would be told that the violence in the corridors; the repeated verbal abuse, and the fact that kids would occasionally escape through a fire exit, and on to the roof were all perfectly normal for schools. I would be told it wasn’t close to being as bad as the special measures school in another part of the city. Being tough enough to survive without falling apart was just how you get along in your career. Ofsted even declared the school to be “good”, more than once, during the time when it was most challenging. My teaching experience since then has involved working in many much better schools, including those in much more challenging circumstances, so I guess I knew that schools don’t have to be like that. Rereading my blogs about that school (I called it “Stafford Grove“) brings back just how bad it was, and just how unhappy I was there. However, it wasn’t until I read this book that I truly accepted it wasn’t just me. The school was violent, the children were unsafe, and this should never have been okay with anyone.

The most tragic element of the book is that, although schools like that now seem somewhat rarer, they still exist and Sam has been able to find them and work in them even in the 2010s. A lot of debate about education centres on schools that are safe and orderly, and whether they are cruel or make insufficient allowances for SEND. The flipside of that debate is to consider schools like those in this book. Are kids happier when adult authority is limited? Do those with SEND thrive when those annoying little rules are barely enforced? Anyone tempted to think the answer is “yes” should read this book, particularly the sections about the author’s own time at school, and realise that there is no substitute for the grown ups being in charge.

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How should policy-makers approach improving the education system?

February 23, 2022

Sam Freedman wrote an interesting blogpost about Dominic Cummings recently. It’s well worth a read if you have an interest in policy making. Both Freedman and Cummings worked for Michael Gove during the intense period of policy change in education during the early 2010s. It still seems very recent, because those changes (development of academy chains, ending grade inflation in exams, abolishing quangos, the phonics check) are the ones the education establishment are still most keen to reverse.

The key point in the blogpost is the following:

…. he [Cummings} assumes most people running existing institutions aim to frustrate change because they want an easy life and to maintain their powers. So, for instance, the civil service (and the EU) continually block reform because the status quo suits them.

This leads him to the conclusion that the problems with most institutions in Western democracies is that a) they are full of idiots – who in particular lack numeracy or the ability to get outside the bubble of trivia which dominates day-to-day debates – who are b) in organisations which benefit from blocking positive change. Having defined the problem in this way he then proposes solutions which involve finding a bunch of geniuses who are intrinsically motivated to do the right thing and then giving them maximum latitude, with no restrictions on their behaviour.

Freedman suggests that there are not enough geniuses to go round and that something needs to be done to change systems that incentivise fools and obstruction rather than simply to create an elite to overpower them.

As someone who was on Edutwitter in the Gove Years, when Freedman was (as he still is) a regular tweeter and there was an account called “toryeducation” widely credited to be, at least partly, the work of Cummings, this seemed to fit my recollections. Having read some of Cummings’ early blogposts when he first left his position at the DfE, I do recall that he did combine a hostility to the work of bureaucrats and vested interests (memorably labelled “the Blob”) with a keen interest in the development of intellectual Übermensch. So who is right here? Do we need an intellectual super-elite to save us from The Blob?

That first point, that the education system is sabotaged by powerful vested interests who are not particularly bright, was probably fair enough. The big change under Gove was that for the first time in my career, those in power actually wanted to know what was going on in schools. Even now, there are no shortage of people employed in education, but not in teaching, who really don’t want anyone to know what is happening at the frontline. Bad behaviour, silly fads, inadequate training, workload, the infrequency of permanent exclusions, the SEND bureaucracy, and the biases of inspectors have all been topics I’ve seen teachers encouraged not to talk about in public. It did make a huge difference in the Gove era that there were people in elected office who actually wanted to know what was going on. Watching the usual suspects (education academics, teacher trainers, consultants, Local Authority officials, trade union leaders, political activists) weigh into debate after debate to insist politicians ignore both the evidence and the experience of teachers is something that’s hard to miss if you are a teacher. If Gove got more done than most, it probably is because his advisers were not easily deterred by those who would deny anything needed to be done.

The second point though, which also fits my recollection of Cummings’s contributions to the education debate, does point to a fair criticism. Faith in the wisdom of intellectual elites is a problem, not a solution in education systems. I suspect we all know of incredibly bright people taking the wrong path and convincing themselves of all sorts of nonsense. Thinking about it, didn’t Einstein have some pretty silly views about education? Conversely, I’ve certainly met people who are far from being systematic thinkers, and who may even lack education, who can spot dishonesty in others with ease and ask people all the right questions. The answer to stupidity and obstruction is humility and transparency, not cunning and mathematically enlightened despots getting their way. Perhaps the education system does need a bit of an injection of brainpower, but mainly it needs an injection of scepticism and less power for people who most probably don’t believe a word they are saying.

More generally, a faith in the potential of the super-intelligent to save us has – and I say this based on some of what I’ve seen from Cummings – resulted in the belief that educating the elite should be the priority. I think this is the wrong priority. The obvious failings of the education system probably don’t affect those at the higher end of the ability scale. While opportunities are far from evenly distributed, I have seen those with the most natural talent and greatest work ethic achieve. Even some of the worst schools I worked in would, over the years, get one or two very talented students into Oxbridge. The conspicuous failures of the education system are all at the other end of the spectrum; those who leave school never learning to read, without basic numeracy, without the knowledge to engage with further study, or the self control to cope with the demands of the workplace. The political right gets certain things correct on education. They are correct to be sceptical about ill-thought out egalitarianism. I have no time for  those who think that the ideal education system would “level down” the most gifted, as if that would help everyone else. But the big problem with right of centre thinking on education is the elitism. Too many still care more about maximising the returns for the most able and not enough about giving the least able and least advantaged the best possible start in life.

I’m not completely with Sam Freedman when it comes to systems. Great systems can go completely wrong where those running them are foolish or malevolent. You need good people and good systems. I don’t think the education system can be legislated into wisdom. The debates about structures (LAs versus academy trusts, for instance) can miss the point. However, I believe there are, nevertheless, huge gains to be made in changing the system. Large parts of the system (the civil service, the university education departments, consultancies that work in schools, the LAs, many types of external agencies who work with schools) are completely isolated from reality. More power in the hands of those who actually do some teaching would make a huge difference to the effectiveness of schools.

Anyone who genuinely wants to improve education could do far worse than to start by asking themselves the following.

In the education system as it is, is anyone making a living without there being any evidence their work is necessary or useful? Is there anybody who has power without responsibility? Is there anybody who had a job for life, either because there is no accountability, or because those who could hold them to account never do? Is there anybody who is providing “expertise” that has no actual evidence behind it and if challenged would simply claim they should have their way because they are the expert? Is there anything that seems perfectly sensible and desirable, that people working in schools are scared to do, because of obstructions placed in their way?

When those questions are asked, and a serious look is taken at how policy makers have created many of these situations, then useful reform might be possible. We might also make working in education a better career for those who actually want to make a difference.

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Book Review: Authority, Responsibility and Power by R.S. Peters

February 19, 2022

Authority, Responsibility and Power by R.S. Peters,1959. I read a secondhand copy from 1970, but there is a recent edition published by Routledge.

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2021 was to read more books and I intend to continue that into 2022. I will be reviewing those books that are relevant to education. Two warnings though. 1) Any links to Amazon will be “associate” links potentially earning me a few pennies. 2) A lot of these books have been sent to me by people I know, so I’m completely biased.

R.S. Peters (1919-2011) is the greatest philosopher of education of a short lived golden age for philosophy of education in the 1960s and 1970s. Reading his work now will always mean noting what is now dated and what is still as relevant as ever. The first section of the book, which is specifically about authority, is more than a little behind the times, in that there is some uncertainty about how the family is changing at that time, and how it is likely to change in the future. Peters observes that changes in the family (which he welcomes) might have consequences for how children view authority. He does not, or cannot, spell out what those consequences are.

The section that is most fascinating to me is that on responsibility. It is a remarkable feature of contemporary education that many of those involved in it, particularly those who don’t actually teach, doubt that children can be considered responsible for their actions. The discussion here made me realise how rarely we consider the issue in terms of “responsibility”, rather than discussing “agency” or “free will”. Peters identifies the roots of a decline in belief in personal responsibility in the followers of Freud and Marx whose deterministic ideas seem to have indirectly fed the contemporary belief that if an action has a cause, it cannot be avoided. However, Peters argues that, if anything, Freud and Marx wanted to find the causes of irrational beliefs that they encouraged people to reject, and didn’t intend to abolish all moral responsibility.

The burden of the message of both Marx and Freud was that a man who understands the cause of social evils an personal predicaments is in a position to do something about them. Understanding paves the way for action as well as sympathy.

While Peters does not apply the idea of responsibility to matters of school discipline, I found myself unable to avoid thinking about that. Particularly his claim that “a necessary condition of people being responsible is that they should believe that they are”. If Peters is correct, when we excuse a pupil’s actions and say they couldn’t help themself, we may well be creating a situation where in the future they genuinely cannot help themself. If we don’t believe somebody to be responsible for their behaviour, how can we ever expect them to choose to change their behaviour?

Another argument with a profound contemporary relevance is about the aims of education. Peters argues that debates about the aims of education, and what the outcome of education should be, are often disagreements about the procedures that are to be used to educate and the intrinsic value of the content to be passed on. This continues into a discussion of the essential value of knowledge, and how it has been devalued, that could have been written in the last five years given its relevance to recent debates. However, his belief that the intellect can be cultivated by the way knowledge is taught, with an emphasis on justification and criticism rather than just drill, is one we don’t hear much of these days (except perhaps in the work of Martin Robinson).

While some sections have dated, particularly those discussing psychology, most of this book remains relevant to current debates and deserves to be better known.

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Are conduct cards a form of child abuse?

February 15, 2022

In the last couple of weeks, Britain’s most prominent online teacher basher, Warwick Mansell, has launched another school shaming campaign, focused on the United Learning Trust academy chain. I don’t have access to his blog, but I did read the Twitter thread and see the reaction.

Some of it was the usual over-reaction to things that are commonplace, like enforcing the uniform policy..

Or reminding children to be quiet and orderly in corridors.

One claim particularly stood out in the reactions. The claim that students had to wear behaviour cards around their necks.

I have worked in a school with behaviour cards, although they were called “conduct cards”.  The idea is that for certain minor things, particularly behaviour around site, if a student does something wrong it’s marked on the card. There is only a punishment when the card is marked for the required number of times. (I seem to recall it was 6 a term at the school I worked in, but that included some categories of in class behaviour too).

The advantage of a conduct card was that refusal to hand it over was an automatic detention, the same as having a full card would have been. That meant that even if they were asked by a teacher they’d never met before, most pupils would hand over their card when required.  It made challenging behaviour around in corridors easier than at any school I’ve ever worked at. In almost every other school I’ve worked in, challenging kids who don’t know you for behaviour in corridors has been a pain. If they don’t comply and you don’t know their name, what can you do? Some teachers end up looking at CCTV footage and photos on the school database to track down defiant students, but unless behaviour is exceptionally good, and you know which year group you are dealing with, this is not practical for full time teachers who are new to a school. A certain amount of defiance in corridors and around site just becomes normal in most schools, at least for new members of staff. There are things schools can do to mitigate this: have more staff on duty and in the corridors; have different year groups wear something that indicates their year group, or make the punishment for non-compliance particularly severe. But a conduct card system is the most effective I’ve seen.

The only down side was admin for form tutors in distributing the cards (you can’t just hand them all out and say “only take one each”; a spare card had value) and the problem of lost cards. Do kids get the full detention if their parent puts their card in the washing machine? These things did create issues, but not insurmountable ones. Even if a student did get hold of an extra card, they still had to visibly comply with staff to get away with it and, by handing over the card, they were giving their name to those supervising them. Even when it wasn’t resulting in a lot of punishments, and there were students falling through gaps in the system, it changed expectations from confrontation to compliance.

If a school came up with the idea of putting their cards on a lanyard (preferably not in a way that makes the ticks readable at a glance) that’s a great way to stop children losing their card. It also solves the problem of the pupil who doesn’t refuse to hand over their card but takes 5 minutes to “find” it. I can’t help but think that this whole thing is a good idea if you want to improve behaviour in corridors.

As a teacher with experience of a conduct card system, it seems amazing that school shamers have made a big deal about this. The whole system is based on giving warnings more often than punishments. It is highly effective, without very many punishments being given. However, an online mob have been acting as if a card is the Ancient Mariner’s albatross and worn as a mark of shame. Due to Mansell’s rhetoric of oppression, his claim that there had been a requirement for “one school’s pupils to wear behaviour cards around their necks” was interpreted by many people as a form of public shaming. The assumption being that the cards were a way to indicate to anyone who looked at the child that they had done something wrong.

Here are some examples from the responses to that tweet of people assuming humiliation was being used as a punishment.

The behaviour card round necks is straight out of Netflix’s #sexeducation [accompanied by an image which included this individual]

These draconian measures which seem to be mainly about humiliating children and not about educating children are extraordinary.

demeaning and humiliating children doesn’t make for balanced caring adults

…its [sic] appalling, humiliating a child is an act of cruelty.

Like a dunce’s hat !!!!

You mean like a “No Welsh” board hung around children’s neck in the 19th early 20thc?

…it’s institutionalised humiliation and should be consigned to history.

One person even shared a picture from China’s cultural revolution of Mao’s victims with placards round their necks. And sure enough, as people became more and more convinced that behaviour cards were some form of public shaming, the online insanity became even greater.

The fact that someone thought it was appropriate to hang behaviour cards around children’s necks is appalling. If this is how the children are treated, the staff will be suffering from mental ill-health too.

This is child abuse.

Unbelievable, fascist doctrine at it’s finest. Someone is seriously getting some sort of sickening kick, out of implementing this..

I think it will be considered child abuse in the future. Another scandal.

Warwick Mansell did nothing to clarify any of this, although he did step in when people questioned the narrative.

And what was the truth? Who knows? Mansell appeared to be only interested in whipping up hatred against schools, not clarifying facts or calming down his irate followers. However, a picture on his website did suggest that the reality was very different.

It shows a behaviour card with writing too small to be readable at a distance. It shows a lanyard for a plastic card with a magnetic strip on (probably an ID card) and no obvious space for the behaviour card. On this evidence, I’d be suspicious that the card was ever on the lanyard, and if it was I’d have to assume it was folded and behind the ID card. There is no way the behaviour card was designed for public display. Also, only one side (the “misdemeanour” side of the card is shown) making one wonder if the other side was something more positive.

There’s an audience out there that hates schools, distrusts teachers and will always condemn any effort to enforce rules. Mansell feeds them scare stories that result in schools being targeted for abuse. I wrote before about what happened to a school featured in a Daily Mail article he wrote..

If our unions and professional bodies were on our side, then maybe more would be done to challenge this narrative. As it is, the only time we hear the other side of the story is from teachers on social media. The school shamers are our enemies, and at the moment they have more of a voice than we do.

Update 15/2/2022 (10:09 am):

I’ve now seen the behaviour policy relating to these cards. They are kept in lanyards, but they are double sided with the other side being for positive comments. (Although the version of the card in the behaviour policy is a bit of a mess.)

Update 15/2/2022 (10:54 am):

Just been contacted by somebody who knows the school. They had this to say.

…the [First Impressions] cards were stored in the plastic wallets and ‘hung around the necks’ of students on lanyards, much in the same way as ID cards are ‘hung around the necks’ of teachers. The stupidest thing about all this is that THE LANYARDS WERE NEVER VISIBLE AT ANY TIME. The kids all had grey jumpers as part of their uniform and the lanyards were always tucked into those, if not stuffed into pockets or down the bottom of the school bag. But never ever on display….

…I notice that whoever is doing the stirring this time isn’t talking about Golden Tickets, just like they didn’t talk about the positive side of the FI card. Golden Tickets were given to the best student at the end of every lesson by teachers. This equated to 5 house points. It was a great system that made kids eager to please and it made them feel rewarded. They anticipated the Golden Ticket and would remind teachers every lesson.

 

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