Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

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Noise

February 9, 2019

Children are noisy. This is something people often don’t appreciate if they don’t work in schools, as can be seen by the recurring experiments with “open plan classrooms” that seem to happen every few years. Before I became a teacher, if I walked past a school at break or lunchtime, I was shocked by the sheer volume emitted by even very young kids playing. As a secondary teacher, I have noticed how kids are sometimes so noisy at break and lunch times, particularly if it’s windy, that even the politest kids might come into the classroom unintentionally shouting because that is the volume they’ve been talking at during their break.

Year 7 student: “HELLO, SIR!”

Me, standing back and covering my ears: “Hello. Why are you shouting?”

Year 7 student, now at the volume of a light aircraft taking off: “I’M NOT SHOUTING!”

Me, ears ringing: Okay, Caitlyn, just go to your seat and don’t talk, thank you. Dear Lord, please, don’t talk.

Another Year 7 student arriving: “HELLO, SIR. I DID THE HOMEWORK!”

Me, now standing at the doorway. looking pained: “Hello, Martin. Okay, year 7, just come in silently. Just go to your seat absolutely silently. No need to say hello, just go to your seat without talking. WITHOUT TALKING! ABSOLUTE SILENCE, YEAR 7! Thank you.”

Left to their own devices kids get loud, perhaps without realising it. Younger secondary students often just enjoy expending the energy involved in a loud conversation. Older secondary students are often asserting their position in the dominance hierarchy by talking over each other in ever louder voices. Once kids are talking in the classroom, the usual trajectory is for the noise to get louder, unless interrupted, and while sometimes a piece of work that requires an unexpected amount of concentration will cause a class to spontaneously become quieter, that is the memorable exception and not the rule for most classes. In fact, often a class getting quieter without being asked is so exceptional that it is immediately followed by one student shouting “WHY HAS IT GONE QUIET?”

One year, not very long ago, around autumn half term, I had a bit of an epiphany. Other than sixth form teaching, my main class was a very large bottom set in year 7 with a huge range of ability. As year 7 classes often do, they had begun the year barely speaking in lessons. I didn’t worry about that; this can often be a good time to enforce the expectation that you learn by listening to the teacher, not staring out of the window and then asking the person next to you what the teacher has just said. As the weeks went on, they had became more comfortable and were able to talk sensibly about the work. Then, as it got towards half term, their talking (for a small but significant minority of students) was becoming less about the work and more about winding each other up, and putting each off. Lesson starts were also becoming far slower as they stopped on the way in to chat, with some students having to be reminded that behaviour like going to your seat and getting out a pen should be immediate, and not left until the last possible moment. My epiphany consisted of the realisation that they had been easier to manage, and apparently learning more, when they were in silence; because of the size of the class, it really wasn’t practical to monitor which conversations were “learning conversations” and which weren’t. Besides, most weren’t yet capable of the sort of conversation that would aid learning, and they weren’t likely to learn to have that sort of conversation, unless it was modeled by hearing conversations about the work between students and the teacher shared with the entire class.

For all my classes, I began starting every lesson by sending students to sit down in silence and begin work. I then decided, for every piece of work I set, whether it was worth letting students talk. I quickly realised that, when teaching mainly a mix of weaker key stage 3 classes and sixth form, that the sixth formers needed to be able to discuss the work almost all the time (although this was a small class where I could monitor the conversation), and the key stage 3 students didn’t really need to talk to each other at all. I don’t want to make this a universal statement about all key stage 3 classes, or all subjects. Where motivation is good and work requires a lot of thought, but not much writing, there’s every reason to allow students to talk. When you know students have the judgement to give each other useful help and the maturity not to go off topic, learning conversations are the order of the day. Obviously, there are things to be learnt, or practised in some subjects that positively require talking. However, I genuinely think we make a mistake when we assume that talking is normal in class and silence the exception, rather than the other way around. If teachers were to ask themselves, “Would students benefit, or be distracted by talk during this activity?” and didn’t have to worry about whether they would actually be able to enforce silence, I think lessons in most schools would be a lot quieter. In fact, I think that we are often acclimatised to completely unnecessary and counter-productive levels of noise in schools, and don’t realise that it could be different, or that in some schools it is different.

Research seems to favour quiet classrooms (see here) particularly for younger children. Even a quick search with Google Scholar will find a lot of individual studies showing the negative effects of classroom noise on different types of students. However, we can tolerate more distractions if work is difficult, so the argument for silence is stronger on more routine tasks, but before we assume that “learning conversations” make for the best environment for problem-solving, there is some evidence that problem solving is not best done collaboratively.

I think those with an ideological commitment to making learning more like play, may positively favour noise. I do recall during the debates on “silent corridors” in schools, some progressives believed that even the conversations kids have walking down the corridor between lessons were valuable learning opportunities. Others also believed that silence was actively damaging to children. Common sense (and also perhaps the research on noise and health) tells us that silence for the duration of a single lesson, or for part of a lesson, or for short walks between lessons, is not only not harmful, but probably far healthier than the other extreme of a screaming racket. There are those who see children as terribly vulnerable to the normal stresses of schooling, or to the raised voice of an adult, but somehow immune to the stress involved in 6 hours of constant noise, with even friendly conversations having to involve yelling in each other’s faces.

Schools are noisy. That is not likely to change. But I think there are clear benefits to having schools where the default for classrooms is silence. It is one of those areas where consistency is important. Any classroom where it is okay to shout out whenever you like is likely to lower expectations elsewhere in the school. The existence of any classroom where the teacher feels powerless to prevent teenagers from continuing their social lives throughout the lesson, is likely to make it harder for other teachers. I suspect most schools would benefit from turning the noise down, and making a real effort to ensure that silence is the default learning behaviour.

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Why I’m leaving the NEU

January 26, 2019

I first joined the NUT (National Union Of Teachers) back in 2001 as a PGCE student. It is now part of the NEU (National Education Union). This year, I finally resigned my membership.

I think being in a trade union is really important. I have been helped by my union in the past when I’ve needed it. I know there are still many great union reps in the NEU standing up for teachers. But a trade union has to represent all its members, not just those of a particular ideology. I think the NEU has become an ideological basket case, unable to show any respect to teachers who don’t believe in progressive education.

Here is why the NEU don’t speak for me.

Mary Bousted is one of the joint general-secretaries of the NEU. She might oppose times table tests, but as a secondary math teacher, I see how many kids arrive at secondary schools without any fluency in number bonds or times tables.

Kevin Courtney, the other joint general secretary, agreeing with this:

The managing director of the CBI says he’s worried about the emphasis in England’s school system on rote learning techniques.

Neil Carberry is only half joking when he invokes one of Charles Dicken’s least loveable characters, Thomas Gradgrind, the hard-hearted, fact-obsessed school superintendant in Hard Times.

“We want human beings who do human things really well because, the way technology is changing, that’s where the jobs will be in years to come.”

Speaking at the launch of a new education strategy for the BBC, he said simply focusing on getting teenagers to the age of 16 with a clutch of GCSEs was not enough.

“We need a whole education approach to young people including the ability to work in teams, to be resilient, and to present well.”

He’s concerned there is more emphasis now on memorising facts, than in school systems in other advanced economies.

“Facts matter in education, times tables matter. Basic maths and literacy are the gateways to good careers. But we can teach them in more engaging ways which develop other skills.”

Rather than what Neil Carberry describes as “‘Gradgrindish’ repeating of times tables in the classroom”, he says knowledge should be used in a context that makes it relevant.

What children learn in England has been re-centred around a curriculum with an emphasis on knowledge in core academic subjects.

We’ve had decades of dumbed down education. It’s great that now kids are expected to actually know stuff. We don’t need our union trying to turn the clock back.

Behaviour remains one of the biggest scandals in our schools, and something that creates toxic working conditions in schools. Knowing how much happier teachers are when they don’t have to fight behaviour, I’d expect a teachers’ union to support strong discipline. Yet, this is what we here from NEU conference (via TES).

Zero tolerance discipline policies in schools are “an abuse of the rights of our children”, a teachers’ union has heard.

The claim came as the NUT section of the National Education Union debated pupils’ mental health.

There was unanimous support from the conference in Brighton for the union opposing “the move towards ever more punitive behaviour policies in schools” which it said was “feeding a mental health crisis for our children”.

“The increasing use of detention, isolation and exclusion, often talked of as being ‘zero tolerance’ approaches, usually mean ignoring the varied difficulties children have in favour of punishment,” the motion read.

“We believe that above all else,  children need support, respect and love.”

Michael Holland, from Lambeth, told delegates: “Zero tolerance is intolerance. Zero tolerance doesn’t work. Zero tolerance is cruel, Victorian, Dickensian.

“It punishes working class children the most, it punishes black children, and children from black and ethnic minority groups are far more likely to be excluded from schools.

“It’s an abuse of the rights of our children.”

Because, of course, letting children run riot is so good for their mental health.

Then there’s political extremism. Skwawkbox is a hard left “fake news” website, known for its defence of anti-semitism. Here’s the NEU in my region sharing its unhinged conspiracy theories about the BBC.

More from Mary Bousted. This time arguing against knowledge on the infamously silly grounds that kids will be doing “jobs that haven’t been created yet”.

I wrote that if we are to prepare our children and young people for the world they will live and work in, then we must ditch the false divide between knowledge and skills. We must acknowledge that we need both.

And I noted that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development is strongly advocating curricula that integrate knowledge, across subject disciplines, with skills development.

Andreas Schleicher, the head of education at the OECD, looks ahead to the abilities that will increasingly be needed by our school leavers in the future. He argues that the demands on learners and on education systems are evolving quickly.

Schleicher says that, in the past, education was primarily about teaching people something. But now, he says, education should be “about making sure that students develop a reliable compass and the navigations skills to find their own way through an increasingly uncertain, volatile and ambiguous world”.

Schleicher reminds us that, in the past, teachers could expect that what they taught would equip students with the skills needed for the rest of their lives. But that is not the case today because, he argues, “schools need to prepare students for more rapid economic and social change than ever before, for jobs that have not yet been created, to use technologies that have not yet been invented and to solve social problems that we do not yet know will arise”.

Here she is again attacking teachers for off-rolling. While I have grave doubts that off-rolling is anything to do with Ebacc scores, I accept it is a problem and that headteachers who do this should be criticised. But since when was it the job of a teaching union to denounce teachers?

Similarly, when a school disputed a draft OFSTED report for being too critical, you’d expect a teachers’ union to be on the school’s side. But, no. If your school is in the wrong MAT, the NEU will not stand up for you.

Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, has demanded an investigation into the involvement of the RSC’s office into the inspection because it “raises serious concerns that Ofsted is not completely independent.”

His words were echoed by Mary Bousted, his co-leader, who said the outcome of an Ofsted inspection should not be dependent on “how confident or savvy the leaders are in challenging the judgment”.

Yes. That’s a teaching union publicly objecting to school leaders who have confidence when their schools are criticised and do something about it.

Here’s an NEU executive member attacking OFSTED for saying they will support heads who punish bad behaviour.

This is Kevin Courtney saying that it is “disgraceful child abuse” to let parents know how kids did in a test.

More support for dumbing down (along with personal attacks) from Mary Bousted:

Ofsted is in “a lot of trouble” and its chief inspector Amanda Spielman is “not a safe pair of hands,” a teaching union leader has claimed.

The criticism from Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) has been sparked by Ms Spielman’s warning that disadvantaged teenagers are not being challenged enough with the reading materials they were given.

Dr Bousted, a former English teacher, said the chief inspector of schools had showed “a complete lack of understanding of the challenging nature of work in disadvantaged schools”.

She said: “Teachers in these schools have been trying to get children to understand that reading can be enjoyable, and to give them books which are appropriate to their reading age, and which allow them to get enjoyment by reading fluently, and not constantly having to decipher words they don’t understand or having to work their way through complex sentence structures.”

More from Kevin Courtney this time the problem is assessment.

The effects of our assessment system on learning, workload and wellbeing are at the heart of England’s educational problems.

Those who work in education know this in their bones. It is a message that education unions have tried to communicate for many years. They have been too often met with incomprehension or hostility. Politicians have clung to the notion that only high-stakes testing, and punitive accountability, could lift educational standards. The reality, that testing and accountability of these kinds are the route towards low-quality education, was not something they could bear to contemplate.

Here’s a branch of the NEU not far from me, sharing media attacks on a school for asking kids to be quiet when moving between lessons. Teachers at the school have been generally supportive of the policy and distressed by the media attacks. But why would a teachers’ union care about them?

And finally, the worst insult to me personally, and the best indicator of the contempt the NEU’s leaders have for teachers, Mary Bousted supported a troll’s blogpost that, amongst other conspiracy theories, linked me with the far right. (Full story here.) Obviously this was all all lies and when I challenged about why she would spread malicious lies about one of her own members she said this:

I have 17 years of membership of the NEU. During one strike called by the NUT, I was at a school where out of dozens of NUT members, I was one of only 2 who didn’t scab. Even the union rep wouldn’t strike. And this is the thanks I get: begrudging acknowledgement from the general secretary that she won’t disagree with me when I say I’m not a Nazi?

Thanks, but no thanks, NEU/NUT. You no longer deserve the support of teachers. I’ve joined NASUWT.

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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”.

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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:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/1456897.stm

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/north_yorkshire/4413357.stm

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/west_yorkshire/3004667.stm

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.

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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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What happens when a school listens to campaigners against internal exclusion?

November 28, 2018

We’ve had a lot of attacks on schools for keeping kids safe lately.

When schools exclude they are accused of leading kids into knife crime or being racist. When they use managed moves, or help kids find a more suitable education, they are accused of off-rolling. When they have strict rules, or simply enforce the rules that most schools have, they are accused of being draconian. For a lot of ideologues, any attempt to enforce the will of adults on children, no matter how advantageous it is to the interests of the majority of children, is oppression and cruelty.

So it was only a matter of time before the use of “isolation” came under fire. The campaign has been less than clear, presumably because “isolation” sounds more like imprisonment than support, and clarity would only undermine the campaign. Some seem to be objecting to the mere act of removing a child from a lesson they are disrupting. However, most seem to be objecting to internal exclusion. This is when a child is kept out of lessons after serious, persistent or defiant behaviour but is not sent home. This is mainly used to avoid Fixed Term Exclusions, i.e. suspension from school, and is appropriate when there are safeguarding issues at home; when there is reason to think a child might welcome exclusion or when the original offence is so serious that more than five days exclusion is appropriate, and something (legally) needs to be provided after five days.

Few teachers, particularly in non-selective, state secondaries object to internal exclusion, particularly as the alternatives are more controversial or more obviously harmful. But a lot of non-teachers seem to have got this campaign going. I noticed Paul Dix, a behaviour consultant, featuring in a lot of the coverage, eg. from the BBC:

Paul Dix says he has probably visited more isolation facilities than anyone else in his work as a behavioural consultant in schools across England.

He says he has seen 50 children at one time in isolation in one school and children with Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD in isolation rooms and met one child who said they had spent 36 days in isolation in one school year.

“That is not education, it is a custodial sentence,” he said.

“Where’s the regulation around it, where’s the reporting, where is the accountability?”

He said he has heard of pupils being placed into isolation for not bringing a pen or wearing the right shoes.

Paul says disruptive pupils may need to be removed from classrooms but believes they should be returned after a short period and a discussion of their behaviour with an experienced teacher.

“That is the intelligent way. Isolation is desperation,” he said.

I think it is worth considering whether he knows what he is doing when he advises schools to limit internal exclusion. A few years ago he wrote a blogpost praising a school for reducing its use of “the referral room”:

The behaviour at QK have [sic] improved so dramatically in the past year and staff are to be applauded for their efforts. When I first visited the referral room, it was full with a queue of students lining up outside the door. On this day of training, there was just one child in the referral room, yesterday there had been none.

This is a whole school approach, every adult singing from the same song sheet, led by the vision of an excellent Head [name removed] and driven by the determination of all adults to create a school where excellent behaviour is normalized. And it is working brilliantly.

A couple of years later, while still being led by the same “excellent” head, OFSTED inspected the school and found:

Previously good personal development, welfare and behaviour [i.e. from before the above blogpost was written] have deteriorated and are inadequate. Leaders have not secured a consistent and effective approach to tackling poor behaviour…

Leaders and managers have not maintained pupils’ good behaviour and positive attitudes to learning since the previous inspection. They have not ensured that staff are confident to challenge disorderly behaviour and use effective methods to deal with disruption. As a result of an inconsistent approach to dealing with discipline in classrooms, pupils’ learning is diminished.

In the survey of staff views, less than half of those who responded agreed that pupils’ behaviour is at least good…

Newly qualified teachers should not be appointed at the school because pupils’ behaviour is inadequate…

The governing body has not held the school’s leaders sufficiently to account in order to secure rapid and sustained improvements. They are aware that the quality of teaching is variable, that assessment information is not precise enough and that behaviour in lessons disrupts learning. However, members of the governing body have not ensured that leaders have addressed these key priorities for development sufficiently rapidly…

Some pupils do not feel safe at school because they have little confidence in the way the school deals with concerns about bullying. Too many pupils expressed concerns about the standard of behaviour in lessons and the way disruption is dealt with…

Pupils and parents reported variability in the response from staff to bullying issues they raise. Pupils’ confidence in the school’s determination and ability to take action to keep pupils safe from bullying is weak.

Pupils said they are unable to focus fully on their learning when they are worried about disorderly behaviour of pupils in classrooms. As a result, pupils’ emotional and social development is not supported effectively…

The behaviour of pupils is inadequate.

Pupils told inspectors that their learning was regularly interrupted by the poor conduct and lack of self-discipline of a significant minority of their peers. Some pupils lack respect towards other pupils and staff. Inspectors observed examples of pupils’ deliberately disorderly actions. The school’s records of pupils’ behaviour over time show that, across a variety of subjects, pupils’ behaviour contributes to reduced learning.

The proportion of pupils who have been excluded from school for a fixed period of time has decreased since the previous inspection and is below average. The proportion of all pupils and of disadvantaged pupils excluded from school on more than one occasion has also decreased and is smaller than the national average. However, rates of fixed term exclusions remain well above the national average, including for disadvantaged pupils and pupils who have special educational needs and/or disabilities.

I’m glad to say the school has now reopened under a new name (which is why I have not attempted to hide which school it was) and new leadership and that the new school has a behaviour policy that includes provision for internal exclusion. But there are still schools out there paying to get the same behaviour advice as the old school did.

Obviously, you never know how accurate an OFSTED report is, or what else the school did to prompt that report. However, I would recommend any school leaders planning to seek advice on behaviour and any politician being lobbied by the opponents of internal exclusion, that they be very careful before they start listening to any “expert” who tells them teachers are wrong to think that internal exclusion works to keep them and their students safe.

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Are the words “progressive” and “traditional” biased against educational traditionalists? Part 2

November 24, 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. I wish to look at these arguments in my next few blogposts.

Previously I have linked to one blogpost and shared another where teachers whose educational ideas might be considered traditionalist, rather than progressive, explained why they didn’t like the word “traditionalist”. I don’t have a problem with this term. Nor do I like the term “progressive” even when it is used outside the educational context. I don’t mind having left of centre politics but not progressive politics. It is this argument I want to look at here.

This time I have another blogpost to share which has been published before but is no longer available. At the risk of going off-topic, this is a blogpost about politics rather than education. It was written by a Labour supporter, who is not a teacher, during the days of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition and it makes a case for why left of centre politics do not have to be “progressive”.

 

Why I am not a progressive

I doubt I’ll shock anyone when I say that I’m not a progressive, or at least that I don’t consider myself to be one – apart from anything else it’s a conversation that often goes in circles round the 140 characters of Twitter, but one I thought probably deserved a slightly longer write-up. It’s also unfortunate (welcome to the Blue Labour debate) that the opposite of progressive is generally seen as conservative, and that this gets confused with Conservative (a party which is certainly not conservative). Clear as mud. Of course I support progressive taxation, but then since our tax system spent most of my life becoming less progressive, that meant I wanted to conserve something.

Anyway. I’m not a progressive because I don’t believe change is automatically, or even usually, for the better. GA Cohen explained this with an extended analogy about a college (long, but worth watching).

Gladys Knight put it more simply –  “as bad as we think they are, these will become the good old days for our children”. Of course science and technology advance, but to read across from that and assume that politics (or, perhaps, even society) move in the same way, seems optimistic at best. It appears that, in this if nothing else, I am normal, and it’s the progressives who are unusual.

Related to this is a problem across much of the left in particular to assume that the grass is greener on the other side. Since I am a million miles away from that mindset, I don’t fully understand it, but it seems to be “Imagine a substantive change you would like; think of an unrelated procedural change; convince yourself that the latter will deliver the former”.

So whether it was the revival of radical socialism that was going to come with AV, the flowering of international solidarity we were going to get by joining the Euro, or the mass democratic renewal that will come by electing 80 senators for 15 years each on the basis of regional STV, energy is diverted from campaigning for substantive change, to campaigning for procedural change. Which is not to say that process doesn’t matter – the institutions which mediate political debate impact massively on the eventual outcomes, of course. A list of things I waste time being against when there are bigger battles to fight, there.

More importantly, ‘progressive’ is a word whose meaning shifts according to who is using it. So, when people wanted to cobble-together an anti-Tory Parliamentary alliance after the last General Election, they dubbed it the “progressive coalition”. When people want to pretend the left has been disadvantaged primarily by the electoral system rather than by often being less popular, they talk of a ‘progressive majority’. When David Cameron wants to sound like a moderate, he talks of Progressive Conservatism. Of course, the “Not left or right, but forward” model of spatial politics was introduced to our discourse by David Icke, but never mind.

I don’t make a habit of linking to Lib Dems, but Andrew Emmerson cites a relevant opinion poll, pointing out that in the public mind, “progressive” is devoid of almost all political content. A majority think it is about being “reforming” or “modernising”. An appreciable number think it is about being “enterprising” or “advanced”. Bringing up the rear are those who believe it means being liberal (16%) or left-wing (7%). On this basis, Cameron’s right – the Coalition is progressive too. Blair was particularly progressive – to the point of neophilia, some of the time it felt as though something merely needed to exist for the government to seek to change it. Organisational restructuring, particularly in health, was done, undone, and redone faster than anyone could realistically hope to evaluate its impact.

Still, there’s a vacancy for a better word, here. Radical conservatism makes a neat sort of intellectual sense, but is even worse marketing than Blue Labour. People calling themselves progressives (hello the London County Council) have done important and valuable things in the history of the left. But I want things to be better, not different for the sake of it, especially not if it puts us at risk of losing that which is already good. If I’m really lucky, by 2015 that’ll be what people think of when they hear the word “Labour”.

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