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”.


Are the words “progressive” and “traditional” biased against educational traditionalists? Part 1

November 18, 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 this series of blogposts.

A recent blogpost about not wanting to be called a traditionalist can be found here: A Plea to Drop the TRAD label. An older blogpost on a similar theme has been removed from the site where it originally appeared. So with the permission of the author I’m presenting it here:


I’m a trad but wish it was called something else

I’m a Trad. I reject progressivism for the measurable damage it has done to education and for its corruption of beautiful subjects in the name of the twenty-first century. My heroes are Hirsch, Engelmann and Rosenshine.

Curriculum is King in my classroom. The knowledge dictates the activity, not the other way around. I have no time for distractions in the name of engagement or relevance. The engagement comes from mastery of a noble and powerful subject. The fact that it is not relevant is precisely why it must be taught, and taught well. If I limit my teaching to the interests of my students, or try to force a link, then I have failed those students.

And so because of this ideology if you like, I want to know about what works. I want to know about cognitive science, retrieval practice, and schemas. I want to study the language of curriculum and the philosophy of knowledge, and I curse every day of the eleven years I spent labouring under progressive dogma, days I could have been reading about these things and putting them into practice.
So to summarise my philosophy of teaching, and one I think that many Trads would subscribe to: We are committed to our subjects and we believe our job is to teach these subjects well to our students. We seek out research, techniques, and philosophy to help us do this. We reject progressive doctrine because it is a) not true to our subjects and b) has been shown to hinder the teaching of our subjects.

I have a problem though. All the things I have described above are part of the Traditional Teaching set. But the term “traditional teaching” also refers to the way teaching has  been done traditionally, since Socrates and before. I am going to use “Traditional Teaching” for the current set of ideology, techniques and authorities, the thing that if you subscribe to it you are a Trad, and “traditional teaching” for the teaching that has happened in much the same way through the millenia. There is significant overlap between these two sets but they are not the same thing.

Let’s consider research first. Research into cognitive science is much younger than traditional teaching. Cognitive science has shown why many aspects of traditional teaching are successful: things such as desks facing the front, teachers telling students information, and frequent low-stakes testing. But cognitive science also throws up new things that teaching through the ages hasn’t incorporated. An example of this is the concerns raised by David Didau about reading along to text whilst listening to it.  So although research tends to align with traditional teaching, where research contradicts tradition, I would want to go with the research because I want to teach my subject in the best possible way. Of course it is not as simple as that. Just as scientists subscribe to Popper but act according to Kuhn, and rightly so, we as teachers would not do well to ditch tried-and-tested for every lab-based study that comes our way. But as an ideal, it is important I think in defining our outlook on teaching. In principle, if the evidence showed that a less traditional method was better, I would use it, because of my commitment to my subject.

What about the philosophy of curriculum stuff? When you look at old textbooks you do get a sense that the authors had a much better sense of  core, hinterland and foreshadowing for example., but as far as I know the explicit discussion of it, led so brilliantly by Christine Counsell, is a relatively new phenomenon. I am grateful for the insight it has given me and I see it now as an integral part of my professional identity. I don’t think it is in conflict with traditional teaching at all, but I think the discussions happening now are new and not traditional.

And, this seems so obvious that it’s not worth saying, but I think it perhaps needs remembering, traditional teaching has not made use of visualisers but has very much made use of corporal punishment.

So I think that “Traditional Teaching” doesn’t mean “traditional teaching”, despite the significant overlap. This is a problem for me for a few reasons.

Many of us have colleagues we like and respect who are firmly in the progressive camp. When I talk about “Traditional Teaching” to people in this group, they don’t hear “love of the subject” – they hear “chalkdust and the cane” and I feel I’m set up to fail before I’ve even started. I hesitate to put “Trad” in my Twitter bio in case a colleague comes across it and misunderstands. I’d like to develop my team’s professional identity, as subject specialists, interested in research, rejectors of flim-flammery. The teachers in my team are all these things but they are not familiar with the term Traditional Teaching and I fear that the term will cause some to switch off, because it means something different to them.

And my own professional identity… it’s a great feeling to be part of a community of people who share a philosophy… and it’s an irritating feeling that the name doesn’t really do what a name should do. We have the term “Neo-Trads” and maybe I should seek to identify myself under this banner. But it seems to be used more as a derogatory term and I’m sort of hoping for something that reflects the centrality of the subject to my philosophy.

I liked the sound of Bernard Andrews’ “educational fideism” before I read about it – I still like it but not for the reason I thought. I thought the “fide” was to do with “fidelity” – that’s what I want, fidelity to my subject, but instead it is to do with faith rather than evidence as a justification, and while I think that fits in fine with my philosophy as described above, I’m seeking something different in a name.

“Fidelism” seemed like a good name until I looked it up and learned it was for acolytes of Castro! Not what I was looking for – glad I looked it up! I thought about “subject loyalty”, or perhaps “curriculum loyalty”, but that would make me a “subject loyalist”, and there are of course political connotations there.

A synonym of fidelity is “fealty”. I rather like the sound of “curriculum fealty”. That would make me a “curriculum fealtist”. This term is a more accurate reflection of my educational outlook than “Traditional Teaching”. I’m still a Trad, but I’m clearer about what that means to me now I’ve thought about my problems with the term. I employ methods such as explicit instruction and Shed Loads Of Practice because I am a curriculum fealtist. I read educational research because I am a curriculum fealtist. I think “curriculum fealty” could help me in my own critical ontology and that of my team, and in my conversations with people new to the debate. I’m not suggesting that we start calling Trads “curriculum fealtists”, but I think it might be useful in some contexts, to bring clarity and hopefully bridge some of the gaps in the debate. Curriculum is my king and my country. Onwards and upwards for our beautiful, noble subjects.



Are school shaming and trolling now accepted as normal?

November 11, 2018

I’ve been campaigning against school shaming for quite a while now.

You can look at the posts above, but a rough summary of what I’ve said so far is:

  • A school shaming is when a school is subjected to a hate campaign, i.e. ongoing abuse. This happens through social media, but also by email and phone calls to staff at the school.
  • It is usually provoked initially by criticism of the school in the media, or on social media.
  • Usually schools are criticised for enforcing or having rules people don’t like, but school shamings can be used against any school with even a single disgruntled parent.
  • Schools have been shamed for things that are normal for schools in their circumstances; things that are untrue, and for things where their actions are justified, but cannot be debated due to confidentiality.
  • The control of whether a school shaming happens is almost entirely with those who initiate the campaign, not the school. Schools have reacted in different ways, and so far, complete social media and press silence has appeared to be the best strategy.
  • School shamings escalate from accusations, to abuse incredibly quickly. Comparisons with concentration camps and accusations of child abuse are common. As it the use of the c-word and attacks based on personal appearance.
  • Social media shamings of individuals are best described by this book. School shamings are simply the same idea applied to schools.
  • It is entirely possible to criticise opinions expressed by people at a school, or ideas about how a school is run, without starting a school shaming.
  • More recently, educational progressives have adopted school shaming as a tactic. Schools that are seen as too traditionalist are named and then repeatedly attacked, often progressives return to the same school again and again to dig up more ammunition.
  • A couple of schools subjected to a long series of accusations, as part of a prolonged school shaming, were inspected by OFSTED and none of the allegations were supported.

A typical school shaming. A Twitter progressive with 20 000 followers claims falsely that a named school isn’t for students with special needs. This immediately leads to it being compared to a concentration camp. The original tweeter then ‘likes’ that comment.

Recently, progressives on edutwitter have felt the need to defend school shaming as a tactic. The two main arguments have been:

  • School shaming is just criticism or even a form of accountability. I dealt with this argument here.
  • Schools can’t feel shame. This argument is so obviously silly that I don’t think I’ve answered it but Greg Ashman did here.

Beyond those arguments, most of what has been done to defend school shaming has been trolling those who criticise it. A recent example of this was a blogpost entitled ‘School shaming’ and the reactionary politics of neotrads which declared that those of us who prefer not to see a headteacher called a cunt 20 times, are motivated by right-wing politics. So Greg Ashman, who has been a member of both the UK Labour Party and Australian Labor party is identified among “neoconservative reactionaries”. Katharine Birbalsingh, a black headmistress whose school has mostly black students and who has been subjected to racism online, is accused of not understanding “structural racism”. Most incredibly though, the blog alleges that those of us who object to school shaming are directly influenced by the far right.

Along with phrases appropriated directly from the so-called alt-right, a small group of neotraditionalist educators have invented the concept of ‘school shaming’ to make their reactionary politics seem, well, less reactionary.

And in case you wonder who precisely this is, the group who have invented the concept of school shaming, is later narrowed down:

the empty concept of ‘school shaming’ … seems to have been invented by Andrew Smith (@oldandrewuk),

And, no, he didn’t ask my permission before sharing my real name. So there you have it. In the mind of one troll, whose blog is full of conspiracy theories and identity politics: it’s me who can be linked “directly” to the far right. I’m a lifelong Labour voter who was also a Labour activist and member until I left over the party’s refusal to deal with anti-semitism. I work in an inner city state school with mainly non-white students (unlike the post’s author who works in an extremely expensive private school). Far from being motivated by right-wing politics, I started campaigning against school shaming in reaction to stories in the right-wing Daily Mail newspaper, long before anyone knew that the Daily Mail’s teacher bashing tactics would be adopted by those who claim to be left-wing opponents of racism. This blog is telling a malicious lie.

Now you might ask so what? After all trolling has become common on edutwitter. My employers are more than aware that trolls and schools shamers lie and will not believe I have neo-Nazi sympathies. Why am I bringing up this smear? Because this stuff seems to have become mainstream. I was not upset by the post. It is neither the first false accusation the author has made about me, nor the nastiest thing he has written about Greg Ashman or Katharine Birbalsingh. I was, however, upset by how widely this defamatory and dishonest post was shared.

  1. Schools Week, a publication I have had a long association with, recommended the post in a blog review column written by Debra Kidd.
  2. Stephen Drew, former headteacher and reality TV star, not somebody I associate with school shaming or online trolling, shared it on Twitter saying “It is a work of profound analysis and absolutely nails what is going on in schools”.
  3. Mary Bousted, of the NEU, the largest teaching union, shared the post on Twitter and the blog review and defended both of them. This is despite the fact that I am currently (but not for much longer) a member of her union. When challenged about this the most I could get her to say about the case of one of her members being defamed was “I accept your assertion that you are not aligned with the far right.” Pretty thin stuff after 18 years of union membership on my part.
  4. It was widely shared by progressives on edutwitter including many who work as consultants or educationalists. Some have since been tweeting about how nasty edutwitter is. But few had the moral fibre to see anything wrong with falsely linking a teacher to the far right, or with all the other name calling.

I am of the view that progressives are beginning to realise they may be on the losing side of a paradigm shift in education. I believe that in England they are largely on the defensive. But this has not made them any less dangerous to individual teachers. Stand against their ideology, and they will lie about you, smear you, and try to silence you.


Are Exclusions Fair? Part 3: The Perpetrators

November 3, 2018

I have written a number of posts recently about permanent exclusions and the movement against them. These two posts sum up the issue.

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.

Here I will address the argument that permanent exclusions are bad for those who are excluded, and, therefore, unfair on them.

A lot of the arguments on this issue refer back to the posts above on the progressive narrative on behaviour. According to this ideology, children cannot be held responsible for their behaviour. Therefore, one cannot appeal to desert, or justice, to justify a behaviour sanction. I wrote about this here:

In the permanent exclusion debate, the belief that children have no responsibility for their actions, and require only a modification of behaviour, leads to a complete elimination of the distinction between perpetrators and victims. In reality, when a child is permanently excluded, there exists both a human being who has chosen to harm others, and there are the harmed. In my experience, permanent exclusions rarely happen without violence or intimidation, without other children, or possibly school staff, having been hurt, violated, intimidated, endangered or scared. This is not always clear from the exclusion figures, as those who repeatedly offend are usually excluded for “persistent disruptive behaviour”. While teachers know that in practice this means a child who is completely out of control and usually violent, the non-teachers and politicians who oppose exclusions often seem to think it means asking for a pen or looking out of the window too many times.

As a result it is common in discussions of permanent exclusions for the victims to not be mentioned at all. People talk as if there is nothing more to the issue than the perpetrator and the school and no other child is affected. Often, this narrative is so pervasive that words you would expect to apply to the victims of extreme behaviour, like “vulnerable” are applied instead to the perpetrator. The issue is then discussed as if it was a matter of finding the best therapeutic intervention for this “vulnerable” child. Often, when I raise the issue of the victim of the offence that led to exclusions, I am told that the perpetrator is also a victim. No doubt my deliberate use of the word “perpetrator” here will be considered deeply offensive to those poor, vulnerable children, who may have sexually assaulted a peer, threatened a teacher with rape, or set fire to a building. But this is a key point, when we talk about the fairness of permanent exclusions, we are not talking about finding a therapy for the vulnerable; we are talking about both protecting, and providing some justice, for their innocent, and genuinely vulnerable, victims. That is not to say we can’t consider the interests of the perpetrator at all, just that the victims should come first. Schools can be dangerous places – on average a rape is reported every day in a school in the UK – and no headteacher should be told that the rights of those who would harm others means that they cannot act to keep their schools safe.

This is not to say that we cannot consider the interests of the perpetrators at all, only that it is unfair if that is the priority. Even when we do consider this, we should be very, very careful. The conventional narrative is that allowing a student with extreme behaviour to stay in school is in their best interest and excluding them would be bad for them. Common sense tells us that allowing a child to get away with extreme behaviour will not actually be good for them. While children change, and change a lot during adolescence, they do normally come to see what is accepted as what is permitted. Those who are spared a deserved exclusion rarely reform as a result of that mercy. Opponents of permanent exclusions would give the impression that poor behaviour can be changed through “interventions” and that there are people out there who can change even the most extreme behaviour, just so long as those perpetrators remain in their mainstream school. This is not my experience as a teacher, or that of most classroom teachers I speak to in mainstream secondary schools, but usually it is those who provide the interventions, not those who teach, who are given the opportunity to share their experience. So to balance the tales of compassionate specialists turning round the most violent children by talking about their feelings, here are a couple of tales of what is more normal in my experience. Here is a blogpost by Headteacher Stuart Lock about a badly behaved boy who was kept in school, and left school believing his behaviour had no consequences, only to find out this wasn’t the case in the adult world. Here is a post by me describing the behaviour of a girl whose worst offences never resulted in exclusions. Neither of these sets of experiences are typically considered in the debate over permanent exclusions.

Of course, one would expect there to be some empirical evidence which would show whether permanent exclusion is better than tolerating extreme behaviour, and allow us to see whether it is the anecdotes of teachers or the anecdotes of the anti-exclusion lobby that are more typical. There isn’t. To my knowledge, nobody has ever, or ever would, be given ethical permission to run an RCT comparing permanent exclusions with the alternatives. I should mention that many people in the anti-exclusion lobby seek to conceal this. They will compare outcomes for those kids who were permanently excluded (usually the most out of control, most dangerous and most criminal young people) and those who weren’t (i.e. those who schools felt they could turn round). Inevitably, the outcomes for the former are worse than for the latter. This is not surprising, but you will find that it is often claimed that this shows that exclusion is harmful, as if the exclusion caused the outcome, rather than the extreme behaviour of the child caused both the exclusions and the outcome. At times it is even claimed that permanent exclusions cause criminal behaviour, rather than that criminal behaviour lead to permanent exclusions. This sort of claim should be challenged, but often it is accepted uncritically by the media.

In the absence of any useful data about the effects of permanent exclusions, we have little choice but to rely on school leaders to make sensible judgements about their own schools. Currently, however, they are under fire from politicians and from the education establishment whose sympathies are overwhelmingly with the permanently excluded, and not with their victims, or with teachers or school leaders. I wish I could say that this trend is being successfully resisted, but so far, those of us who want schools to be safe are being drowned out by those who think they can “save” the badly behaved by keeping them where they can have an endless supply of new victims.




12 years a blogger

October 30, 2018

Last week it was the 12th anniversary of my blog. It’s been a fairly busy year. Professionally, I worked in a really challenging school for most of that time. I experienced an Ofsted and I also took an A-level class for a year, for the first time in quite a while.

As a blogger, I have mainly followed a few themes and posted on each of them several times. I think this may be for two reasons. Firstly, because there has been a greater level of argument and outrage on social media over everything I wrote, so it often became necessary to revisit topics to set the record straight. Secondly, because there were bigger issues to explore that could not be covered in one post.

So here are my main preoccupations this year:


The EEF and Ability Grouping. For a long time now, the EEF toolkit has been used to claim that mixed ability teaching works best. The evidence behind this was actually very shaky. I wrote 3 posts looking into this.


OFSTED. It’s generally observed that OFSTED are reforming in the right direction. However, the influence it has on the system and people’s individual experiences are still far from positive. I wrote these posts about what problems remain.


Phonics. The use of systematic synthetic phonics to teach reading is now the orthodoxy. But debate continues, usually over the freedom of schools to pretend to teach phonics, while not actually doing it properly. The Phonics Check is particularly hated for this reason, yet pretty much every complaint made about it has turned out to be false.


School Shaming. As progressives have lost ground in the debates about pedagogy, curriculum and the purpose of education, their tactics have changed. Hate campaigns aimed at individual schools for not being progressive enough have become more and more common. Fortunately, mainstream edutwitter has become less tolerant of school shaming, and if the story does not get into the press, the shaming can now be pretty short lived.


Shutting Down Debate. The counterpart to shaming schools, are the Twitter campaigns against individuals for daring to challenge progressive ideology. Normally they consist of either misrepresentation, claims that somebody is not entitled to comment, or just outrage over something that has been said without any coherent argument against it. These edutwitter witch hunts have become common enough that I’ve often felt obliged to blog about them.

I’ve also blogged about other ways progressives try to silence those who disagree, including threats of legal action.


Shaming Education Events. When it’s not schools or individuals coming under fire, it’s education events. I had reason to note that some of the criticisms around diversity in education events seemed selective and self-interested.


Teacher Autonomy. One of the easiest complaints to be made about any education idea, is to assume that its proponents wish to enforce it on everybody. On the other hand, it is far from clear why obviously harmful practices should be tolerated. I discussed the limits of teacher autonomy in these two posts.


Behaviour. Progressives seem convinced that they can halt the traditionalist tide in education by forcing schools to tolerate bad behaviour. There seems an influential movement at the moment, from those outside the profession, to make permanent exclusions unacceptable, alongside many of the alternatives. There has also been increased use of school shamings to deter schools from improving discipline.

I wrote the following posts about the philosophical arguments around behaviour:

I wrote this post when I saw people were denying what happens in some schools:

And I wrote these posts about the issue of permanent exclusions:


The Chartered College Of Teaching. One of the most depressing developments of the past year has been being proved right about the Chartered College of Teaching. After years of its advocates telling me not to worry about the involvement of non-teachers in the organisation as they would not be leading it, it has now ceased even pretending to be teacher led. After lots of broken promises, and a rigged election, it is now led by a MAT CEO; an education lecturer, a consultant and an accountant. It has become another education establishment quango, and as long as it exists there will be a danger that it will claim powers overs the profession.


The best of the rest. These miscellaneous posts are also worth looking at.


Thanks to everyone who has followed my blogging and tweeting this year. And my partner, Gwen. Here’s looking forward to another year of blogging.


Are Exclusions Fair? Part 2: Race

October 27, 2018

I have written a couple of posts recently about permanent exclusions and the movement against them.

I also 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 exclusions, as they currently happen, are unfair. I wrote one post addressing whether the argument that they are unfair to students with SEND here:

Are Exclusions Fair? Part 1: SEND

Another recurring claim is that permanent exclusions are racist. The argument goes like this:

  1. The rate of permanent exclusions differs between ethnic groups.
  2. It would be racist to claim that there were differences in behaviour between different ethnic groups.
  3. Because of point 2, the only (or the best) explanation for Point 1 is that children are being excluded from school because of some kind of racism.

The thought that one might be accused of racism is actually pretty terrifying for white, middle class people working in education, so this not terribly convincing argument often goes unchallenged. As it is, I’m sure some of the most toxic elements of edutwitter will accuse me of racism just for being a white man talking about race without starting from the premise that I am an oppressor and anyone who isn’t white is the oppressed. But if I feared malicious accusations, I’d probably never post at all.

Going back to the argument above, the first point, i.e. that the rate of exclusions differs between ethnic groups, is actually true, as shown by the figures for 2016/17, but this is still worth looking at in slightly greater detail.What is slightly misleading in the use of percentages in the debate about permanent exclusions, is that you miss how small the numbers are. Black Caribbean students might be excluded at a higher rate than white students, and most of the claims about race stem from this fact, but there are only 260 Black Caribbean students excluded from England’s 30 000 schools in 2016-17. For the most “over-represented” group, Irish travellers, there were 25 students excluded in 2016-17. It will be worth remembering, that when we talk about permanent exclusions discriminating against young people on grounds of race, we are not talking about a huge, anonymous bureaucracy; we are talking about the decisions of probably around 1% of headteachers in a given year. With turnover so high among headteachers, and different ethnic groups not being evenly distributed across the country, the vast majority of headteachers will never have excluded anyone from an ethnic group that is over-represented in the figures. Those who have, will probably have excluded so few children of any ethnic group that they could recall every one of those children, and recall exactly why they made that difficult choice. When people say exclusions are racist, they are not condemning “the system”, they are condemning real people making difficult choices concerning the interests of children they know well.

The second point, that it would be racist to claim that there were differences in behaviour between different ethnic groups, is the one that causes the biggest problems with having a rational debate about this subject. Because it is morally urgent that we don’t judge people by their race, we may be scared to acknowledge that aggregating ethnic groups does not reveal every group to be statistically identical. This is why it is so important to look at the actual numbers involved. The statistics on exclusions suggest that there are around 170 black Caribbean students in England’s 30 000 schools who behave worse than you’d expect if you assume that extreme behaviour occurs at the same rate in black Caribbean students as white students. This should not reflect on the 99.76% of black Caribbean students who are not excluded, but some people are so worried that it might, that they would rather deny without evidence that those 170 students should have been excluded. They might even imply that the 170 headteachers who made those decisions were racists.

However, if we don’t start from the assumption that every ethnic group will be statistically identical, but instead try to justify that claim, this way of looking at things rapidly falls apart. When you aggregate different ethnic groups, you will find that when you look at an entire ethnic group, there are differences of:

  • social class;
  • geography;
  • parental education;
  • religion;
  • level of religious observance;
  • family size and structure;
  • history;
  • culture;
  • health;
  • peer group;
  • politics.

Because this is at an aggregate level, nothing here would justify judging individuals. But it would be absolutely amazing if, given these differences, not to mention many more that didn’t spring to mind as I wrote the list, each group turned out to have children who, in aggregate, behave in an identical way. If anything, the incredible thing is how small the differences between children from different ethnic groups are when looking at the permanent exclusion figures. I suspect that the discrepancies in the figures mentioned earlier could probably be explained in full by very few of the factors on the list. Geography alone might explain a lot. After all, if more black Caribbean students go to challenging, urban comprehensives in disadvantaged areas, would we really expect black Caribbean students to have identical behaviour to an ethnic group that is better represented in leafy, suburban schools? Peer group effects are also likely to be enormous, particularly when you consider individual students in individual schools.

If we move away from wishful thinking, and playing “gotcha” with middle class white people who are scared to talk about race, is anyone really going to claim that the amount of serious misbehaviour in schools is identical across ethnic groups? How about other demographics where an assumption of equal worth is desirable like social class, or gender? Is anyone going to claim that rich Chinese girls will assault teachers as often as white working class boys? At the very least, anyone claiming that exclusion rates are too high for a particular ethnic group needs to do a multi-variate analysis (tricky when numbers are so small), not just compare headline rates.

And finally, we can look at the third point, that the only (or the best) explanation for differences in exclusion rates is because of some kind of racism. The first and most obvious reason to doubt this is to look at the figures above again. If there was a racist agenda behind exclusions, we’d be looking for people who are very racist against travellers, black Caribbeans and those from mixed race backgrounds. They’d be only moderately prejudiced against black Africans and white people. They’d be fine with pretty much every Asian group. Does this actually match up with the racial prejudices of any group in English society? Are there really headteachers who would think that if a black Caribbean kid sets fire to the science block it’s an exclusion offence, but if a black African kid did it, then it’s okay? Are we really saying that where there is racism in schools, it works in favour of Asian kids, not against them?

Beyond that, we should again refer back to just how small the numbers of permanently excluded kids are. We are probably looking at the decisions of less than a couple of hundred headteachers that cause the “discrepancy” out of a slightly larger population of headteachers who have excluded students from “over-represented” groups. Are they racist? Not all of them will be white, does that affect our willingness to make accusations? At this point the goal posts usually move. It’s not that the people making the decisions are explicitly racist; it is implicit bias or systematic racism that is the problem. This is conveniently unfalsifiable. Nobody can prove that a few hundred headteachers making the controversial decisions aren’t the servants of an unconscious bias or a system of privilege. But, at the same time, they are only a few hundred people. It’s hard not to hold them responsible for their decisions. Should every headteacher who excludes a black Caribbean or Irish traveller student, be under suspicion in this way even if we say their prejudice was unconscious or the system made them do it? No doubt some believe that our society is so racist at every level that the burden of proof lies on those who don’t think racism is the explanation for any given social phenomena and that “innocent until proven guilty” simply doesn’t apply in these cases. However, we my end up finding it hard to get people to become heads in schools with high ethnic minority populations if we treat them as either racists or agents of a racist system when they do their jobs.

Finally, a few points as to why reducing exclusions is not going to advance the interests of ethnic minorities or combat racism. Firstly, ethnic minorities are not distributed equally across the country, or even across any given city. Schools are often more segregated than they should be. This means that the ethnicity of those being excluded for their behaviour is often the same as the ethnicity of some of their victims. If we stopped excluding black Caribbean kids for, say, sexual assault, then we might well increase the number of black Caribbean kids who are sexually assaulted. Secondly, racist abuse and behaviour is a reason for excluding some kids. If schools are forced to reduce the number of exclusions, then they may well feel obliged to tolerate more racism. Thirdly, reducing exclusions might not reduce the racial gap in exclusions. If headteachers are pressured to permanently exclude fewer students, there is absolutely no reason to assume that this will affect the ethnic mix of the excluded. Finally, we should challenge the narrative that exclusion is always against the interest of the excluded child. We don’t know that those who are excluded are losing out because of it, they may be benefiting, but I’ll look at that in more detail at a later date.


The Worst Behaviour In School Corridors

October 24, 2018

Earlier this week there was a school shaming focused on the rules one school was introducing for managing behaviour in corridors during transitions. A large number of people, many of whom have never worked in a secondary school, used an argument along the following lines: “You wouldn’t use rules like this to manage corridors in my workplace/a university/an education conference, so why have them in schools?”

Without making reference to any particular school, or any particular policy for managing corridors, I thought it worth acquainting people with what can go wrong when schools are not in control of their corridors. I asked teachers, “what’s the worst behaviour you’ve seen in a corridor?”.

Here are some answers that should at least help clarify whether school corridors are just like any other workplace. Obviously, these answers do not describe what is normal, nor what should be done in corridors, and I have ignored those who tried to subvert the question and those who were probably joking. I’ve also edited where appropriate. I’ve used quotation marks where behaviour was discussed in a conversation rather than described by just one person.

When I was at school there was “corridor surfing” [crowd surfing along the corridor]

Fighting. Fighting around me. Missiles being thrown. More fighting. Pretty certain of drug use (as an extreme).

“Sexual assault”
“Yeah.. I was going to say that too..”
“Every time I share this story I shudder”
“The one I saw got a lunchtime detention… Grabbed a girls breasts and genitalia … now a closed school…”
“Not my school. Judged as good and still going strong. The boy smirked and walked away bantering with his mates; no consequence.”

I once was teaching a when a year 7 burst in and shouted ‘you’re all a pack of cunts – especially you’(the last bit pointing at me). He got stopped immediately after by senior staff and asked to explain himself. He did, then was told ‘that’s not very nice’ and was sent on his way.

Behaviour in corridors? Fights, swearing, ripping down displays. All in primary schools

The PGCE student being too scared to walk down the corridor by herself because y11 boys would tell her how they would like to fuck her. This was 17 years ago.

In primary: Running, screaming (god the screaming!), pushing, playing tag, fighting, tripping. Slapping children that pass by. Been ran into by children tearing down corridor. Banging on classroom door then running away. Banging on window then running away. Swearing

Some of the most annoying boys used to stand in two lines down the edges of the corridor grabbing/touching up girls as they walked past to go to lessons. Apart from the standard fights that was probably the worst…

Spitting on the floor and at each other. Disgusting!

A boy put a female peer in a choke-hold around her neck until she passed out, banging her head on radiator on the way down.

Daughter’s secondary school, boys lining up on both sides of corridor, groping all the girls as they went past. No action taken, apart from against the girl who pushed one of the boys over. Girls avoiding corridor, understandably. This was last year, b[y] t[he] w[ay], not last century.

1. Firework. A rocket launched down a corridor at changeover. Pandemonium. Not helped by a heroic teacher discharging a Powder extinguisher. The ensuing scene with abandoned shoes and belongings was like a vignette of Stalingrad. Boy excluded. Teacher mocked without end.
2. Student refusing to leave after being excluded for violence returned into school. Took out a dht and a police officer with carefully aimed kicks in the soft parts once cornered in a stair well. She was later excluded.

Ripping door frames off and using the wood with nails protruding to intimidate teachers

Packs of truants banging open doors and threatening other students. Internal corridor doors being kicked repeatedly. A student who spent most of the day standing outside my room calling me a fat bitch and hoping I’d go home and choke on my tea.

Pregnant teacher (accidentally) pushed over because pupils were running. And a fight between two boys that resulted in a broken nose and a lot of blood.

Really unsafe pushing/shoving/crushing on the stairs. Horrifying if you are one of the smaller kids.

As a [male] trainee teacher, I was groped. I kid you not. Worse, the school thought it was hilarious.

Fist fights, yelling profanity and threats, skateboarding, smashing windows, throwing food.

Pregnant teacher was pushed over as a horde of boys were sprinting around the corridors

Setting someone’s hair on fire. I’ve seen it twice in two different schools!

In one school I was in students would openly insult me in the corridor eg talking to friends about me, loudly, “I hate that f*ck*ng bitch.” Reported on SIMS, nothing done.

Hard to say. In one case, a boy was kicking another boy in the head.

Pupils openly telling the head to ‘fuck off’ and then having no sanctions.

Someone being stabbed in the face.

Kid jumped on another kids head after already knocking him out with a punch and kicking him in the face. I got to him right before 2nd jump…

Boy opened classroom door (mine), chucked in a lit firework and then moved on. School had an issue with fireworks every year between mid Oct[ober] & mid Nov[ember]. Oh also there was the kid captured on CCTV who found the toilet locked so did his business in the corridor. Not between lessons – before school. Same school as the kid who threw the firework into my classroom. And the time a kid grabbed my little finger as he passed me in the corridor and broke it. Same school. [H]ad to threaten the school with the police as they wanted to pass it off as just an accident (it really really wasn’t) He was excluded.

10/11-year-olds brandishing chairs at a boy (while I stood my 154cm in front of him), and screaming obscenities because he’d made a comment about one of their mums sucking a horse’s dick.

Where do I begin? Teachers assaulted, fights, you name it. We even increased the length of our lessons to reduce the number of changeovers. That worked…NOT!

A tradition called ‘The Rumbles in the Geography Corridor’ which involved turning the light off (no windows) and then random punching and kicking as hard as you could. Then, when a teacher turned on the light, you had to act casual even if you had a broken nose. Also a cello got crushed.

A y[ea]r 9 hurled a half-full bottle of water at the head of a vulnerable child whilst crossing on the stairs. It missed, or it might have killed anyone it hit. I reported it b[y] t[he] w[ay]. My report was treated with indifference.

When I was at school, in Y7, one of the class used to lead ‘The Crystal Maze’ between almost every lesson. This meant we went on an expedition past almost every part of the large school before arriving at our lesson breathless with excitement about our trip. I think the teachers, on the whole, were happy that they had to teach us for less time.

Ripping bricks from the wall and using them to score into the floor a phallus to rival any this side of Cerne Abbas. Also, flying kicks at classroom doors, resulting in the locks breaking frequently. A colleague got locked in with two pupils and could only be rescued by crowbar and brute force.

Was told of students at a school near to me basically acting as bouncers on a corridor and only letting certain people past, including banning some teachers. Nothing done about it by the leadership either.

Driving a moped full on down the corridor.

“About once a month the kids used to do a crush on the stairs. If there was a blockage all the big kids would start pushing like a ruby scrum, all the tiny kids trapped inside getting crushed. About 50 kids lasting about 5 minutes. Terrifying to watch.”
“This occurred every change over at a former school. It was horrible. Lots of injuries including a broken ankle, broken arm and several badly bumped heads and kids stepped on as they fell over in the scrum. SLT insisted it wasn’t a problem”

Boys used to hit each other very hard in the genitals as they went past in the corridor. A year 9 boy ended up in hospital. Boys will be boys was the response from SLT

When I was a Y[ear] 10 in about 2003, someone shouted at a member of staff, “There’s that dinner lady that looks like Hagrid!”. To which she replied, “I’m not a dinner lady; I’m a supervisor”.

Fight where one girl literally ripped out part of another girl’s hair (obviously needed hospital)

Jumping on others, punching. Taking others things, throwing them. Screaming in people’s faces. Pushing. Deliberately blocking people’s way, shouting ‘password?’

Also, when I was in Y7, one kid was constantly threatened with being beaten up after the lesson. The solution from the teacher? Let him out early. Then on the bell there’d be a massive rush of kids running out of the classroom looking for him

Massive fight between two girls. On the floor with gang around putting the boot in. Staff getting shoved out of the way when trying to stop it. It was considered a really ‘nice’ school too.

Bangcocking the youngest male pupils

Whistling, swearing, running and banging on doors, shoving and knocking over staff – lack of respect for environment, peers and staff – some really shocking examples.

Fighting,children being pushed against walls, pushing & shoving down stairs,swearing, tins of paint or a chair being thrown over a stairwell, malicious comments to others, bullying, children taking the mick out of other’s clothing / hair colour / glasses etc. (At various schools)

At my secondary in the late 90s a fight between two students resulted in a teacher breaking her ankle. The behaviour itself wasn’t the worst I’ve seen but the result was. We also had kids who’d stand on the top step, push you over and kick your belongings through the railings.

Kids being pulled down the corridor using a computer and cable while on a wheelie chair!!

Chairs being thrown

At the very start of my career I was in a school in special measures. Inspectors were in and I was in staff room. I heard noise in the corridor so went out to investigate and saw two boys skateboarding past me on a TV on wheels straight into the lead inspector and Headteacher.

A boy standing on a flight of stairs with a lighter and deodorant can, shooting flames at anyone going past him. Thinking about it, the worst was when a Yr 9 was waiting for an ICT lesson and set fire to the hair of the boy in front of him.

One student who tried to put another out of a window. It was on the first floor. I stopped them and reported to be told that it was ok they were going out to get a ball!!!!! This was deemed as innovation!

The year 10 & 11 boys stampede. Very scary!

Riding a (stolen) bike down the English corridor. Student’s response on being challenged for this behaviour was unpleasant to say the least.

Being called a “fucking ginger cunt” [by a] Year 7.

Throwing books/paper from windows. General high levels of noise and a lack of wanting / caring to go to lessons. I’ve seen teachers trying to round up children who just say “I’ll be there in a minute” in a “whatever, you’re not in control” kind of manner.

A secondary one [year 7] student spanking a teacher.

Lines on either side and/or tripping up those walking along.

Fireworks in the corridor!

Kid grabbed my ID along with my breast and jumped down a stairwell. Another pushed me out of the way as he chased a kid he wanted to beat up. I had to chase a kid who had groped a colleague. 3 different episodes. 3 different kids.

Throwing foodstuffs….eggs, flour and chewing gum. Until it hospitalised a pupil thr[ough] an allergic reaction.

As a [female] teenager at secondary, I was beaten with a fire extinguisher by one of a group of half a dozen lads.

Throwing human faeces at the wall during break. More entertaining was three kids: one singing the ‘I am a shape’ song from the Mr.Maker show while the other two did an accompanying dance. Year 10 students.

A girl with scissors cutting other students hair from behind without their knowledge.

On CCTV: a young girl deliberately lighting a match, giving the camera a look worthy of Iago, and tossing the match into a full wastebin. A student openly smoking with friends in a canteen corridor. A student dropping a full coke can off a balcony. Football match.

I once had a student spit in my face and tell me to “f!*k off out her way” during transition time. I hasten to add I was a teacher. And this was not unusual behaviour. I was told nothing could be done about as it was my word against hers. Imagine what she may have done to a peer.

I’ve split up two girls fighting in a corridor. One was punched so hard her front tooth was knocked out & the other sustained nerve damage to her hand.

My wife was shot with an air gun…….

In a private secondary in Central London I saw a child punch through a window.

Fireworks set off in corridors, nearly hitting pupils heads

Throwing a glass bottle at another student’s head. A deliberate act that with no thought or care for the consequences. Guess the sanction.

I worked in a school in Birmingham where it was routine for staff to have to line the corridors on the way out at the end of the school day, there were that many incidents. Fights started and you had to bundle children into separate classrooms to keep them apart

Snapping pool cues in half and using them as weapons

At the school I went to we had the Gideons in. Shortly after an assembly where we each were given a copy of the New Testament one has been doused with deodorant, set alight and launched down a busy corridor

On the shortlist for worst piece of school design ever, we had a 100m long, stick thin science corridor. Kids lined up all the way down it, pushing those who dared to run the gauntlet from side to side all the way along.

I was knocked off my feet in a corridor once when students were pushing aggressively. I am petite and teenagers tower over me.

Having the draw string of a bag tied to a stair rail during the rush. This caused the knot to become so tight that a teacher had to cut the draw string in order for the child to get to lesson…

Dirty protest. But it was when he was sent out of the room during lesson time not in between lessons. It became the stuff of legend at that school though

Girls being groped by boys in the secondary school I attended 25ish years ago.

Pushing another kid into a lab tech carrying bottles of acid

14 fire extinguishers set off by students in ONE WEEK.

Students leaning over stairs and spitting on those below. Older students picking up Y7 students. Y7 students having to run the gauntlet of older students slapping them on the head.

Can’t stand it when kids get their mate in a headlock and drag them down the corridor. When I reprimand them they say ‘it’s alright he’s me mate/cousin/brother *delete as applicable. When I ask if it’s ok if I did the same to a colleague who I like they look at me bemused

Spitting on those below on stairwells. Shoving friends into teachers. Shoulder barging teachers “accidentally”. Deliberate screaming or animal noises as loud as possible, in groups, for extended periods. Teachers avoiding corridors between lessons.

Being tripped up. Spat on. Pushed.

Best and funniest corridor moment is when two lads at my school in Liverpool disappeared with the TV on trolley. Me and [the] H[ead] o[f] D[epartment] found them in the science corridor, one pulling while the other was riding on top and they were both singing ‘Little Donkey’ (they were yr 11 b[y] t[he] w[ay]).

A few people have already mentioned pregnant colleagues knocked over. I’ve seen this, the animal noises and shrieking, students deliberately harassing specific teachers by banging on their walls and kicking their doors. Shoving each other, using bags as a flail.

Apologies that I cannot acknowledge everyone individually, but the whole thread can be seen here.

Katie Ashford wrote a thread listing 10 of her corridor experiences which is also worth reading:

  1. In one school, lovely teachers created a small “corridor library” in the Eng[lish] dep[artmen]t. Within TWO DAYS every single book had either been ripped apart or adorned with drawings of penises. And then I saw one lad pour an entire can of coke over the whole lot.
  2. [O]ne changeover, I saw three lads pin another boy to the ground so they could draw around him with a board pen they had nicked from somewhere. They said it was a “crime scene” and, of course, drew a massive penis on the outline on the floor AND, of course, on the boy’s cheek.
  3. [A] group of lads deliberately sitting at the bottom of the stairs so they could look up girls’ skirts as they walked down (This happened a lot).
  4. Various hormonal teenagers full-on snogging outside a classroom before saying a tearful goodbye. It was like being on a railway station platform in an old black and white film. Period 3 is a long time to be parted from a loved one, after all.
  5. Kids leaving lessons unannounced to “take an important phone call” in the corridor. Calm down love- you’re not exactly Alan Sugar.
  6. Two boys brought in a bottle of ketchup and squirted it inside other kids’ bags surreptitiously as they walked along. They also cracked eggs into bags.
  7. And then there’s the inevitable “bra strap flicking” that goes on in a loud, boisterous corridor. Oh and wedgies, of course- always accompanied by loud chanting of “WAHEHHHY. WEDGIEEEEEE”- because obviously.
  8. Crowd surfing.
  9. NQT who taught 20 hours per week in 4 different classrooms. One day she was carrying a set of books through the corridor. Year 11 boy slapped the entire pile out of her hands. All the kids nearby screamed with laughter- nobody offered to help her pick them up.
  10. A kid threw an entire pizza across the corridor in what was presumably an attempt to re-enact a similar scene from hit drama, Breaking Bad. Unlike Breaking Bad, it did not land on a garage roof, but instead on a group of year 7 girls. Much screaming ensued.
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