Several weeks ago, on the Today programme, Michael Wilshaw pointed out, quite rightly, that schools have alarmingly low expectations when it comes to their most underprivileged pupils. Apparently, according to Ofsted’s uncompromising Don, many of our educational institutions are betraying our most socially and economically deprived children by tolerating bad behaviour and with it, underachievement. Just last week he continued to bravely challenge the ‘mediocrity and failure’ so depressingly prevalent in Britain’s schools.
I represent that rarest of endangered species: a teacher willing to speak out for the Chief Inspector of Schools and against the prevailing educational orthodoxy responsible for these failings; however, in doing so, I run the risk of committing professional suicide. As a consequence, and to my everlasting regret, I have decided to use a pseudonym in an effort to conceal my identity. That I feel forced to remain anonymous is indicative of the Stalinist fear that exists in the collective consciousness of the teaching profession. In short, any form of dissent, any dissenter, is purged from the profession. Speaking out has indeed never been more dangerous; but, in my opinion, and more importantly, it has never been more necessary.
I work in a failing school - plagued with behavioural problems, poorly managed and infected with a culture that actively promotes failure. Of course, these interrelated causal factors, as in other such schools, invariably lead to poor examination results. Yet instead of the school addressing the first two – poor behaviour and poor management – in an effort to improve our headline figures, it has hitherto attempted, with some success, to manipulate performance indicators by coercing pupils into choosing easier courses (usually BTECs) and, in many cases and on many occasions, effectively cheating – the Senior Leadership Team often railroads staff into passing pupils that have clearly failed. (This is something, incidentally, that is becoming harder thanks to Michael Gove's long overdue reforms that demand an element of external assessment and more rigorous external investigation of internally assessed coursework.) This manipulation and malpractice, though, thankfully, hasn't been able to mask the school’s obvious failings when it comes to pupils achieving 5A*-Cs including English and maths, not to mention the failure of our pupils to secure the new English Baccalaureate. When you include these ‘real’ performance indicators, our results remain woefully, abysmally poor.
Parents, so often treated like imbeciles by educationalists (especially working class parents) are not stupid. They recognise the school’s myriad failings, its crude attempts to cover them up, and vote with their feet. The school’s population has fallen exponentially over the last five years. This creates a self perpetuating cycle that spirals downwards. Informed parents send their enthusiastic and well-motivated charges elsewhere, often leaving us with the most dysfunctional families and sociopathic children. These pupils are way below the national average in terms of ability, and some are beset with behavioural problems and tormented by the consequences of family breakdown. Not a good recipe for success. Every year our intake not only gets smaller, but progressively less able, rendering our chances of improvement that much slimmer.
It must be added that notwithstanding the above, many of our pupils have great potential, and most, at least initially, do not engage in bad behaviour, despite their challenging backgrounds. However, unfortunately, the ethos at the school fosters confusion, evokes feelings of resentment and cultivates an environment that, as a consequence, encourages recalcitrance. This isn’t a criticism of the teaching staff, but of the management. It is the culture that needs to change and this comes directly from the board of governors and, particularly, the SLT.
In short, Children that need, more than most, clear boundaries supported by robust systems, have neither. Our pupils, good and bad, quite understandably have little faith in the school’s rules. Opaque, nebulous systems (the result of badly written policies) mean that choosing an appropriate punishment for a specific transgression is solely the domain of the individual member of staff, bereft of a clear behavioural policy to refer to. Indeed, this ‘privatisation’ of school policy leads to inconsistency and confusion for pupils and staff alike. Each teacher will dispense the sanction they feel appropriate, some harsh, some lenient.
In contrast, successful schools with robust systems have specific sanctions, codified in transparent behavioural policies, for specific transgressions. There is no inconsistency. If a pupil sprays graffiti on the toilet wall, he knows the punishment to expect. If he has consistently failed to live up to classroom expectations, he knows the consequences. Of course there will always be a degree of inconsistency in the classroom, every teacher is different. But an over-arching code of conduct, supported by strong, equitable sanctions if broken, is essential for raising standards, both behavioural and academic. Alas, this is our greatest failing, and it is compounded by an ideological commitment amongst our SLT to a misguided moral relativism that confuses things further.
Every pupil that breaks a rule is treated uniquely and subjected to a personalised punishment. For example, if a child-in-care steals a mobile phone his/her punishment will be less severe than a child from a stable home who commits the same offence. In other words, the punishment is relative to the child’s social circumstance. Again, this creates confusion. The kids have no idea what they can and can’t get away with because decisions are arbitrary and lack systematic reasoning. It is also morally reprehensible and, in my opinion, unjustifiable to effectively apply different rules to different pupils. The children are intelligent enough to know that some are treated with more compassion than others; some get more chances and are given more time when it comes to staffing, all because of their respective backgrounds.
It smacks of favouritism and elicits a perverse response. The well behaved pupils, even those fortunate enough to be brought up in more benign social circumstances, come to the logical conclusion that it doesn't pay to be good. The bad kids are getting special treatment. Even though their punishments will in many cases be more severe, and they know they will be, the good kids become bad kids. They think, exasperatedly, ‘Why should we follow the rules when others don’t with impunity?’ So instead of one or two unruly pupils in each class (something to be expected), there are ten, perhaps even fifteen. The majority created by us.
This shameful sequence adds up to nothing less than a gross dereliction of duty. The school is failing in its most important job, indeed, its raison d’etre: the nurture and cultivation of children into adults capable of living fulfilling lives and reaching self-actualisation. How can they do this if they don’t know the difference between right and wrong – surely the sine qua non of every child’s holistic development? Michael Wilshaw must continue his courageous crusade against the educational establishment’s misguided belief that deprivation invariably leads to failure. Our children’s futures depend on it!