Thursday, August 6, 2015

Inadequate headteachers are damaging our children

Some years ago, my colleagues and I were forced to endure a professional development session entitled, ‘Are your lessons worth behaving for?’ Forget the ungrammatical construction of the sentence for one moment, ending as it does with a preposition. Every time this memory resurfaces and, with it, the implicit message that if our students misbehave it must always be our fault, I find myself seeking solace in a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in an often unsuccessful attempt to stave off the inevitable enraged response. Come to think of it, perhaps alcohol isn’t the best answer…
Anyway, leaving that to one side, on Tuesday evening this traumatic experience was again evoked as I, perhaps injudiciously, began to watch Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School on BBC Two. Masquerading as an experiment which pitted Chinese didactic teaching methods against the more progressive approach favoured in British schools, it was clearly, first and foremost, made to entertain. And entertain it did. Watching teachers used to students culturally imbued with obedience, respect for authority, ambition and motivation attempt to teach our children, even in an ostensibly successful school like Bohunt, was indeed great television.
But are we going to be able to draw any new conclusions about the merits of the respective teaching methods after four weeks, even if the kids exposed to Chinese traditionalism are tested against their British taught peers at the end? Of course not. First, the Chinese teachers do not know their new students and only have four weeks to teach them. Any teacher will tell you: it takes between three and six months to gain the trust of one’s students in this country. Secondly, and most importantly, there is an enormous cultural gulf between the Chinese teachers and their young English charges – a gulf which, I suspect, cannot be overcome in just one month, if ever. And thirdly, in order to be successful, every teacher needs the support of his or her Head and, in this instance, that is clearly not the case. The Head is desperate for them to fail.
At the end of the four weeks, when, I predict, the British taught kids perform better than their Chinese taught counterparts for the reasons outlined above, the smirking Headteacher will conclude, against all of the international evidence to the contrary, that progressive teaching methods are more successful than those of a more traditional bent.
So as a practical experiment, the methodology and stated concept are deeply flawed. There are simply too many variables outside the realm of pedagogy which will determine outcomes. Yet we can still draw some useful conclusions. For example, the behaviour of many of the children at Bohunt is not conducive to learning. It is disruptive and, in the case of Sophie in particular, downright rude. Indeed, if I were the Head I would be mortified by their treatment of five visitors attempting to broaden their horizons.
And here we come to the crux of the problem. Mr Strowger, the Bohunt Headteacher, blames the behaviour of the kids on the Chinese teachers. Instead of reading them the Riot Act, appalled by their treatment of overseas visitors, he points the figure of blame at the teachers’ traditional, didactic methods. So, too, did the Head of Maths. In fact, he appeared to revel in the misery being inflicted by the children, deluding himself that it proves the superiority of child-centred progressivism.
All it really proved was his own inadequacies and unfitness for the position of teacher, let alone Headteacher. The children at Bohunt are great: quirky, intelligent and full of potential. Their Headteacher, though, is letting them down. In blaming the teachers for their poor behaviour, when he should be instilling the attitude that you treat everyone with equal respect, even if you find them difficult to understand, or even boring, he is encouraging the children to misbehave, be rude and then search for excuses. It’s extremely sad.
Unfortunately, Mr Strowger is not unrepresentative of other Headteachers around the country either. They are intensely damaging to our children. Forget academies, Secretary of State, do something about these numpties. Everybody’s lessons are worth behaving for.
If this one conclusion is drawn, and something done about it, the programme’s impact will be much more profound than a simple piece of cheap, Tuesday-night entertainment often begets. I very much doubt it, though.

First published on on 6th August 2015


  1. I trained in a school which had a lot of similarities to Bohunt- advantaged intake, hence doing pretty well, and able to play the Ofsted game successfully, and it's painful to see the same attitudes and assumptions being played out. (We also had the "Was your lesson worth behaving for?" question thrown at us... apparently "A, B and C were so disruptive that they closed the lesson down before anyone could find out" isn't the right answer.
    Like you, I find it so frustrating seeing bright children doing OK- but nowhere near as well as they could. I still half-hope that (this being unreality TV) the Chinese-taught group succeed in the final episode, though it seems pretty clear that, whatever the outcomes, Mr Strowger just doesn't like trad teaching (if The Times is to be believed:

    Then again, the UK system rewards that sort of attitude. Child-centred progressivism looks good in a 20 min inspection, and if no-one feels challenged, they are less likely to kick off. Mr Strowger is delivering what he has been asked to deliver... it's not entirely his fault if it's not very good.

    [What is more his fault is shortening the school day for a England football match, which I stumbled across while checking the last link... That is just rubbish, pupil voice or no pupil voice].

    1. Sorry for the delay in publishing and responding to your comment. I've been away on holiday. Thank you for your post. I agree with everything you say. Mr Strowger is certainly a product of the system. The problem is that he reinforces the system's failings. It's self-perpetuating. Alas, the Katharine Birbalsinghs of this world are few and far between.

  2. I trained in a school which was pretty similar to Bohunt (well-off intake, pretty good results as a consequence, good at Ofsted chasing), and can recognise a lot of the management attitudes- right down to the "Is your lesson worth behaving for" question. Incidentally, "I don't know, because A, B and C were so disruptive that I had to close down my plan before we could find out" isn't the right answer.
    I've got a bit of sympathy for Mr Strowger- he is delivering what the Ofsted system has required of schools over the last decade or so, and by all accounts is doing so pretty effectively. Even the children kicking off because of Bad Pedagogy has been encouraged; it shows critical thinking, understanding of their learning needs, that sort of thing. (It's also a bit reminiscent of the junior Spies in 1984, but that's another matter).

    There is the important detail that pupils don't leave school knowing things as well as they could. The intense sadness I had (and I think you share) is that of seeing pupils doing OK, but knowing that they could do so much better with a more nutritious educational diet, and without wasting so much time on "should we bother in this lesson?". "Every lesson is worth it" should be put on a plaque in every corridor in every school.

    [What I find it harder to forgive Mr Strowger for is this little gem, which I stumbled across while checking some other bits: shortening lessons for an England football match:]

  3. Great post; I couldn't agree more.