Thursday, December 15, 2016

Introduction


Michael Wilshaw, during his tenure as the Chief Inspector of Schools, pointed out that too many teachers 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. He bravely and unrelentingly challenged 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 ex-Chief Inspector and against the prevailing educational orthodoxy responsible for these failings; but 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 have spent most of my 13-year career working in a failing school - plagued with behavioural problems, poorly managed and infected with a culture that actively encouraged failure. Of course, these interrelated causal factors, as in other such schools, invariably led 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 attempted, with some success, to manipulate performance indicators by coercing pupils into choosing easier courses (usually BTECs) and effectively cheating – the Senior Leadership Team often railroaded staff into passing pupils that had clearly failed. (This is something, incidentally, that has become harder thanks to Michael Gove's long overdue reforms.) 

This manipulation and malpractice, though, couldn’t mask the school’s obvious failings when it came to pupils achieving 5A*-Cs including English and maths, not to mention the failure of our pupils to secure the English Baccalaureate. When you included these ‘real’ performance indicators, our results remained woefully poor.

Parents are not stupid. They recognised the school’s myriad failings, its crude attempts to cover them up and voted with their feet. The school’s population fell dramatically from over 800 when I started back in 2004 to 450 by the time I left in the summer of 2015. This created a self-perpetuating cycle that spiralled downwards. Informed parents sent their enthusiastic and well-motivated kids elsewhere, often leaving us with the most dysfunctional families and sociopathic children. These pupils were way below the national average in terms of ability, and some were beset with behavioural problems and tormented by the consequences of family breakdown. Not a good recipe for success. Every year our intake not only got 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 had great potential, and most, at least initially, did not engage in bad behaviour, despite their challenging backgrounds and familial circumstances. However, unfortunately, the ethos at the school fostered confusion, evoked feelings of resentment and cultivated an environment that, as a consequence, encouraged poor behaviour. This isn’t a criticism of the teaching staff, but of the management. It was the culture that needed to change and this came directly from the board of governors and, in particular, our Senior Leadership Team (SLT).

In short, Children that needed, more than most, clear boundaries supported by robust systems, had neither. Our pupils, good and bad, quite understandably had little faith in the school’s rules. Opaque, nebulous systems (the result of badly written policies) meant that choosing an appropriate punishment for a specific transgression was solely the domain of the individual member of staff, bereft of a clear behavioural policy to refer to. Indeed, this ‘privatisation’ of school policy led to inconsistency and confusion for pupils and staff alike. Each teacher dispensed the sanction they felt 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 was our greatest failing, and it was compounded by an ideological commitment amongst our SLT to a misguided moral relativism that confused things further.

Every pupil that broke a rule was treated uniquely and subjected to a personalised sanction. For example, if a child-in-care stole a mobile phone his or her punishment would be less severe than a child from a stable home who committed the same offence. In other words, the punishment was relative to the child’s socioeconomic and cultural circumstance. Again, this created confusion. The kids had no idea what they could and couldn’t get away with because decisions were arbitrary and lacked systematic reasoning. It was also morally reprehensible and, in my opinion, unjustifiable to effectively apply different rules to different pupils. The children were intelligent enough to know that some were being treated with more leniency than others; some were getting more chances and were being given more time when it came to staffing, all because of their respective backgrounds.

It smacked of favouritism and elicited a perverse response. The well behaved pupils, even those fortunate enough to be brought up in more benign socioeconomic circumstances, came to the logical conclusion that it didn't pay to be good. The bad kids were getting special treatment. They thought, 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 were ten, perhaps even fifteen. The majority created by us.

Perhaps even more damaging was our SLT’s dogmatic Rousseauian belief in the infallibility of children and the corrupting influence of adults on their development. As a consequence, there was an open hostility towards any clear expression of adult authority. Punishments were frowned upon - even the word ‘punishment’ was banished from the school lexicon, along with ‘lazy’, ‘naughty’ and any other terms seen as detrimental to a child’s fragile self-esteem - and teacher-talk, being a method that implies expertise and authority, was prohibited in favour of ‘independent learning’, through which children would become less reliant on the teacher - tellingly renamed a ‘facilitator of learning’ – and more inclined to discover things for themselves.

This shameful sequence added up to nothing less than a grotesque abdication of responsibility. We were failing in our historic duty to teach children about the world, including the moral principles that underpin civil society. Anarchy, amorality and ignorance were allowed to germinate and the life chances of thousands of children were being squandered.

So why did you stay there for so long? I hear you ask. Well, I genuinely enjoyed teaching some wonderfully quirky kids. Initially, though, back in 2004, after an intense and unforgiving introduction to the profession as an unqualified teacher, I was simply surviving. I was aware that something wasn’t quite right, but felt too disorientated by the madness to understand what it was. Why were children threatening me on a daily basis? Why was my boss doing nothing about it? It was a confusing time but I was young, keen, optimistic and determined to master my new craft.

As an incidental result, I became quite reliant on, even in awe of, the senior leaders who were, as I was later to discover, the ones allowing and even encouraging the children to abuse me. I listened to and acted upon their advice on how to plan and deliver ‘fun’ and ‘exciting’ lessons full of group activities and games. Apparently this was going to stop the kids swearing at me.

And although things did improve as the year progressed - I even managed to qualify the following year - the daily abuse continued, albeit on a smaller, more manageable scale.

As the years passed and I emerged from a state of disoriented ignorance - gradually beginning to realise why our pupils were failing so miserably - I became stubbornly and idealistically determined to launch a one-man crusade against the progressive forces responsible. I suppose I became a bit of a thorn in the collective side of my senior leaders, forever questioning and challenging their methods and beliefs. When a pupil was allowed back into school after threatening to stab a colleague, for example, I objected; when another was caught and only lightly reprimanded for stealing and terrorizing some of our Year 7 kids, I protested; when they blamed our lessons for disruptive behaviour, I openly expressed my disapproval. I rather naively felt that my presence was needed. I thought I could make a difference.

I also had some fantastic colleagues, who, through adversity, became and still remain very good friends. If I’m being wholeheartedly honest, too, inertia also played a large part - along with a reasonably good salary and long holidays - in my decision to stay in such a toxic environment, an environment that, unbeknownst to me at the time, would eventually have a devastating impact on my physical and psychological health.

In 2014 I suffered an attack of Atrial Fibrillation – an erratic and irregular heart rate brought on, according to the doctors, by work-induced stress and anxiety. This led to a nervous breakdown and several weeks’ absence.   

Shortly after my return, I was made redundant, ostensibly due to our falling roll and the school’s consequential need to reorganise. In reality, my illness had rendered me superfluous and my outspokenness, eminently expendable. It was a cruel decision somewhat cushioned by a realisation: I had the opportunity to move on to newer, greener pastures.

Reluctant to commit to another permanent position, though– the last thing I wanted to do was jump out of the frying pan and into the fire - I decided to try my hand at supply work in a bid to find my Arcadia - or, more to the point, a suitable position in a nice school with a sensible head teacher. This was a more difficult challenge than I’d imagined. I had several disastrous placements until finally, I found a girls’ school in which the kids weren’t, astonishingly, throwing chairs at one another. They were both intelligent and hard-working, or so they seemed.

But after several months - and after accepting a permanent position there -, I discovered that, although less overtly aggressive, their behaviour was in many ways worse than anything I’d previously experienced. Many were cunning mischief-makers who fully exploited our head’s naivety and contemptible willingness to undermine her staff. Whereas before I had tables and chairs being thrown at me, I now had disturbing accusations of professional misconduct. All things considered, I think I preferred the former.

After 13 years in the profession, I have finally reached the sad conclusion that teachers - at the hands of a generation of child-worshipping senior leaders - are the unfortunate victims of horrendous and scandalous levels of abuse that would make even the most uncaring and self-interested Victorian factory owner wince in distress. My Arcadia simply doesn’t exist.

This blog, through my own experiences, is determined to give teachers a voice, and, in doing so, improve the lives and opportunities available to our children, who’ve been cruelly misled and betrayed by the myriad overpaid halfwits at Ofsted, the teaching unions, in government and most importantly, at the very top of our schools.

It will necessarily touch upon the practical impact of government policies, offer some informed advice to our politicians and issue a simple yet stark warning: the reforms aren’t working. Any improvements have indeed been made by flogging teachers to death, sometimes literally. That’s why there is a retention crisis. That's why so many teachers are cruelly struck down with mental illness.

Let's take the case of Laurian Bold's tragic suicide as a stark warning - as a call to action! According to the coroner and her family, the school literally worked this selfless young science teacher to death.



This blog is a wake up call! 

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