Friday, February 07, 2014

An Open Letter To Michael Gove.

In my last blog, I made a series of observations about the comments made by a former No.10 policy wonk on ways of improving education in the UK.

Since writing that article, I have listened to Michael Gove talking about his desire to create a teaching environment in this country such that there will be no distinction in teaching standards between the Independent sector and the ordinary State school.

This is a highly laudable ambition and one which no doubt might be capable of achievement, but before any moves can be made to begin to recreate this brand new bright tomorrow, those responsible for administering and supervising the State education services, have got to sit down and take stock of what is going on around them.

I am not talking about the teachers - they have already been made subject to more than enough demands for change. I am talking about the plethora of Government administrators, politicians, advisers, and other hangers-on, who seem to feel that they are qualified to advise, propose, or determine how teaching must and will be performed in this country.

I know a little of that which I speak. I come from a Welsh family in which it was widely held that to be a teacher was a most honourable profession, one which sought to guide, inform and better equip its recipients for their function in adulthood.

My mother was a highly talented teacher, my aunt was a teacher, a number of other relatives in my family were all highly-qualified teachers, both in schools and in university. I now teach, albeit to law students in an LL.M program. My wife is a teacher of adult students, and our children have both qualified as teachers, both with excellent classically academic degrees from leading Universities, coupled with high PGCE qualifications. You could say that teaching is for us a means of keeping faith with our backgrounds and our family heritage.

As a child, I went first to an ordinary State junior school in what was then a run-down, war-damaged suburb of South-East London, housed in a classic Victorian community school building. It was drab and shabby, with little in the way of resources, but I had the privilege of being taught by an inspirational man, Leslie Davies, a transplanted Welshman from Tredegar, who had, like so many of his generation from coal-mining families in South Wales, been saved from the rigours of the pit by his aptitude for study. His family had recognised this ability, and his father and brothers had worked tirelessly in the mine so that he could have the opportunity to go first to Grammar School, and then, via the benefit of competitive scholarships, to Jesus College, Oxford (the Welshman' s College), where he had read English.

He had gone into teaching straight from University because it was the profession he most admired and because he wanted to teach children to learn what was necessary to take their place in the world.

He was a highly gifted teacher who revered good English essay writing, mental arithmetic, and clear and expressive use of vocabulary. Every day we had to recite the mathematical multiplication tables until we knew them by rote. At any time during the teaching day we could expect him to suddenly turn on one of us and snap out a question, '...What are six sevens, Bosworth-Davies..?' and woe betide anyone who got a wrong answer, because it meant that we were all kept back after school to continue to recite the tables.

He demanded perfect spelling and grammar in any piece of writing, and any mistake repeated twice was met with a demand for the hapless child to write the word out 500 times after school, until it was literally burned into one's sub-conscious. I can still not write the word 'because' without remembering that empty classroom, and my wrist and hand going numb from constantly re-writing that word which I could never get right.

He wore hairy tweed jackets, smoked a series of foul-smelling pipes, often in the classroom at the end of lessons, and he used the cane which he kept in the cupboard behind his desk. I got it twice, once for failing to provide a piece of work which was up to the standard he expected from me, and once for refusing to tell him who had smashed a classroom window, when he had seen me in the vicinity when it was broken. He caned me first for disobedience to his order, but then gave me six class credits for standing by my friends and not grassing. He was that kind of man.
His regime was incredibly strict, he ran his classes with an iron hand, but he inspired immense affection and respect. He read great classic stories aloud to the class every Friday afternoon, and he insisted that we learn poetry by heart and recite it . Every single child taught by him inevitably passed the eleven plus exam, went on to Grammar School, (I was one of two lucky boys who won full Local Authority Scholarships to an Independent Public School), and the majority of his former pupils went on to University, many to Oxbridge.

He was an unashamed meritocrat, he believed that children would not learn unless they were pushed to the limit, and he practiced his philosophy by stretching our minds and our intellects at every turn. He would stand at the front of the class and repeat his mantra which was, for him, an act of faith.

"...You working-class children have got to realise that the only way out of your lower-class backgrounds is through hard work and scholarship. With education, you can make something of yourselves, but without constant hard work and study, you will simply not achieve anything..."

The point of this pen portrait is to amplify and emphasise the salient points about successful education. It requires very hard work, with commitment from both teacher and pupil, and it requires significant discipline in the classroom so that the time allocated to learning is not wasted. Pupils have to be willing to turn up on time, in a fit state to be taught and to learn, and with the full understanding that if they transgress, if they disrupt the class, if they become rude, insulting or aggressive, then they will be punished.

All the rest is mere window dressing!

How that social contract is devised and designed is an individual matter for the school, the parents and the pupils, but it is vital that whatever format it assumes, it is agreed and understood from day one. When I was a schoolboy, there would have been no point in my complaining at home that I had been in trouble with my teacher because I would have been punished again. Today, the cane is outlawed, but there are other forms of punishment which can be devised and utilised sensibly and fairly which do not offend against our more Liberal sensibilities.

Teaching is not rocket science. That is not to say it is not highly skilled, and not everyone has the talent or the ability to be able to teach children effectively. It needs a deep level of commitment, a significant depth of intellectual achievement and a burning wish to help children expand and enlarge their minds and their intellects. Not every person has the patience or the intellectual capacity to teach efficiently, but those who do, and within this group, I include the vast majority of decent men and women who daily lead the learning experience in our schools, should be respected and acknowledged for the expertise they possess, the years of study they have committed to work in this sector, and for foregoing the financial rewards which they could earn elsewhere but which they willingly renounce in order to teach!

For all these reasons, men like Paul Kirby, the KPMG bean counter and former political policy weasel, who believes that teachers' views are irrelevant -

(he is quoted as saying "...But the role schools play in our national and family life is far too important to leave to teachers. And it’s certainly too important to leave to their knee-jerk, as opposed to thoughtful, responses...")

- and he proposes that they must commit even more hours to become unpaid child minders or prison warders, need to be isolated (see previous blog in this series) and identified for the mean spirited, Gradgrind he truly is.

But there remain some vitally important issues which need to be addressed openly if the future of teaching is to be ensured and Mr Gove's (not unreasonable) ambitions for State schools are to be achieved.

No teacher, no matter how talented or dedicated can provide the full educational input if they are constantly being distracted by disruptive and sociopathic pupils who are determined  to cause trouble.

Such a situation would never have occurred in Leslie Davies' classes, we were all too aware of the potential response and the outcome for us if we had misbehaved in any way. Even to talk with friends without being first invited was forbidden and resulted in a punishment.

Having watched the recent BBC 3 tv series 'Tough Young Teachers', I have been both amazed, but also incensed by the apparent level of acceptance of conduct by pupils, which is downright disruptive. Children refusing to contribute to class lessons, walking on tables, throwing chairs, falling asleep, shouting, ignoring teacher requests and generally behaving in a boorish, aggressive manner designed to be frankly intimidating.

I am also appalled by the demands for the need for constant praise and encouragement which apparently is considered to be de rigeur, and trotted out ceaselessly to pupils, merely for undertaking the most simple and basic of tasks.

Schools must bring back a regime of pragmatic discipline which is understood by all, parents, teachers and pupils alike! It is the most fundamental of all requirements, and without absolute discipline in the class, nothing is achieved. This does not mean a return to the days of corporal punishment which I remember, but it does mean a social contract between teachers, parents and pupils, which all sign up to, and adhere to.

Disruptive conduct is often symptomatic of other problems. Many children attend school  improperly fed. Too many parents allow their offspring to choose what they want for the first meal of the day, and in so many cases, the foods eaten are wholly inappropriate. Children need a proper breakfast if they are to be at their peak of attentiveness. All too often, egregious conduct results from poor or no food choices, my son describes pupils arriving in class having consumed highly-sugared, so-called 'energy drinks' but no other food. Such drinks merely exacerbate any tendency to over-excitable behaviour.

Children need sleep, young people who are studying need 8 hours sleep a night if at all possible. Too much exposure to junk tv programmes, or worse, hours spent on electronic games or inappropriate Internet websites can cause sleep deprivation and ingrained tiredness, which leads to inattention, irascibility and poor behaviour.

None of these observations are rocket science, nor do they need to cost one penny more in the education budget to achieve. They are part of the social contract that parents should be required to sign up to, and which, years ago, were merely part of the ordinary way of life for the vast majority of ordinary people.

Another radical change that is demanded is that children must be made to see the importance of the need to undertake the work they are required to do. Again, this is a discipline issue, together with input from parents ensuring that homework is properly completed and delivered on time.

My son has identified a whole generation of youths who see no point in doing any school work at all. He describes them as 'congenitally bone idle and dysfunctional'. He talks about a certain type of youth who sees absolutely no point in doing any study or academic work at all, and who is completely disinterested in the fact that he will not achieve any school qualifications.

Having undertaken his teacher training in a very gritty sub working-class area of the North-West of England, he describes how the kind of youths described here viewed him, their teacher as '...merely an irritating obstacle between them and their careers as professional footballers or celebrities..." despite the fact they had neither the sporting skill nor any other obvious talents.

To start a regime of change which will lead to the eventual realisation of Michael Gove's ambitions, we need a fundamental, root and branch re-think of the relationship between schools, parents and their children.

On the first day of arriving at a new school, parents must be required to complete and sign a contract which will spell out precisely what is required of them and their children in the future.
The contract will set out the rules of engagement and will make it clear that any deviation from the requirements in terms of classroom conduct, or episodes of ill-discipline, will be grounds for exclusion. Exclusion of classroom disrupters has to be swift and effective before the damage is too widely inflicted on the rest of the class. Both parents and children have to be made to learn that education at the expense of the State is a significant privilege, and that they owe a duty of responsibility to ensure that their children attend school in a suitable manner, ready to learn and willing to comply with what are only normal parameters of civilised behaviour and good manners.

Any parent or pupil who is unwilling to agree to these terms will face permanent exclusion from the school, and placed instead in an authorised reception centre for disruptive pupils.
In such a way, Mr Gove would begin to develop a disciplined culture which would in turn, render schools fit for purpose, and enable teachers to do what they do best, to teach!

None of these recommendations are costly, nor do they need vast armies of advisers to implement them. Reintroduce basic civilised discipline in the classrooms of the State sector, and the British education service will flourish again.


Antisthenes said...

It is a pity that your blogs are so long because my attention span is shorter so I never read them all the way through. From the bits I do read though I am under the impression that what you write is good stuff and I could agree with most of what you have to say.

Amazed! said...

One further recent dynamic not discussed is the apparent sentiment often held by parents that teachers are now "the enemy".

Instead of parents accepting and respecting the concerns and criticisms that teachers have of their children, they often take the side of their children in parent teacher meetings. This, in effect, enables their children to continue their poor behaviour/work habits and undermines teachers authority and demeans their position.

Wonder why the UK is devolving into the sespit that it is? What we are now seeing is the "third worldenisation" of the UK. Islands of affluence in an ocean of poverty.

Our masters like it this way.
There's a shit storm coming.
Buy physical gold.

ps. Antisthenes - turn off your TV. The more you watch, the less you know; your attention span will improve too!

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