Class warfare

28 April 2005
The Guardian
link to original

I actually clapped my hands in agreement and sympathy as I finished watching this documentary. I had been expecting an over-sensationalised picture of classroom violence and mayhem, but instead, I watched an incisive, analytical programme which was all the more shocking because it was so rational. It was not Big Brother meets The Blackboard Jungle, as you might expect from Channel Five, but a measured, devastating indictment of the behaviour of our pupils in many British schools.

"Sylvia Thomas" – a pseudonym – was an impressive, articulate middle-aged woman, who had been a teacher in the 1970s, and returned as a supply teacher a couple of years ago to find out how schools had changed. She took secret cameras into a number of schools throughout the country and filmed what she saw. Because of the secretive nature of her work, the film did rely a great deal on her commentary, and observations to camera. Nevertheless, the footage was very persuasive. It revealed that in just about every school she visited there was chronic indiscipline. From inner-city schools, to suburban comprehensives, from sink estates in London to beautiful rural areas in the north, the message was the same: pupils were fighting in class, they were rude, they were very noisy, they vandalised equipment, attempted to download porn on to computers, ate food, frequently challenged the teacher (sometimes threatening them), and rarely did much work.

Ironically, the one school where they didn’t do this was Sir John Cass in Stepney, the school that I wrote my book about. It dealt with my first years as a teacher in this school before the current, "super" headteacher was appointed. From being bottom of the league tables, and an unruly place, it has subsequently been transformed into a high-achieving, disciplined establishment. The film persuasively showed that his disciplinary approach had significantly improved classroom behaviour.

But the documentary went further than saying that a super head was the panacea for our current educational woes. It pointed out, entirely correctly in my view, that unless we cut bureaucracy in schools then we will continue to churnout illiterate yobs. Tony Blair, were you watching?

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