The senior teacher made it clear: it must be my fault if the children behaved badly

11 September 2005
The Daily Telegraph
link to original

I gulped, finally I was going to tell the truth. "The thing is, I just don’t think I am coping with some of the classes," I said with my head bowed. Simon Filer, the senior manager to whom I was confessing this in an empty classroom, blinked and then tapped his pen against the desk.

I explained to him that I had a couple of lower school classes that were out of control. The children never listened to what I was saying, frequently got into fights, insulted me, and rarely did any work. I’d had stuff thrown at me; I’d sat down on staples and ripped-up Coke cans; I’d had all my equipment vandalised. When I finished, Filer folded his arms and said: "I shouldn’t be hearing this, Francis. This is a good school with good results, and experienced teachers like you don’t have trouble like this."

The implication was clear. I was to blame for my pupils’ bad behaviour. It was my rotten lessons that weren’t motivating them, despite the fact that I had succeeded in other schools. I walked away realising that the best thing to do, unless I wanted to be the victim of a witch-hunt, was to pretend that everything was fine.

Managers like Simon Filer clog up our educational establishment. They have risen up through the ranks by saying the right thing to the right advisers rather than tackling genuine problems. As a result, poorly behaved students get away with murder because schools are too inclined to blame individual teachers rather than tackling the root causes of bad behaviour.

The senior managers in such schools are ably assisted by a qualifications system that means the students can effectively have much of the course completed for them by their teachers, private tutors, parents or from the internet. As a result, many students leave school thinking that they can be successful by mucking around and getting someone else to do the work for them. The only wake-up call they get is when their employers and universities are horrified by their lack of literacy, numeracy and communications skills, despite their fabulous grades.

I was worried on results day this year because, as head of the English department at my comprehensive school on the suburban fringes of east London, I have switched from a coursework based GCSE to one assessed entirely by exams. The overall results were not quite as good as the coursework GCSE grades of previous years but they were much more reliable indicators of the pupils’ abilities. They actually did provide a realistic assessment of what the pupils were capable of. They were, in my view, "honest" results.

Fortunately, I am backed up now at my school by a senior management that sees the long-term benefits of this approach: it has real pay-offs in the sixth form – and, the wider world – because the pupils are learning the value of doing genuine work.

Honesty is the most important virtue that we can teach our children. Our technological, liberal society would not function with such relative success if too many members were corrupt. I know this having travelled to a country where the living standards of the ordinary people are shockingly low because of the disproportionate levels of corruption within the society. In my Easter break this year, I toured some of the most troubled parts of Nigeria, and, in particular, went to Akassa, in the oil-producing region of the country, where I observed some of the schools.

It was a salutary experience: I saw classrooms where there were no books, no windows, and leaking roofs. The supervising teacher showed me one room full of broken furniture. She explained that this was what had been provided by the local government. Because the politicians stole or "chopped" the public’s money, she explained, the only thing that the government could afford to provide – after all the private jets and luxury houses had been paid for, of course – was this mound of useless furniture.

The unbroken desks and tables in the school had been paid for by the local community and a small non-governmental organisation called the Akassa Development Foundation. This NGO together with the local community is now building its own schools with privately-raised funds: I saw these places as well and marvelled at the way they had been organised.

I also felt that for all the poverty I saw in Akassa – which was largely the result of corporate and government corruption – this small community had something to teach Britain. Despite the appalling lack of money, they were running good schools: the children were desperate to learn, attentive, and well behaved. They were learning to read and to write fluently, and to become numerate. And there wasn’t a single computer, inter-active whiteboard or television set in sight. It was the involvement of the children’s community in the schools that was the secret of their success.

While we do not have a civil service rife with embezzlement, and while I am of course grateful that we actually receive enough money to pay teachers and resource schools, we too suffer from a bureaucracy that needlessly eats up the public’s money, paying for middle-class pen-pushers to have nice, cosy lives while teachers and pupils suffer. One recent estimate suggested that nearly 40 per cent of the education budget is taken by bureaucrats in one form or another. This means that my English department – and all the thousands of others throughout the country – do not receive enough money to buy the relevant books, and we often work in needlessly shabby classrooms.

Dishonesty spreads around the system as teachers and pupils are forced to pretend that things are fine when they are not. Instead of having an honest dialogue with parents, schools and bureaucrats cover up discipline problems by representing children as victims who need to be "rescued" in one way or another. Rather than telling the child that he is responsible for his bad behaviour, it is emphasised that the teacher is not meeting the "needs of the pupil".

Fortunately, though, in the last year or so, a breeze of honesty has begun to blow through the system. There has been a plethora of programmes and articles about the real problems that teachers and pupils face in our schools. Perhaps most notably, Classroom Chaos – a secret video diary recorded by an able and decent teacher – exposed the true extent of misbehaviour in many schools. A recent Ofsted report said there were significant behaviour problems in one in five secondary schools.

My new book, Teacher On The Run, published later this month, comes out in a very different atmosphere: the public are aware of the issues and actively want to discuss them. The misbehaviour of students is no longer a taboo subject.

Since we are studying autobiography in my English A-level class, I have read out extracts from my first book, I’m A Teacher Get Me Out Of Here, to my pupils. One pupil gawped at what he felt was my reckless honesty: "So sir, you’re admitting here that you’ve been called all the names under the sun, that your classes have rioted, that you’ve written pupils’ coursework for them, and that you’ve manhandled them. Aren’t you frightened you’re going to lose your job?"

I explained that I did show the book to my current headteacher. She didn’t make much of a comment about my escapades, but she has taught in many different schools and knows what life is like.

My experiences are not uncommon. Anyone who has taught in a variety of state schools has probably been sworn at, ridiculed and humiliated, has probably completely lost his temper with the pupils at some point, and has no doubt fiddled and fudged his way through the mounds of paperwork that have come his way over the years. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either a saint, an automaton – or is lying.

I explained to him that I had a couple of lower school classes that were out of control. The children never listened to what I was saying, frequently got into fights, insulted me, and rarely did any work. I’d had stuff thrown at me; I’d sat down on staples and ripped-up Coke cans; I’d had all my equipment vandalised. When I finished, Filer folded his arms and said: "I shouldn’t be hearing this, Francis. This is a good school with good results, and experienced teachers like you don’t have trouble like this."

The implication was clear. I was to blame for my pupils’ bad behaviour. It was my rotten lessons that weren’t motivating them, despite the fact that I had succeeded in other schools. I walked away realising that the best thing to do, unless I wanted to be the victim of a witch-hunt, was to pretend that everything was fine.

Managers like Simon Filer clog up our educational establishment. They have risen up through the ranks by saying the right thing to the right advisers rather than tackling genuine problems. As a result, poorly behaved students get away with murder because schools are too inclined to blame individual teachers rather than tackling the root causes of bad behaviour.

The senior managers in such schools are ably assisted by a qualifications system that means the students can effectively have much of the course completed for them by their teachers, private tutors, parents or from the internet. As a result, many students leave school thinking that they can be successful by mucking around and getting someone else to do the work for them. The only wake-up call they get is when their employers and universities are horrified by their lack of literacy, numeracy and communications skills, despite their fabulous grades.

I was worried on results day this year because, as head of the English department at my comprehensive school on the suburban fringes of east London, I have switched from a coursework based GCSE to one assessed entirely by exams. The overall results were not quite as good as the coursework GCSE grades of previous years but they were much more reliable indicators of the pupils’ abilities. They actually did provide a realistic assessment of what the pupils were capable of. They were, in my view, "honest" results.

Fortunately, I am backed up now at my school by a senior management that sees the long-term benefits of this approach: it has real pay-offs in the sixth form – and, the wider world – because the pupils are learning the value of doing genuine work.

Honesty is the most important virtue that we can teach our children. Our technological, liberal society would not function with such relative success if too many members were corrupt. I know this having travelled to a country where the living standards of the ordinary people are shockingly low because of the disproportionate levels of corruption within the society. In my Easter break this year, I toured some of the most troubled parts of Nigeria, and, in particular, went to Akassa, in the oil-producing region of the country, where I observed some of the schools.

It was a salutary experience: I saw classrooms where there were no books, no windows, and leaking roofs. The supervising teacher showed me one room full of broken furniture. She explained that this was what had been provided by the local government. Because the politicians stole or "chopped" the public’s money, she explained, the only thing that the government could afford to provide – after all the private jets and luxury houses had been paid for, of course – was this mound of useless furniture.

The unbroken desks and tables in the school had been paid for by the local community and a small non-governmental organisation called the Akassa Development Foundation. This NGO together with the local community is now building its own schools with privately-raised funds: I saw these places as well and marvelled at the way they had been organised.

I also felt that for all the poverty I saw in Akassa – which was largely the result of corporate and government corruption – this small community had something to teach Britain. Despite the appalling lack of money, they were running good schools: the children were desperate to learn, attentive, and well behaved. They were learning to read and to write fluently, and to become numerate. And there wasn’t a single computer, inter-active whiteboard or television set in sight. It was the involvement of the children’s community in the schools that was the secret of their success.

While we do not have a civil service rife with embezzlement, and while I am of course grateful that we actually receive enough money to pay teachers and resource schools, we too suffer from a bureaucracy that needlessly eats up the public’s money, paying for middle-class pen-pushers to have nice, cosy lives while teachers and pupils suffer. One recent estimate suggested that nearly 40 per cent of the education budget is taken by bureaucrats in one form or another. This means that my English department – and all the thousands of others throughout the country – do not receive enough money to buy the relevant books, and we often work in needlessly shabby classrooms.

Dishonesty spreads around the system as teachers and pupils are forced to pretend that things are fine when they are not. Instead of having an honest dialogue with parents, schools and bureaucrats cover up discipline problems by representing children as victims who need to be "rescued" in one way or another. Rather than telling the child that he is responsible for his bad behaviour, it is emphasised that the teacher is not meeting the "needs of the pupil".

Fortunately, though, in the last year or so, a breeze of honesty has begun to blow through the system. There has been a plethora of programmes and articles about the real problems that teachers and pupils face in our schools. Perhaps most notably, Classroom Chaos – a secret video diary recorded by an able and decent teacher – exposed the true extent of misbehaviour in many schools. A recent Ofsted report said there were significant behaviour problems in one in five secondary schools.

My new book, Teacher On The Run, published later this month, comes out in a very different atmosphere: the public are aware of the issues and actively want to discuss them. The misbehaviour of students is no longer a taboo subject.

Since we are studying autobiography in my English A-level class, I have read out extracts from my first book, I’m A Teacher Get Me Out Of Here, to my pupils. One pupil gawped at what he felt was my reckless honesty: "So sir, you’re admitting here that you’ve been called all the names under the sun, that your classes have rioted, that you’ve written pupils’ coursework for them, and that you’ve manhandled them. Aren’t you frightened you’re going to lose your job?"

I explained that I did show the book to my current headteacher. She didn’t make much of a comment about my escapades, but she has taught in many different schools and knows what life is like.

My experiences are not uncommon. Anyone who has taught in a variety of state schools has probably been sworn at, ridiculed and humiliated, has probably completely lost his temper with the pupils at some point, and has no doubt fiddled and fudged his way through the mounds of paperwork that have come his way over the years. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either a saint, an automaton – or is lying.

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