The lesson we can learn about schools

10 June 2009
The Daily Telegraph
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These include allowing teachers physically to restrain pupils who are out of control and scrapping a parents’ right of appeal when their children are excluded for misbehaviour.

While I can see why they are worried about current standards of discipline, my own experience on the education front-line leads me to believe the proposals are misguided.

Mr Jones never actually obeyed the existing laws – which forbid most forms of physical contact with children – and would regularly grab, push and drag those who were misbehaving. As I witnessed, when I was called to his classroom one afternoon, these ”teaching techniques” don’t work.

I watched in astonishment as I observed my normally well-behaved tutor group go wild in the science lesson Mr Jones was attempting to conduct. My bemusement turned to horror as I observed him grab two children who were fighting and push them apart; his legs were caught up in the mêlée and he was unintentionally kicked.

When they saw that I was in the room, the children fell silent: I had a good rapport with the class, working hard to help and nurture them. I gave the children a lecture about behaving but I couldn’t help feeling that Mr Jones’s woefully inadequate teaching was actually to blame: his lessons largely consisted of him shouting or setting pointless tasks.

Jones had been "responsible" for a number of children being excluded from the school because they had attacked him: a couple of these exclusions had been overturned on appeal because it was deemed that the children weren’t entirely at fault.

Eventually, investigations were made and Jones was quietly asked to leave the school. Worryingly, he is currently working as a supply teacher.

The case of Jones perfectly embodies the problems with the thrust of the Tories’ new education plans. If they were enforced, teachers such as him would be encouraged to use the most pathetic of teaching techniques, physical restraint, to keep order in lessons that were not adequate.

They’d also find, most probably, that their terrible pedagogy would never be rooted out because head teachers, reluctant to go through the long and public business of sacking the teacher, would be empowered to exclude the most truculent students with no questions asked.

Poor teaching would be covered up and never questioned.

This would be disastrous for schools. Instead of improving behaviour, new regulations would actively encourage more attacks on staff.

Some of the teachers who are best at keeping discipline in the toughest schools are women, precisely because they know they can’t use their height or strength to intimidate the yobs. These women have had to find other tactics to make the worst offenders behave: the establishment of decent rules and regulations, a clear system of sanctions and rewards, constant monitoring, charm and carefully chosen praise. These teachers feel confident enough to make demands upon their students.

But few teachers today have that confidence. They have become slaves to "meeting the needs" of their pupils, both in legislation and in practice. In this system, it is, in effect, the teachers who are expected to deliver the top grades and not the students.

So many of the Government’s policies – its Every Child Matters agenda, its new National Curriculum, its obsession with coursework and allowing re-takes, its revamping of GCSEs, A-levels and vocational A-levels – have implicitly given the pupil easy options and put the teacher on the rack.

Of all the terrible ministers in charge of our schools in recent years, Ed Balls seems to be the worst, being completely in thrall to the politically correct mandarins at Whitehall and lapping up their half-baked, overly complex ideas with abandon.

Teachers are being pressured to mollycoddle their pupils, rather than being empowered to make demands of them. It is no wonder so many great teachers are abandoning the profession.

Short-term fixes such as creating "sin bins", turning head teachers into dictators whose edicts can never be questioned, or fighting violence with "physical restraint", as advocated by the Tories, are not going to help matters.

To save our schools, and our youngsters, we need root-and-branch reform of the results-driven philosophy that underpins much educational legislation. We need to simplify systems for assessing pupils and put the onus back on them to work independently.

At the moment, schools are in crisis because the Government doesn’t have the basics right.

While discipline needs to be addressed, the Tories seem to be merely tinkering around the edges. Unless teachers are given their power and status back, then the cheating and thuggery will flourish in our classrooms.

And that’s not what we want our children to learn.

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