Monday 23 October 2017


Not for the first time - see for instance this post in praise of James Meek , I am indebted to the London Review of Books - the LRB - for inspiration. The title for this present blog is taken, in part, directly from the LRB article of 5 October 2017, written by George Duoblys on 'the new school discipline'. I inadvertently first wrote 'the new school nightmare' and then realised my mistake. My subconscious had taken control of my fingers. The shock engendered by reading this piece by Duoblys left me determined to share my feelings with you through cyberspace but I needed time to recover. The beliefs and practices that underpinned a working lifetime in the classroom - my thirty-plus years of public service - are under attack as never before. And I'm only now catching up with this new reality.

There is a parallel here with the neo-liberal assault on the NHS and the provision of social care. Only in that area, I was up-to-speed - see my posts in praise of Dr Youssef El-Gingihy's excellent analysis of the Tory conspiracy to privatise our health service: 'How to Dismantle the NHS in 10 Easy Steps'. But nearly ten years have passed since I was an actor in the classroom and I had little idea of the consequences of the changes in the structure of our schools that Tory politicians, with Lib Dem support for five years, have engineered since 2010 - and New Labour pioneered before that.

My 1st Year (Year Seven) form in my Brent comprehensive - 1978 - plus two non-members on the back row, extreme right, who turned up unnoticed by me for the photo opportunity. I remained this group's form tutor for the five years of their secondary schooling. They did well.  

Let me take you for a ride through London academy classrooms in the twenty-teens. George Duoblys is our conductor. Until December last year, he had been working as a physics teacher at the City Academy in Hackney, a brand-new comprehensive built to replace a school notorious for ill-discipline and gang warfare. I applaud the fresh start approach - who wouldn't? - although I have

concerns that the project was funded by private sponsorship as well as central government funds. My sense of alarm, my feeling that a nightmare is unfolding before me, stems from the consequences of a particular kind of zero-tolerance policy developed to deal with behaviours that are judged to get in the way of learning within schools.

Duoblys has personal stories to tell of his teaching life at the City Academy at Hackney. He has also visited Mossbourne, less than a mile away in Hackney, and another new, purpose-built academy. Its first head was Michael Wilshaw who went on to become chief inspector at Ofsted. Zero-tolerance underpins that institution too.

Diwali preparation - Suffolk comprehensive - 1993 - 'progressive'? or an illustration of a classroom that parents and children recognise as good - Why did 'progressive' and 'comprehensive' become dirty words? 

Am I an apostle for indiscipline, then, when I find Duoblys stories a nightmare? Of course not - although I may well be accused of being such. As Duoblys remarks, supporters of zero-tolerance hope that the likes of Wilshaw have finally beaten back the tide of 'progressive' education methods that rose in the 1960s and 1970s, propelled by the 1967 Plowden Report on primary education that argued that "finding out" was better for children than "being told". My time in the classroom - from 1971 to 2008 - was spent in a range of secondary schools. A secondary modern in Slough - five years. A social-priority, multi-ethnic, comprehensive in the London borough of Brent - seven years. And three comprehensives in Suffolk - twenty-one years. Yes, I helped young people find out and I did all I could to ensure they enjoyed my lessons. Above all, I gave them respect.

But I also told students in exam classes what they needed to know and do to get high grades from the exam system. I was a national examiner myself; my departments invariably got good and often very good exam results. The Brent results were remarkable. Teacher expectations help determine student performance. I and my teams had high expectations.

Suffolk comprehensive - 1994

This is such a false binary. There is no necessary dichotomy between discovery and instruction. The neo-liberals have created this divide to orchestrate classrooms that are geared to conditioning and the production of socialised conformists. Orwellian quasi-robots. Listen to Duoblys.

City Academy and Mossbourne have strict discipline policies. Mossbourne is the tougher. No reminders or warnings; one strike and it's a detention; two strikes and it's a longer detention or you're out of the class. One, two, three. Listen to me. Teacher rules - OK. In 2015 pupil exclusion rates in Hackney schools were 25 per cent higher than the national average. Challenge the movement for conformity and suffer the consequences. Look at the statistics that correlate past pupil exclusion with present prisoner profiles and mental illness in our overcrowded prisons.

One of Mossbourne's rituals is the incantation at the beginning of each lesson, once the students are standing silently behind their chairs. On the teacher's cue, 'Throughout this lesson ...' they respond in chorus:
I aspire to maintain
An inquiring mind,
A calm disposition
And an attentive ear
So that in this class,
And all classes,
I can fulfil my true potential.

The St Ives Board School built in 1880 - a local school with a proud, local Victorian identity - more room for individual growth in those times than now in parts of London and elsewhere

Lessons at Mossbourne are planned centrally, not by individual teachers, and delivered by text-books made in-house. All classes are set according to assessed ability. The knowledge to be gained from that lesson has its specific tick-box. Measurement and assessment are together the holy grail. Academy schools such as Mossbourne and City Academy, and more recently free schools, have been allowed considerable freedom in the approach they take to pedagogy. Such schools are outside the control of local authorities - and that is the Government's strategy. Here in Cornwall 70 per cent of schools now have academy status. There is a paradox here that goes to the heart of neo-liberal practice: break the present structures through de-regulation by using the power of the state and its control over legislation.

A curriculum programme from the United States is proving popular for academy managers - the Knowledge is Power programme (KIPP). AKA Kids in Prison. KIPPS pedagogy is based on the work of E.D. Hirsch. His key idea is that the attainment of 'cultural literacy' depends on the acquisition of a body of knowledge. KIPP places measurability before all else. Improvement is said to depend on it. King Solomon Academy in Paddington is a school run on KIPP-like lines. The children arrive at 8.20 and remain in one room for most of the day; their teachers come to them to deliver new concepts through repetition. The lesson ends with an 'Exit ticket' that's supposed to assess the target learning has been achieved. Every class is named after the university its tutor went to - or his or her college since quite a few of the teachers went to Cambridge.

The back entrance to my secondary modern in Slough where I taught for five years and was responsible for much curriculum innovation that enriched the learning of hundreds of youngsters. 

Get hold of a copy of the LRB for further detail of this revolution in education that is happening, largely by stealth, in our country. Read the two pieces I wrote about my experiences in education on my website - using this link here - one in 1984 and the other in 2008. My theme then was 'What's Wrong with Schools'. I had some inkling of what was coming - but no - I did not foresee this: the deliberate use of the classroom as a tool for rigid control and the formation of conformist and controlled minds.

Yes, I have always appreciated that the 1871 Education Act was designed to get the kids off the streets into the classes and teach them obedience and the rudimentary 3 R's. Yes, I have always seen schools as inevitably failing to deliver what they aspire to do because putting a score or more of individuals together for hour after hour of enforced learning is always going to be less than fully successful. And, yes, we would have home-educated our children if we had been blessed with them. But the schools I taught in were by and large caring places, providing much needed Elastoplast for society and its wounds. I'm quite proud of what I and my colleagues achieved. We made a difference

And that is why I could not bear to be a robotic apology for a proper teacher, acting - I hope unwittingly - as an agent for those seeking to control the masses. Viva Progressive Education!        

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