Role Models

Blog by David Gribble

I have just read that Lordswood School in Birmingham employs ex-soldiers as teachers and runs a cadet-force to which a fifth of the pupils belong. They wear uniforms and they are taught to shoot.

Michael Gove believes this is the right way to tackle disorder in the classroom. He says, ‘The presence of role models who have the sort of experience in taking young people and forging them into a cohesive team and instilling discipline; I think that will be immensely valuable.’ (Quoted in the Guardian TV review, 1.02.11.)

This is so wrong-headed that it is hard to believe than anyone can mean it seriously. In many classrooms there is a degree of disorder that hinders  learning, but instead of recognising that this is clear evidence of the failure of the system, Gove and his allies blame it on the students, and seek to reinforce the status quo with punishment and discipline. There are parallels with Gaddafi’s efforts to blame the Libyan people for the current situation. Head teachers, like dictators, feel that they must exercise control, and that in consequence students, like Libyan citizens, must be controlled by any means available.

The problem of disorderly classes is not new. There have always been some disorderly classes even in the best of schools. This is not because their pupils are ignorant louts, it is because they resent the constant control, and when they find a teacher who is not strong enough  to cannot exert that control, they rejoice and rebel. Under the current system, pupils and teachers are enemies. This was the case when I was at school too, fifty years ago, at a time which Gove seems to see as a golden age. Some of my classes were chaotic, and I was at Eton.

There have been successful schools which have changed the system, but the official reaction is to close them or force them back into the old model.

At Risinghill School in Islington, headmaster Michael Duane abolished corporal punishment, and kept his study door open to children and parents. In the five years between 1960 and 1965 the number of O-Level candidates increased from 18 to 80, and the number of children on probation fell from 98 to 9.  In spite of this the school was closed in 1965 and Michael Duane never got another headship. (Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School: Leila Berg)

In the 70s at the 1400-strong Countesthorpe Community College in Leicester the student chose their own timetables made up of lessons, individual research, sport and creative work. Standards were high and truancy and student-staff conflict disappeared. In the 1980s a new head was appointed who brought in traditional methods: truancy and student-staff conflict were restored. (The Countesthorpe Experience: John Watts)

Behaviour at Highfield Junior School in Plymouth was so bad that when Lorna Farrington was appointed as head in 1994 she was allowed to do whatever she wanted. One of her first steps was to invite every class to make its own rules. Within a year the atmosphere was peaceful and purposeful.

In 1973, when the school-leaving age was raised from fifteen to sixteen, there was  important experiment at Conisbrough, a mining town in Yorkshire. Fifteen of the boys thought least likely to benefit from another year of compulsory attendance at school were sent to a centre where they had the right to decide how they would spend their time. They chose to do practical work. Attendance for these boys had been an average of about three days a week at school, but after three weeks at the centre it never fell below 92% and often exceeded it. Interest and self-confidence grew and at the end of the year none of the boys was assessed as lower than average. Two of them are reported to have become millionaires. (Dartington in Conisbrough: Pat Kitto)

At William Booth Primary School in Nottingham the children are allowed to help themselves to fruit and drink in the central hallway at any time and go out into the playground when they can’t bear to sit still any longer. For an Ofsted inspection in December 2010 parents were invited to fill in the usual questionnaire. 100% of those who responded reported that their children wanted to go to school and 98% said that their children were making at least adequate progress. Nevertheless the Ofsted inspectors, offended by the atmosphere of freedom, have recommended special measures.

Gove wishes to emphasise respect, by which he means respect for authority. What we need is respect for the children, as demonstrated successfully by the schools I have just described.

Students of all ages resent repression. They want to learn, but they also want to be in control of their own learning. The system must change, but not in the direction Michael Gove favours. It is particularly disgraceful that some of our children are being trained to bear arms.