THIS week’s murder of Ann Maguire will no doubt prompt a fresh wave of handwringing over dangerous behaviour in Britain’s schools. However, such a tragic incident runs against the grain of recent developments in British classrooms. While some schools remain out of control, they have increasingly become the exception rather than the norm.
For decades, schools took far too relaxed an approach to school discipline. However, since the mid-2000s, new heads have been introducing “no excuses” school behaviour policies, realising that in a failing school poor behaviour is almost always the most significant impediment to pupil learning.
Jonny Mitchell of Thornhill Academy achieved national fame last year as one such head. The gruff, bald, no-nonsense star of Educating Yorkshire explained his philosophy at the start of the series: “My values are very traditional… turn up on time, every day, dressed appropriately, be nice to people, and don’t break the rules.” Some scoffed that Mitchell was nevertheless a soft touch, but Thornhill Academy was by and large an orderly school.
It made for a stark contrast with the last time cameras entered Yorkshire schools. In 2005, a cover teacher named Alex Dolan spent six months secretly filming anarchic pupil behaviour in classrooms across Britain. Undercover Teacher caused a national furore, with some of the worst scenes taking place in two Leeds comprehensives.
At Intake High School Arts College, Dolan was faced with an unruly science class, where pupils sat in their jackets refusing to work, complaining they had already had 26 supply teachers that year. At one point, a young teacher complained to a senior member of staff: “They just sit here, throw things at each other... why the hell do I bother coming into this school?”
Things were not much better at John Smeaton High School where the previous year only 16 per cent of pupils had achieved five good GCSEs. Before registration was even over, Dolan was breaking up fights, and standing by helplessly as pupils ran across the classroom tables. As she concluded to her secret camera: “Behaviour here is a complete nightmare.”
The scenes were reminiscent of the Birmingham school where I taught for two years. There, sanctions were non-existent, uniform appeared optional, and senior staff refused to take responsibility for poor behaviour. I was told that I should not expect too much from “Birmingham kids”.
This culture of excuses has pervaded British schools for decades. Instead of seeing it as their responsibility to instil order, bad schools blame poverty, social inequality and the home background of their pupils. They see a disadvantaged intake as an excuse for under-achievement.
When the OECD released the 2012 international performance tables, it revealed British pupils ranked 26th for mathematics, 20th for science, and 23rd for reading. For the world’s sixth biggest economy, and the world’s eighth biggest spender on state schools, such results were an embarrassment.
However, Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, responded with excuses. “Social segregation is greater in England than in almost all other OECD countries,” she claimed. “It is a regrettable but a plain fact that child poverty is the biggest factor limiting children’s potential.”
Is this a “plain fact”? Absolutely not. The idea that unusual levels of child poverty and inequality in Britain are to blame for our lacklustre record in education is a persistent myth. The OECD compiles a measure of “economic, social and cultural status” of pupils, based on measures ranging from parental occupation to the number of books in the house. In 2012, six per cent of British children qualified as “disadvantaged”. Only five countries in have a better, or the same track record: Canada, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland.
It is well known that Britain has one of the highest levels of social inequality amongst developed nations. However, there is no proven correlation between educational failure and social inequality. South Korea, China, Singapore and Hong Kong all have much higher levels of social inequality than Britain, but comprehensively beat us in the OECD rankings. These international comparisons bear out that if pupils are taught well in orderly schools, disadvantage need not be destiny.
For decades, Britain’s “bog-standard comprehensive” was seen as a depressingly unchangeable feature of national life. Not any more. Rapidly improving schools are showing what can be achieved through strong leadership, strict behaviour policies and dedicated teachers. Many working in education today see chaotic schools as a problem waiting to be solved, not the inevitable consequence of social disadvantage.
Robert Peal is a history teacher and education research fellow at the think-tank Civitas. He is author of Progressively Worse: The burden of bad ideas in British schools which has been published this week by Civitas.