Edition 26

               27 January 2006






Welcome to School Report. It’s back. That has to be worth a headline. If you are a teacher, teaching assistant, parent, governor, student, local councillor, politician, lecturer in education, journalist or just an observer of the educational scene there is something here for you. Have a read.



Teachers, schools and education should be very near the top of any respect agenda. For some young people and their parents these items are high on the list. For others there is lip service and for a few there is very little respect at all.

It is impossible to measure how much respect there has ever been for formal schooling, especially in the past two centuries. Parents and pupils will no doubt have respected their teachers and schools according to their own experience: high levels of respect if reading, writing and arithmetic were well taught or if examination results were good; low levels of respect if results were poor or discipline were lax.

For many communities in the past respect for education has been rooted in a belief in self-improvement and opportunity. Doing well at school, it was believed, would lead to favourable employment, a higher standard of living and, for some, an escape from poverty. Academic success, particularly, would open doors to the attractive salaries, pension schemes and job security which were associated with white-collar and professional careers.

It is still true today that good qualifications and academic success are doorways to more highly paid employment and there is nothing wrong with showing respect for education because it is useful way of getting a good job. Indeed one would have thought this was an eminently sensible attitude to take in a competitive and meritocratic society.

But there are more compelling reasons, still, for giving schooling the respect it deserves. All learning should be respected for its own sake. Every grain of knowledge has some value for someone, somewhere, and much of what we know is precious beyond all value. Reverence for learning should be instilled in our children from an early age by parents and teachers.

Respect for the idea that schools should be civilised, and civilising, institutions should also be instilled. Courtesy, awareness of others and the highest standards of behaviour must be the norm for every pupil in every school – from inner city comprehensives to Eton or Winchester where “Manners maketh man” remains, we hope, a guiding precept. In civilised institutions no pupil should ever disrupt any other pupil’s learning and far too much of this happens at present.

And, finally, there should be respect simply because schooling, for most pupils, is being paid for by other people. Even with its imperfections it is a great gift bestowed on our children by society as a whole and such gifts should be received with gratitude, not indifference.

We urgently need a cultural shift in the way we view educational provision in this country. For everyone’s benefit we must insist, very firmly, on respect from all our pupils and all our parents.







Let’s have a bit of self-evaluation. Tick a few boxes under the heading personal development. Nothing too rigorous though. What have I actually been doing over the past five years? I’m sure there are some people who wonder what I do with my time. I wonder myself.

It is five years to the month since I wrote the first edition of School Report in January 2001. What have I done with all those unforgiving minutes which have raced by at cosmic speed? Not enough is the answer. Not enough for myself, and, of more importance, not enough for other people.

I’ve kept myself constantly involved in the world of education. I’ve done some thinking: about what has been happening and what has not been happening. I’ve penned a few thoughts in the form of articles for the TES, the Western Daily Press and the Bristol Evening Post.

I’ve done some visiting, a lot of visiting. I’ve been to a huge number of schools delivering poetry books, doing poetry shows and observing my teaching assistant students. I’ve been to primary, secondary and middle schools, a special school and a learning support unit. I’ve been to schools with less advantaged catchment areas and those with pupils from more privileged homes. I’ve been to tiny village schools and those in the inner city. At one village school the headteacher showed me a life-size iron-age hut which he and his pupils had built and which they now used as a quiet sitting area. He also helped me with a line from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem which I had struggled with for years.

I’ve done some teaching. Different from my twenty-five years in primary schools. I now teach adults as well as children - teaching assistants working towards their NVQ qualification. It’s as rewarding and fulfilling as a class of Year 6’s. Not as lively and demanding but with plenty of interest. I still teach young people but on an individual basis. In the past five years I’ve taught A-level English, GCSE maths, and maths and English at the primary stage. It’s some of the best teaching I’ve ever done.

I’ve done some learning: an NVQ assessor award, GCSE maths to update me on the present requirements of the subject, the poems of Seamus Heaney and Dylan Thomas for my A-level teaching. I’ve done some creating: revising and redesigning my Key Stage 2 poetry anthologies. On a very small scale I’ve been entrepreneurial, running a holiday bungalow in the Mendip Hills.

I hope that what I’ve been doing has been of some help to others – teaching assistants, pupils, holiday visitors, readers of children’s poetry. I know it’s not been enough. I should have done more.

Sixty seconds’ worth of distance run for every minute? Nowhere near. A few seconds at best. Targets not met, time frittered away, too much day-dreaming and lack of focus. All a bit different from the action-packed world of aspiration and achievement which is today’s education. I’ll leave you to tick your own set of unforgiving boxes about what you have achieved since 2001. 

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”

Rudyard Kipling







Five years on from the year of the space odyssey and all our odysseys continue. Five years ago I wrote a short essay for the first edition of School Report. I called it “Many Missions, One Vision”. Its theme emerged from two sources. One was the film “2001, A Space Odyssey”. The other was the fashion for mission statements at the time. Every school had to have one. These carefully crafted aphorisms were being proudly displayed in entrance halls and on headed paper up and down the land. There was no shortage of missions in the world.

Mission statements are still around. I still see them when I visit schools but maybe they haven’t quite the kudos they once had. Whether they have any effect in promoting the objectives they proclaim is open to question. About the same effect probably as some obscure Latin phrase sewn onto a blazer. Useful now and again for a bit of exhortation in assembly and to try and generate some collective pride in one’s school, but not much more. It certainly wouldn’t do any harm, though, if pupils learned their mottoes and mission statements.

The original version of the essay can be found by going into Archives. These updated thoughts differ only slightly from the original:

For those in the business of education our journeys and missions continue. The journey is not always easy. No one said it would be. There are asteroids to dodge on a daily basis and more than enough dazzling supernovas, in the form of endless new initiatives, to turn away from. But as we all know it’s a journey full of interest, full of discovery and full of reward.

What, though, is its purpose? What are schools for? What is their mission? Whatever the answers we come up with we can be sure that this purpose will be rather more than can be captured in one brief statement however elegantly it is worded and however good it sounds. Mission statements speak in broad terms about grand designs. But big missions are only possible when the small missions contained within them are successfully pursued. In school there is an abundance of such missions. Apart from the family and the government there is no other organisation which has so many.

Teachers have hundreds of them, daily, weekly, termly. Every minute is a mission, often more than one. Simply asking a child to listen is a multiple mission – a mission to improve behaviour, help concentration and convey some aspect of learning. Practising percentages is a multiple mission. It is a part of the maths mission for the school, which is a part of the government's numeracy mission, which is a part of the mission to improve industrial competitiveness and also, we hope, the mission to produce capable, responsible citizens.

Children reading an article together about how much pollution is caused by cars is another example of a multiple mission: to improve skills in reading , thinking and discussion; to achieve higher test scores; to create an awareness of environmental issues; to develop literate, informed and thoughtful members of society. Not bad for one third of a literacy hour.

For the most part individual teachers’ missions are the missions of their school, and these are largely determined by the expectations of society and its constituent groups: parents, taxpayers, business interests, politicians. Our education system is expected to meet countless objectives and deliver on countless demands. Very little is omitted.

We take it for granted that it is every school’s mission to develop caring, industrious, thoughtful, well-skilled, knowledgeable, resourceful, adaptable, creative, healthy and confident adult citizens, who are honest, truthful and courteous and who will respect each other, the law of the land and cultural, gender and physical differences. Quite a responsibility and quite a challenge to say the least.

But there is more. Society expects teachers to enable pupils to fulfil their potential, although how this is identified is not always clear, achieve excellence, but whether for all of the time or some of the time is uncertain, and to be successful, without defining the nature of success. Pupils have to learn how to co-operate and also, paradoxically, how to compete.

Still more is expected. Formal schooling must yield an annual harvest of literate, numerate adults who understand the great principles of science and their application, who know the history and geography of the world, who speak a foreign language, who appreciate music and the arts and who have a complete mastery of information technology. They will have a spiritual awareness, know themselves and know what they want from life.

And just in case all this leaves some time over at the end of the school day our educational establishments will deliver just the right number of doctors, nurses, engineers, electricians, research scientists, entrepreneurs, industrialists and sporting heroes who win gold medals and hold up silver trophies. Fortunately when the day does end we are not obliged to deliver servants of the state who salute the flag or sing patriotic anthems.

This great collective educational mission is based, of course, on the millions of individual missions we have for the children in our care. It is with our individual pupils that we gain most satisfaction when we achieve success: when we develop a child's musical or sporting talent, when we help someone understand the mysteries of algebra, when we boost a pupil’s confidence and self-esteem.

With so much expected and such a huge range of tasks to accomplish is there any point in trying to set priorities for our many missions? They all have to be achieved one way or another. Can we decide whether one objective, perhaps on the academic side, can be more or less of a priority than another, perhaps on the social side?

I think we can and we need to. We need to for the obvious reason that the time and resources to do our job are finite. By keeping some of the key objectives in the forefront of our minds we remind ourselves constantly, on a daily basis, of the big missions to which we can allocate a suitable amount of time and energy. When we seem to be doing too much nagging about behaviour, or we keep children in at breaktime that is because aiming for high standards of behaviour is a high priority. When we allow children to mark their own work because football practice after school will leave little time for marking on that day then we have made a choice of priority. When in the evening we barely glance at the latest document to be circulated, because we want time to think about tomorrow’s science lesson, we have opted for what matters most.

What, then, out of all the missions we undertake for ourselves, for our schools, for society and for individual children is our first priority?

I know what mine is and I'm happy to share it. It is the highest mission for all of us, as high as the heavens, a celestial vision. It is central to most religions and belief systems. It did not originate two thousand years ago but was given authority by a humble man divinely inspired. As yet it has not fully succeeded in modifying human behaviour but when it does the world will be a better place.

Schools, for many reasons, are not the best of places for this mission but it must be their first priority and one which is central to every classroom, corridor and corner of the building. It is a mission which leads all of us towards that most sacred of visions: the vision of a loving world, where caring for each other, and kindness, and compassion shape our lives.

A timeless ideal, certainly, a spiritual vision in a material world. A vision where talents which we nurture in school, be they academic, practical, creative or sporting, are used to help others and not solely for personal gain or glory. A vision where success is measured by the life we lead, not by the qualifications we gain, the house we live in or the wealth we exhibit.

Mission impossible many may say, and they may be right. But then that has never been a reason not to start a journey, or even an





Edition 27

10 February 2006  





Planning lessons has become far too elaborate. Read this week’s essay on the subject which first appeared as a column in the TES.


Trust schools? I think we should. But before we do let’s just remember the recent past. Not so long ago there were schools which were not deserving of our trust: primary schools where ideology pushed out common sense, secondary schools where low expectations brought low attainment.

Given that we now have much greater accountability to parents and taxpayers in the form of published exam results and inspection reports it is time for all schools to become independent. Since they already manage their own budgets and follow a national curriculum there is no longer a meaningful role for local education authorities. It is also worth remembering that LEA’s were once part of the problem of low standards.

Schools should be trusted to stand on their own two feet. They should be trusted to deliver education of the highest quality to all their pupils, an education in which both academic and practical learning are held in equal esteem. They should work within an overall curriculum framework which includes maths, literacy, science and other subjects, and they should ensure that essential life-skills are taught.

They should be trusted to instil values of respect, tolerance and caring for others in their pupils and to provide practical opportunities within the community to put these values into practice.

They should be trusted to motivate their pupils, to instil them with a love of learning, to give them a sense of fulfilment and to promote habits of endeavour and commitment to their tasks. They should be trusted to give as much individual support as is necessary for pupils to understand what they are doing and make the progress of which they are capable.

They should be trusted to insist on the very highest standards of behaviour and to deal firmly with all forms of disruption from low level annoyance to aggression and bullying.

They should be trusted not to follow every whim and fashion which is paraded on the catwalk of education. Instead they should stick with their own beliefs and not be afraid to develop their own ideas. They should organise themselves as they choose and offer programmes of learning beyond a mandatory common framework.

They should be trusted not to select by ability nor, under any circumstances, by social background. They should be trusted to value every pupil.

Trust schools, yes, in both senses of the term, and when that trust is secure we must expect in return pupils and parents to value and respect, much more than at present, the contribution which schools make to their own lives and to society as a whole.  





Well actually it’s Jolly Phonics, as some of you may know. But I’m happy with jelly, and you’ll see the connection in a moment. Some of you – infant teachers or parents of four and five year old’s - know the strange movements children make when they say certain sounds. You see them cupping their hands over their ears when they say the long “a” sound as in rain, or saluting when they make the “ie” sound as in pie ( “ie, ie”’ sir). When they come to the “j” sound you see a large grin on their faces followed by a lot of wobbling and a spontaneous impersonation of a jelly.

It’s only in the past year or so, on my visits to reception and year 1 classes, that I’ve come across Jolly Phonics. It’s work the children enjoy. In fact they don’t see it as work at all, it’s a bit of fun. Teachers seem to enjoy it too but I’m relieved I don’t have to do it. Remembering the right action for the right sound would be rather a trial for me.

The whole approach seems to be successful. Young children happily engage in the first stage of the reading process as they look at, and say, their sounds.

I’m not entirely sure about the distinction between Jolly Phonics and any other sort of phonics but in the whole business of teaching children to read I’m in favour of what works, not what is fashionable. Back in the bad old days of primary education when teachers were not encouraged to teach and children were supposed to learn everything through experience there was a long and bitter battle over how children should learn to read, or in the technical, but appropriate, jargon, how they should learn to decode the printed word. It was a battle which engaged at least three sides.

On one side were the “real books” crusaders who believed that children would learn to read by immersing themselves in lots of good books and simply becoming familiar with words through constant exposure to them. Phonics and reading schemes were anathema to this band of zealots which was a pity as the word lends itself perfectly to phonic analysis. On the opposite side, quite vociferous on occasions, was the phonics brigade. They were committed to the belief that children should learn to read by breaking down words into their constituent sounds and blending them together. 

In this war of the words I was on the third side and I suspect that we outnumbered all the opposition put together. Our battalions did very little fighting. We marched on quietly, teaching children to read in our classrooms using all the methods and strategies we could muster and tailoring them to suit individual needs.

I made my own set of phonic flipover cards which I used with older children who were struggling. I have some in front of me now: a set of green cards with “eep” at the back and various consonants and consonant blends in front, and a set of yellow cards which make words ending in “ain”. Children enjoyed using them. They liked the feeling of success when they said the correct word. They liked to see them flipped over, or to flip them over themselves. I’m sure they were helpful.

But I also used reading schemes and reading series. Bangers and Mash and the Monster books I recall with great affection. I allowed plenty of free reading and I encouraged children to find information books which interested them. I insisted they should read at home to their parents at least three times a week, even when they were in Year 6.

I’ll go along with phonics first and fast. Jolly Phonics, synthetic phonics or any other form of phonics. But let’s have some real books as well: all those beautifully illustrated books with funny stories, traditional tales, animals and everything else which opens up exciting new worlds to children. And let’s have some reading schemes if children make progress with them, and IT, and card games, and workbooks and anything at all which gets them processing words and sentences.

We all agree that reading is a serious business. It’s the most essential subject on the curriculum. Maybe the lesson from Jolly Phonics is that we can give children success if we lighten up a bit and make those early encounters with the printed word a bit of fun and a good experience.  





When did you last notice your dentist suddenly stop drilling and start flicking through a pile of A4 sheets detailing every step for filling a cavity? Or a builder carefully consulting a ring binder every time he throws a shovelful of sand into his mixer? Or your hairdresser or car mechanic constantly glancing at strategically placed pieces of paper?

Why is it that teachers, uniquely it seems, are deemed to be so hopelessly incompetent that they need detailed, often repetitive instructions, commonly known as lesson plans to get them through every hour of the day? Even heart surgeons don’t have a pile of notes sitting next to their scalpels. And if they did we would be worried.

The obsession with detailed lesson plans is out of control especially in primary schools. The simple business of preparing a lesson has been elevated into an over-elaborate and unnecessary ritual.

Which is bizarre since every teacher knows the two immutable laws of lesson plans. Law one is that lessons never go according to plan. Law two is that however elegant a plan may look, this will have no bearing whatsoever on the effectiveness of the lesson.

Good lessons do not require mass-produced plans on a laptop. What they need are teachers who know their subject, are enthusiastic, can motivate their pupils and can explain things in ways which everyone is able to understand.

This is not to say that we should ever go into any lesson unprepared either mentally or in terms of the resources we need. It’s too risky. But all we need on the table beside us are a few notes jotted down in an exercise book - the scruffier the better.

If we don’t overcome this widespread planning neurosis we could soon be referring to A4 sheets in order to make a cup of tea in the staffroom. It’s time we lessened our plans. 




Edition 28

24 February 2006 





This edition’s essay first appeared five years ago when threshold payments were being introduced. Its message still stands. It is reinforced by the second headline “Manage Without”.


Let us hope that the new allowances for teaching and learning responsibilities not only replace school management structures but also signal the end of an undesirable culture. Until the comparatively recent shift in emphasis to rewarding, quite properly, the contribution teachers make to their pupils’ learning, school management was a career aspiration which ran on a separate track away from what was happening in the classroom.

From the early 1980’s the management culture in schools grew rapidly to meet what were seen to be increasing demands made on heads and senior staff. Budgets had to be drawn up, development plans formulated, committees established, employees appraised and meetings arranged - the more the better. To accommodate these new dynamics – excuse the management speak - systems and structures had to be created and offices and administrative areas had to be extended and refurbished.

Unfortunately no one pointed out to the new managerial classes, with their filofaxes and sharp suits, that compared with many other organisations schools are very straightforward to manage: their income is guaranteed, their budgets are reasonably stable and their employees are generally conscientious about their work.

The preoccupation with school management undoubtedly advanced careers and salaries but the extent to which it advanced the achievements, or shaped the values, of individual pupils is more questionable. These advances are made in classrooms, not in meetings, nor in offices. This is where the hard yards are gained - by toil, patience, enthusiasm, subject knowledge, skilful teaching, the ability to motivate and the ability to explain things clearly. These are the qualities which our pupils require from their teachers and these are the qualities which need to be rewarded.

Good teaching delivers good learning, not dubious managerial procedures. These are features of modern corporate life schools can well manage without.  




Im in the botom streme

I’ve recently been to a school whose corridors I last trod over four decades ago. Until I arrived and went inside I had completely forgotten about my previous visit. But a bell rang somewhere, not in a corridor but inside a slumbering memory cell, and an archive opened which I’ve never had occasion to open before.

This was the school where I had come for my eleven plus interview. I have a vague recollection of the building but none of the interview room or the questions which were asked. I must have been in short trousers, and I would have been wearing a dark blazer, but I can’t bring the scene to mind.

What is now a well-regarded comprehensive was then a newly built grammar school. I don’t know how what sort of impression I conveyed in the interview but I did pass the eleven plus and in the end went to another more established school in a nearby town - the Grammar School for Boys, Weston-super-Mare. This became a comprehensive in the late 1960’s but has since struggled to establish a favourable reputation among some sections of the local community.

I don’t know what the effect of the selective system was on the friends I grew up with but I do know that those of us who went to the grammar school were always conscious that we had passed an exam to get there. I suspect we felt a bit superior but I don’t remember boasting about it. It had no effect on my friendship with another boy who lived a few houses away and who went to the secondary modern but it was undoubtedly a distinct means of identity. It still is.

There was more selection in store for us on the first day at our new school. We were allocated to our classes, which were named after our form masters, but one of them, we later discovered, was in fact streamed. In the second form and thereafter there was no attempt to hide labels. There was a well-defined and transparent system of streaming: Upper 2, 2A, 2B, Lower 2B. Promotion and relegation between classes was as routine as it is in the football league but based on scoring marks in twice-yearly exams rather than scoring goals in the back of a net.

I never quite scored enough to reach the top of the premier league, where I had been initially allocated, and was consistently a few places off the lead. I still remember the teams above me. Eventually we did our O-levels a year earlier than everyone else which taught me the skills of cramming but unfortunately not those of critical analysis.

Whether my own experience influenced my views on streaming and selection I’m not sure. I’m not in favour of selective schools and I’m not keen on any form of streaming or setting. Even in primary schools I have reservations about children with apparently similar abilities sitting together on the same table. I used to allow my pupils to choose who they sat next to and provided they were sensible and worked hard they could stay in those places for the whole year. I don’t think many did but they had the opportunity.

I don’t wish to label children by their academic ability. They all have something they are good at. Some who are not so academic can have the nicest of natures and that’s more important. They can all contribute to a lesson and most of the time they can all understand what they are learning if it is properly explained. The time to start specialising and having academic and vocational classes is towards the end of the secondary phase and there should be no place in our schools for a “botom streme”. 

Im in the botom streme
Which meens Im not brigth

First two lines of Streemin by Roger McGough
Great little poem.  




( This essay first appeared in Edition 2, 2001)

So good teachers do exist. And it's official, not just a recruiting slogan: "No-one forgets a good teacher."

Recognition of this surprising discovery has come in the form of the new performance payments which reward teachers for the quality of their teaching rather than their command of management speak. It is a long overdue recognition and payment. 

Apparently an overwhelming majority of those eligible have applied for the additional payment and most of them will receive it. That means, quite simply, there are a lot of good teachers around as indeed there always has been, as most of us have always known.

At last they are to be rewarded for doing the job which really matters in schools: teaching. (with no offence to caretakers and school secretaries who perform outstandingly on a daily basis) This recognition of good teaching will undoubtedly restore morale in the profession and improve its public perception. It will also, crucially, begin the process of dismantling the stifling and damaging management culture which has pervaded our schools for so long.

Dedicated, inspiring classroom teachers delivering learning of the highest quality for their pupils will be seen by the pupils themselves, their parents and the wider community as members of a noble profession and one which underpins a civilised society. What can be more important than teaching young people, from reception through to sixth form, about the world they inhabit and preparing them to become adult citizens in that world? How can the business of managing school budgets, action plans or methods of record keeping, possibly compare with the responsibility of providing knowledge, wisdom and guidance for life?

School management has been elevated to a status way beyond its worth bearing in mind how simple an organisation a school actually is. The folly of inflating the importance of management has been compounded by linking high salaries to dubious and often unnecessary responsibilities instead of rewarding the business of teaching. How can anyone ever believe that management merits more pay than teaching? It is quite absurd.

Teachers can at last be judged by their results in the classroom where real skills are exercised. They will set, or be set, clear learning objectives for their pupils which are assessed in a sensible, empirical manner. Expertise and experience will ensure that these objectives are met and teachers will therefore be fulfilling the true purpose of their job and can be paid accordingly. If they are doing this they will not need managing. Nor will they need to be told how to teach by government quangos, advisers, inspectors, or, even worse, colleagues who have just returned from the latest course or conference.

The standard of learning for all pupils will improve and teachers' self-esteem will rise. With management systems redundant and bureaucracy removed a huge flow of time, energy, creative thought and money will be released and channelled into teaching. Allowing teachers to teach well is a much more efficient way of running a school than having elaborate structures and systems which distract them from their jobs.

For too long good teaching has been shamefully devalued and undermined in favour of ill-considered, short-lived fashionable initiatives introduced as supposed good management. It has been a sorry spectacle. The new salary structure will restore and enlarge the self-respect and confidence of good teachers who now have an added incentive to become even better.

A good teacher, not a good manager, will be seen to be at the pinnacle of the profession. Schools full of good and improving teachers are what society needs and expects.




Edition 29

10 March 2006







The proposals for managing behaviour in the new Education Act are to be welcomed and everyone hopes they will be useful. Dealing with behaviour problems is by far the most demanding part of a teacher’s job and support from the government is essential if the difficulties are to be tackled successfully. Recognition that there are difficulties is always better than pretending they do not exist.

Much more is required, however, if schools are to become the civilised and civilising places of learning which they should be. We need to raise our expectations to another level altogether and take one of those conceptual leaps which society needs to do every so often.


On the whole schools are well-ordered institutions. Unannounced visitors to infant schools see young children on their best behaviour in the classroom and as they make their way silently into assembly. When they visit the local secondary school they are unlikely to witness eruptions of lawlessness and anarchy unless they happen to attend a class with particularly difficult pupils. The overwhelming majority of our young people, whatever their age, are brought up by their parents to be sensible and well-behaved.

But there are two significant forms of disruption which are not always apparent to the casual visitor but which teachers, and support staff, know all about. One is the growing level of aggression and abuse from pupils with serious behaviour disorders who are now in mainstream schooling in greater numbers as a result of inclusion policies. By far the most sensible approach to this problem is to acknowledge that, for all sorts of reasons, the needs of these pupils cannot be met adequately in the present system but require alternative provision – not special schools but individual and small group placements where the work is always challenging, but is also centred around the capabilities and interests of the pupils. This would be a much better form of inclusive education and more likely to lead to inclusion in society as a whole.

The other form of disruption which is not obvious to the casual visitor is the so-called low level variety. This is the gum-chewing, the back-chat, the calling out, the time it takes to settle down and the attention seeking. It is not only a huge drain on teachers’ patience and emotional reserves it is a huge drain on public money. It is vandalism on a massive scale. If pupils are not learning because they have not settled down to their tasks, or their teacher is constantly having to remind them about their behaviour, they are wasting the money which is being spent on them – which is a lot. Taxpayers should be far more indignant about this than they presently are.

The long-term effect of misbehaviour in school on character development is also relevant to the ongoing debate. For some pupils it may be a rite of passage from which they emerge with no serious consequences. For others it may contribute to a lifetime of anti-social attitudes. Either way it is damaging to the ethos of learning and disrupts those pupils who wish to make the most of the opportunities which schools provide.

The way to deal with this form of disruption is quite straightforward. A culture of respect and even gratitude for the provision of schooling must become the norm for society. There must be an expectation that every parent and every pupil will fully appreciate what they are being given by their fellow citizens. Pupils must be instilled with the notion that to learn is a privilege and that schools are places of learning where rules and procedures must be followed to make the most of that learning. They should be firmly disabused of any idea that schools are places where young people can hang out together and, for whatever hormonal reason, can test the boundaries of authority.

There must be an expectation from every teacher in every school that any disruption, however minor, or any intent to disrupt, is always unacceptable and contrary to the business of learning. Standards of decorum should be the same as those which are found in our universities.

Any pupil who is uncivil or disruptive must be asked to leave the class immediately without fuss or backchat and with no second chance. If there is a further transgression then the parents must be contacted and advised that, should there be another incident, they will be required to come into school to supervise their child during lessons.

Although good order is well maintained in our schools there is too much about them which is casual, and at the other end of the spectrum, too much which is seriously aggressive. Our expectations are far too low at present. In order for schools to become completely civilised places where pupils are studious and self-disciplined, we need to raise our expectations to a higher level than anything we are presently familiar with. We will know we have reached this level when all our pupils are polite and respectful to all the adults they encounter and when behaviour management becomes a redundant skill.





Yes, agreed, it was only television and we have to be cautious about what we see on the small screen. It’s a beguiling medium in which to tell a story and it’s easy enough to present an exaggerated picture.

No doubt there was a fair amount of selective directing and editing when Brat Camp was made which emphasised its excesses. But that’s what made it compulsive viewing. It was entertaining, but also disturbing and thought-provoking, and it packed an emotional punch.

The participants were seriously naughty, out of control, teenage girls. Their whole existence, it seemed, was one long round of swearing, smoking, taking drugs, flying into rages, petty crime, truanting and confronting authority. Homes were in turmoil as their parents desperately tried, but failed, to cope with what was much more than just brattish behaviour.

Salvation for the girls themselves, and their families, lay in the wilderness, the wilderness of Utah. For weeks and weeks these unlovable teenagers were made to hike through rugged country with mighty rucksacks on their backs. They camped in the open air, did their own cooking and were taught how to make fire by rubbing sticks together. They followed strict rules of conduct which were calmly but firmly enforced by the group leaders who frequently found themselves subject to emotional outbursts and some very colourful language.

The Aspen programme centred around clear rules which had to be complied with in order for the participants to gain privileges. There was no place for compromise and no one was allowed to get away with anything. Physical restraint was used when necessary. Along with enforcing the rules there was plenty of discussion and self-analysis. The intent was clearly to break the cycle of these teenagers getting things all their own way.

Strict compliance with the rules was one strand of the programme. Another was personal challenge and another was team building. There were physical and mental challenges to meet: the hard trekking, the absence of home comforts and the withdrawal of drugs and cigarettes. These were the means of instilling self-discipline and developing self-esteem. There was no time nor energy for any form of self-indulgence.

Underneath the disturbed behaviour, quite a long way under, were some decent, likeable kids. I had to admire their spirit for taking on their custodians and giving them grief in the early stages.

Lessons from Brat Camp? Lots of them, but three stand out:

First of all don’t give up on young people, however irredeemable they appear.

Secondly, stay calm, be firm and don’t compromise when dealing with serious behaviour problems. We’ve been very good at compromising over the past few decades and it’s not the answer.

Thirdly, put some challenge into young people’s lives. Challenge which develops qualities of self-discipline, endurance and self-esteem. Let’s put a couple of months hard trekking into the national curriculum, and some wilderness - not the wilderness of our present youth culture but the real thing: open country as far as the eye can see and steep and rugged pathways in abundance. Let’s use the wilderness to do some taming, some challenging and some inspiring.




This edition's essay is Pinnacle of the Profession which appeared in Edition 28.




Edition 30

24 March 2006







Please read the headline PARITY OF FUNDING and register your view on the proposed solution by contacting Alan Kerr. It would be helpful if you could please indicate your involvement with education: headteacher, teacher, parent, governor, councillor, etc, or simply, taxpayer. Thank you in anticipation of your response.


It is regrettable that the government has missed the opportunity presented by the Education Bill to address the issue of school funding. The funding of Trust Schools directly from central government, as happened with Grant Maintained Schools, would remove the unfair and cumbersome system which still operates. It is a national disgrace that spending per pupil remains the biggest postcode lottery in our public services and it is a sad reflection on all our politicians that this receives so little attention. The phrase “parity of funding”, used on the DFES website to describe funding within a local authority, should be the underlying principle for schools throughout the country.

To secure this parity all schools should be funded directly from central government. A simple formula, largely based on pupil numbers, special needs and academic attainment, would ensure that every school in the country had an equitable share of the global sum available for education. To continue to pretend that education is a local service and should incorporate an element of locally raised revenue defies common sense. There is nothing local about education and there never has been. We want and expect all our pupils to be educated to the highest standard whichever city or county they happen to live in.

National funding from national taxation would reinforce the sense that education is a resource for the whole country – something in which we should all take pride and from which every pupil should benefit. It would enable us to monitor precisely how much is being spent and it would save a huge amount of money by eliminating a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy. As a welcome by-product it would also reduce council tax bills to acceptable levels.

The time for reform is long overdue. Politicians from all parties should use the setting up of Trust Schools to deliver a sensible system of funding.

Note1: Age Weighted Funding Per Pupil may not present the whole picture in a Local Authority’s Education budget but it may tell us something. CIPFA’s Education Statistics 2005-06 Estimates show the age weighted allocations for each Local Authority. For example, Worcestershire allocates £1837 for each Year 6 pupil, while Dorset allocates £1394. Southend-on-Sea is able to allocate £3385 for each Year 11 pupil, while Blackpool allocates £2306.

Note 2: The league table of average pupil funding for 2006/7 in each local authority can be seen on the excellent f40 website at www.f40.org.uk.




If we were absolutely certain of the causes of bad behaviour we would be in a better position to manage and reduce it. Life would be more tranquil at home, at school and in the streets. A recent edition of the TES highlighted ten reasons for bad behaviour which are to be the subject of a forthcoming book called Toxic Childhood. Not everyone will agree with all ten reasons but they make a serious and thoughtful contribution to the behaviour debate. They should be studied carefully and the evidence on which they are based examined thoroughly.

There is never a shortage of ideas when behaviour is discussed by teachers or parents. We all have our own theories, some entrenched and some influenced by fashionable beliefs. In the interest of contributing to the present discussion here are five more reasons for bad behaviour:

  • The need for peer approval
    · Group and peer pressure
    · The child-centred culture
    · An uncertain moral framework in society
    · A lack of discipline at home, in school and, sadly, even on the football field

Just headings but all worth exploring.



The subject of this week’s essay. More thoughts on behaviour.






I’ve taught in reception. Once. One afternoon when the head was desperate. I enjoyed the experience but I’m happy not to have made a career of it.

But I do like visiting reception classes and these days I visit quite a few. They have a charm of their own – charm for visitors, but that may not be the term that teachers use. Most aspects of childhood come together in reception classes to make them very special communities. They are colourful tapestries of excitement, play, imagination, wonder, curiosity, eagerness, honesty, spontaneity, friendship and warmth. The effect is twofold: an enriched childhood and the promotion of essential learning and development.

I see plenty of informal learning but I also see the formal side of things. Because the teaching assistants I’m observing often support basic skills I tend to see more of these being taught than anything else. I see children learning about numbers in different ways: using counting rhymes, putting out little toys, adding beanbags on the playground, writing on the interactive whiteboard. I see them engaged in different literacy activities: singing nursery rhymes, listening to stories, reading their books, writing their names and, of course, most important, synthesising their phonics.

What I don’t see is misery. Far from it. Whether they are sitting together listening to their teacher, or whether they are in groups practising their numbers or their letters, they are invariably fully absorbed and interested in what they are doing. I’m not surprised. Children like to learn, they are programmed to learn, and these days learning is made very interesting for them.

So why are so many people arguing that children shouldn’t begin learning in a structured manner until they are older, as happens in other countries? From what I can see they are not only learning a lot in their reception classes, they are very happy doing so. And I speak as one who thinks that we pack children off to school at far too early an age.

I don’t want four and five year olds to be crammed full of knowledge, to be constantly pushed towards attainment targets or to take part in a race through the reading scheme. But I don’t see any reason why they can’t learn to read, write and do some simple maths at an early age. Young children like to play and they like to learn, and they need to do both in order to develop. In the warmth of the reception classes I visit, I see both in action.




This column first appeared in the Bristol Evening Post.




Speed cameras in the classroom? Maybe not. Speed camera psychology in the classroom – definitely yes.

Just think about which strategy works best on the road? Polite notices saying “Please drive carefully” or speed cameras. Every motorist knows the answer. Our yellow sentinels have delivered the most effective example of behaviour modification society has seen in recent years. Their presence has persuaded us to drive more slowly and considerately.

We urgently need some behaviour modification in the classroom, as well as on the road, and we should heed the lesson of the speed camera.

Consider why it is so effective. It permits no argument – the evidence is unequivocal. It administers justice objectively and instantly. Its presence, whether switched on or off, acts as a deterrent and, of equal importance, a constant reminder to obey the law and observe the speed limits.

Just as every motorist knows the norms and limits on the roads so must every pupil be led to understand the norms and limits in school. They must understand that schools are special places where learning takes place and that the process of learning must be afforded the highest respect. Surely not too difficult a message to put across whatever the age of the pupils.

If there are those who are unwilling or unable to respect the learning process then there must be an immediate and effective response. Those pupils who interrupt lessons by calling out, talking amongst themselves or scraping their chairs noisily must not be permitted to behave in this manner. They must be dealt with firmly without argument or backchat. Not with polite reprimands, or red cards or names on the board, but with sanctions which bite such as having to work alone or being detained after school.

Serious disruptions involving rudeness, swearing, non-compliance or aggression, must be treated with the seriousness they deserve. Pupils and their parents must be made aware that schools cannot tolerate disruptions of this sort and that alternative provision will need to be provided.

Our expectations of sensible, responsible behaviour are too low. They must be raised considerably. We put up with too many minor infringements of the limits and we accommodate serious disruption too readily. Consistent firmness and consistent enforcement of the rules, along with appropriate explanations, will change behaviour and change attitudes.

Some speed camera psychology in the classroom will make the great journey of education a more pleasant experience for everyone.