Joe Nutt, education consultant and author, writes:
Almost two years ago in the TES magazine, writing about poor behaviour in schools, I argued that there is a substantial group of children for whom school is in no sense a meaningful option. I stressed that, whatever Ofsted might do, or politicians might think, teachers couldn’t mend this crippled limb of our society. Sir Michael Wilshaw responded the following week by claiming he had, an unshakeable faith in the power of high-quality teaching and he couldn’t accept my conclusion that, in the end, there is nothing schools can do in the face of this. Indeed, he went on to stress how outstanding schools and teachers were indeed doing just that. Well Sir Michael’s faith seems to have suffered a Vodka Martini moment: if not shaken, then at least a little stirred. In an imminent Ofsted report he appears set to blame lax heads for a “culture of casual acceptance” of misbehaviour in the classroom. Jibes about his failing to pay attention or being too busy talking, however tempting, are just too easy, so instead I’d like this time to draw Sir Michael’s, and the entire Ofsted cult’s attention, to the fact that outstanding teaching more often than not isn’t outstanding at all. Followers of this cult not only think they know what outstanding teaching looks like, they actually believe it can address the appalling behaviour many teachers and children endure day after day, in school after school – behaviour considered intolerable in any other workplace. Anyone who has looked, as I have, at the international research on excellence in the classroom, can’t fail but be struck by the degree of agreement between researchers about the only things that distinguish excellence from everything else. Excellent teachers exhibit a passion for their subject, and a depth of knowledge about it that others neither exhibit nor attain. The rest is at best, window dressing; and at worst, fraud. Yet in spite of this, in the last two decades and more, a chorus of cult voices – organisational, political and individual – have urged on the profession the existence and value of generic teaching skills. The considerable expanse of clear water that I know exists between a primary school specialist, and me, an ex-secondary English specialist, has been muddied and silted up by efforts to argue that teachers are teachers, wherever they work, and that classroom skills are much the same. One of the most offensive symptoms of this has been the nauseating rise of that oxymoronic euphemism – behaviour management. It’s no coincidence that survey after survey of teachers who leave the profession cite pupil misbehaviour as a key reason. It’s no coincidence that of the 30 to 40 per cent of US teachers who leave the profession within the first five years, it is the brightest who are most likely to move on.
Subjected to these pressures, many perfectly able teachers in badly-run schools feel the need to deal with misbehaviour by embracing a cult-like palette of generic teaching skills, dictating everything from the way a teacher physically organises their classroom space to their assessment practice and the degree to which they participate in lessons. Many more personally affected individuals than me have effectively criticised Ofsted’s prescription for what constitutes outstanding teaching – the playing with mannequins that so many outstanding Ofsted reports commend. These criticisms of Oftsed inspectors’ prescriptive tendencies illustrate what happens when these generic skills are given not just credence, but value. But in anticipation of Ofsted’s behaviour report, I’d like to reissue my call for a genuinely innovative response to an intransigent problem, instead of more introspective chanting by cult followers. When Charlie Taylor, was still being dubbed “behaviour tsar” (mercifully no longer), he responded to a Commons education select committee by saying: “For some schools, because of the nature of children who come their way, because of the backgrounds that some of those children come from, because there is not that covenant of support between parents and home that used to be in place, it is not there. No one, not even excellent teachers, can succeed where this covenant doesn’t exist.” When you look hard at the behaviour problem and make an effort to understand it from a classroom perspective, misbehaviour in both the primary and secondary sectors is of two basic types. The first is children who genuinely need help and expertise from professionals other than teachers. Some children do indeed need educational psychologists, social workers, the police and a wide range of other agencies to intervene, if they are to participate in formal school lessons successfully. The second is children of families Charlie Taylor referred to in his evidence, those who simply do not understand the covenant that exists the world over, between schools, parents and children. Nothing Sir Michael and Ofsted can do to increase the numbers of outstanding, or even excellent, teachers in England’s schools will make the slightest dent on this problem. Schools are not the right tools for the job and we still don’t know what are, at least not yet. But what we do know is that by failing to do something more effective than we are doing, we damage the education of children who do understand the covenant, we discourage and lose potentially excellent teachers, so ultimately, we prevent schools from improving. Listen up this time Sir Michael.