Ian Whitwham contrasts the days of putting pupils in their place with the task today of accentuating the positive
WE ARE back in the grim classroom of a 1950s' grammar school. I am a pupil. Deference, coma and literacy bloom.
It is a geography lesson. Mr Sam Morgan, fuelled by vodka, cornflakes and amphetamines, catches me in his bloodshot gaze and throws down an ultimatum. I must locate Venezuela on his globe. I develop a rash and walk to the front. We haven't done Venezuela.
"Well?" I might as well be pinning the tail on the donkey. I put a finger somewhere south of High Wycombe.
I locate it west of Sligo. Still no cigar. Random mirth doused by murderous glare.
"Rumble!" "Yes, sir - please, sir."
"What, Rumble?" "Sir - that's not my name."
I've been in his class for three years. I tell him my name.
"Well, Whitwham, whoever you are - you are stupid."
"What are you?" "Stupid, sir."
"I might as well be planting vegetables - they would bear more fruit."
"You make me want to blaspheme."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
He later develops these whims into report form: "He is stupid. Idle and stupid."
This is called Negative Reinforcement.
Most of my reports were couched thus. Terse, heartless and pretty accurate - but a bit savage on the self-esteem. I still twitch when I hear Venezuela.
Those days are goneI We are in the modern classroom. I am now the teacher. A boy - his childhood stolen - is walking towards me waving a piece of paper in my face. It is a report.
"'Ere, sir, fill it in then!" He gives me a blunt and gnawed pencil. "Better be good."
I write "Quite good". It is a lie. He has been busy breaking most of the laws of Christendom. He is a shrieking manipulator, a prompter of migraine.
Quite good... so were the Krays.
"Ah, come on, sir. You can't put that, sir."
"Well, I have done."
"Just fill it in proper, sir."
"Where's your wrk?" He hands me a truncated tale of some considerable violence.
"See - done it. Now just fill it in. Proper. Or my dad'll kill me."
I stick to "Quite good". It is surely enough to keep him alive and out of the Inclusion Unit - and me out of Intensive Care.
This is called Positive Reinforcement.
"Leave it out, sir."
We've tended to err on the side of the positive since my schooldays - to have embraced Toothless Euphemism over Stark Insensitivity. A good thing, too - though you can end up writing PR for hooligans. Thus nutters are praised for initiative, truants for rare sightings - and hoodlums for not setting fire to things.
And there are now boatloads of the stuff. The little mites are clobbered with reports - levelled and labelled and measured and mentored and marketed and boxed and psychobabbled and data-based. "Quite good" obfuscated.
And it's got more scientific, more management. You sit at the computer and click out the cliches. "He is on task, heat, drugs - or off task, trolley, rocker. Or "He could improve with more concentration" - so could a gnat - "or with better lesson preparation." Me, too. Or "His attendance has not hindered his performance." It has mine.
Even worse is self-assessment. The pupils are invited to scribble their own reports. They are condemned to composing gunpoint prose - creep's stuff. "I am working towards level 29 and feel I am becoming a mature member of the group."
It is to the Philosopher - King Nigel Molesworth, as ever - that we must turn for some sense on the topic. He "just said no" to any Improving Process. He suggests instead his own Bogus Report. You lie your head off.
We read that he "no all his grammar backwards", that his Greek "is beyond words". He would have no truck with the comforts of euphemism. "i am still working towerds levle too because I am a clot and hav attension span of nat - and i like it."
A rigorous and honest report.
Ian Whitwham teaches at a London comprehensive