To impose army-style discipline is going over the top

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Does anybody outside schools truly understand that teaching is actually a very difficult job? The latest magic answer to teacher recruitment, it is reported, is to bring in retired officers from the armed forces. This, we are told, would be a particularly good idea in primary schools, which are very short of men. And army officers would have absolutely no trouble keeping discipline.

John Rae, the former head of Westminster public school, would not agree. In his book Letters from School he recalled that he had been a commander of a platoon of infantrymen as well as a teacher of 16-year-olds. He had no doubt that the former was a much easier job, even though his 16-year-olds would not have been the sort you would find in a Merseyside or Tyneside comprehensive. In the army, authority is sustained by military discipline, a clear and defined code, which forms the overriding ethos: officers simply do not have to bother about questions of, say, moral, spiritual or aesthetic development. Nor do they have to defer to the opinions of parents or governors or advisers.

Most important, perhaps, the army separates leadership - in the sense of training, deploying men in battle, organising resources - from the rough and tumble of imposing order, which is carried out by non-commissioned officers. Imagine how the teaching profession would be transformed if the teacher's sole function was to "deliver" the curriculum while sergeant-majors prowled the desks, barking at misbehaving children.

"The teacher's authority is his own," concluded Rae. "The army officer's authority depends on factors outside himself. (He) does not hesitate to see himself as an expert on discipline, yet probably knows less about it than the average teacher."

This question of authority seems to me to be the most important issue in teaching. A teacher's authority has to be earned, and it is not easy to say how it is done. Certainly, it is nothing to do with a masculine voice, or even a loud voice. Nor is it anything to do with the readiness to impose sanctions. The most effective disciplinarian at my grammar school in the 1950s was a tiny, quietly-spoken classics mistress who could quell a class with a single glance. Most people can recall a similar figure, and Gerald Haigh, writing in The TES last year, showed that such exemplars still exist when he featured a 5ft 3in female deputy head in Birmingham, who could bring 450 teenagers to immediate silence.

What do these people have in common? The answer, as Haigh observed, is self-confidence: the possibility that any pupil would dare to ignore their commands never crosses their minds. They speak, and they expect to be obeyed.

I do not suppose anything could have dented the confidence of my classics mistress or could now dent the confidence of Haigh's deputy head (who broke up a fight between two Hell's Angels when she was 17). But for most people, I think, confidence is more fragile. As Haigh put it, they are "subliminally fearful that The Great Bluff will be called . . . they back off, change tack and give confusing messages".

How much, I wonder, does the present social climate, and the present debate about education, help to shore up teachers' authority and confidence. Suppose that the Secretary of State for Defence was to announce publicly that some army regiments were failing and that, unless their commanders pulled themselves together, they would be disbanded. What would that do for military discipline? Suppose that the Chief of Staff kept repeating concerns about the number of incompetent colonels. What would that do for the morale of fighting men?

The reality is that similar doubts about the performance of the armed forces would be hushed up on grounds of national security: to reveal our chaps' weaknesses would give aid and comfort to potential enemies. Yet ministers, inspectors and top officials never hesitate to undermine teachers as they face the enemy in the classroom. I do not doubt that there are failing schools and I do not doubt that there are incompetent teachers. I have no quarrel with those who argue for ruthless action against failure and rank incompetence and I agree that this is long overdue: indeed, I am with John Rae who (writing, let it be noted, about public schools) observed that the failure to dismiss bad teachers was the single biggest weakness of all the heads he knew. But is it really necessary to turn the whole thing into political theatre, with a new government trying to show that it can close more schools, more dramatically and more quickly, than its predecessor?

Chris Woodhead doesn't think that teachers' morale should be an issue. Children don't learn more just because their teachers' morale is high, he argues. He is wrong, and I defy him to show me a successful school staffed by demoralised teachers. Can he believe that children learn from teachers who suffer exhaustion, excessive drinking, chronic ill-health, depression, insomnia - all documented effects of the changes of the past 10 years? Does he think that, when teachers are clamouring to leave the profession, they can be conveying to their pupils excitement and appetite for learning? And does he think that teachers' authority in the classroom is enhanced by his portraying them publicly as the half-witted defenders of unworkable ideologies?

In other walks of life, including the armed forces, failure and incompetence are dealt with quietly but quickly. I do not see why it shouldn't be like that in schools. I would prefer a few speedy court martials and secret dawn executions to protracted public trials and the slow death of teacher morale caused by the sniping of ministers, officials, inspectors and assorted pundits. It is time for those who run education to put up or shut up. Let them discharge, honour ably or dishonourably, those few who neglect their duties. And, having got them out of the way, let them then announce that the rest of the school system is in rude health and set about restoring teachers' confidence and authority.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today