These scary tales hold simple truths

18th March 2011 at 00:00

I've just read two books about education, both with the same theme - our apparently deeply troubled secondary education system.

The first was To Miss With Love by Katharine Birbalsingh, who rarely seems to be out of the news these days (a shame she felt the need to borrow the title from ER Braithwaite's 1959 classic), and the second was Charlie Carroll's On The Edge. Both books make interesting, though depressing, reading.

Mr Carroll started his career in a popular and successful Cornish school, but decided he wanted something more adventurous. He bought a camper van, headed for the country's most deprived areas, and asked the supply agencies who served them to send him to the worst schools on their books. Since the agencies found it hard to cater for these schools, they obliged enthusiastically.

For an entire year, Mr Carroll's days were spent trying to tame pupils who were out of control, in a variety of schools and pupil referral units. He paints a terrifying picture - teenagers constantly swear at him, throw things at him, smash equipment and walk out when they feel like it. They all know their rights, but don't feel they have any responsibilities. Many haven't the slightest interest in learning, or being at school.

Mr Carroll describes staffrooms where morale is at rock bottom, senior management teams who keep well out of the way when problems arise, and a curriculum totally unsuited to most of these young people. One particularly gruelling encounter leaves him shaken and beaten, and for a while he doubts whether he can carry on. He wonders how teachers cope with this behaviour day after day. Frankly, so do I.

Ms Birbalsingh's book takes a similar stance. She was raised in a culture that values education and discipline, and in her relatively short teaching career she has been appalled by what she has found. Rather than remain in the school where she was a deputy head and attempt to help to sort out its problems, she chose to go public, and her high media profile has ensured awareness of the behaviour some teachers are confronted with.

The trouble is, most people already know this, just as they know about the problems in the health service or the difficulties of policing the streets. And, interestingly, both writers know exactly what is needed to put things right. In fact, I suspect most people - teachers especially - are very clear about what is needed. At one point in his book, Mr Carroll is sent to a school that is very different from the others. Yes, it's in a challenging, socially deprived area, but it's an effective school for easily definable reasons. The headteacher is highly visible. He loves his school, is proud of its achievements, and often teaches because he enjoys being with young people. Rare moments of poor behaviour are dealt with immediately by the senior management team, and staff feel valued and secure. The curriculum is rich and varied, with many enriching activities for the pupils.

Ms Birbalsingh's most recent school had been beset with problems for years. Why? Simple. Poor leadership and weak governance since the early 1980s. When a first-class headteacher was drafted in recently it changed beyond recognition, although too late for it to shake off its previous reputation.

Books such as Ms Birbalsingh's and Mr Carroll's are important reads, but there is a fair amount of scaremongering about them and the average reader could easily believe that what they describe is the norm. It isn't. And even in schools where it is, the route to putting things right isn't exactly rocket science.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email:

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