Who shall punish the punishers?

28th November 1997 at 00:00
You snivelling wretch. You curmudgeonly nincompoop. You creepy, useless, bankrupt little toad. You moaning, skiving, loafing, idling parasite. You cringing, whinging piece of yak dung. You . . ."

Oops! Sorry about that. I was so taken with the proposal that headteachers of failing schools would be called in to see ministers if they failed to improve, I got carried away trying to envisage the scene, as hapless head met angry minister.

It raised the whole question of retribution and what should be done with people who fail to meet their obligations. There is a certain irony in those normally expected to administer reprimands, actually being sent away to receive some themselves.

The rules on the punishment of pupils are fairly clear. It must be what is called "reasonable and moderate", administered in good faith, such as is usual in the school, and what a reasonable parent might expect to be given. So extra work is permissible, but thumbscrews and boiling in oil are not.

One major function of school sanctions is to terminate the behaviour that is disapproved of, and to prevent reoffending. Some forms of punishment may not always achieve this.

When I started teaching we had a rota of teachers, each taking it in turn for a week to supervise pupils kept in at lunchtime or after school. One of the old lags told me that he made detainees copy out chunks of Milton, on the grounds, mistaken I thought, that this would improve both their handwriting and knowledge of English literature.

During my week of duty, I decided on a different approach. On Monday, I asked all the junior criminals to devise an advertising campaign to sell fridges to Eskimos. On Tuesday, I got them to plan a society where there would be no crime. By Wednesday, the room was packed. Detention had become the most popular after-school club.

Teachers began to complain that pupils were misbehaving on purpose so they could be kept in after school. The old lag took me on one side, explaining that I must have got the wrong end of the stick, and offering to lend me a class set of Paradise Lost.

Sending failing heads to see the minister might have a similar effect. After all, the present crowd of ministers are a more interesting lot than some of their predecessors. It would have been a pleasure to be told off by Sir Keith Joseph, but being oiled to death by Kenneth Baker, bemused by John Patten, or to meet Kenneth Clarke, only to discover he did not know why you were there, would probably have had the most recalcitrant head begging to be let out.

In the absence of a rack nowadays, one minister could hold the head's legs and another grasp the head's arms. If the two of them then walked vigorously away from each other, the head would be stretched.

People seeing an excessively tall head could then say, "Hello. Been to see the ministers, then?", which would be tough on some poor head who just happened to be 6 ft 6ins anyway.

So will a day out in London and a ministerial wigging actually work? Only if it is related to other events. I can understand the frustration of people in charge, if every approach has failed. The desire to do something personally becomes overwhelming.

Schools will only improve, however, if the quality of teaching and learning within them gets better, and this needs action in the classroom. Local intervention will be necessary, with the emphasis on improving teachers' skills.

I would make the improvement of teaching and learning the top priority for all heads, and shred the useless bureaucracy under which so many have become buried.

A second step would be to close down all local authority business units which require advisers to meet annual financial targets by travelling to schools, sometimes hundreds of miles away, to do inspections for the Office for Standards in Education.

This is a huge waste of local taxpayers' money. What kind of business or educational sense does it make to earn about Pounds 200 per day for sending a skilled adviser to inspect some distant outpost, well outside the region, when it probably costs the LEA Pounds 400 per day in wages and overheads? Meanwhile the LEA's own failing schools are crying out for on-the-spot help. Madness.

If retribution is still necessary, then there must be a sliding scale of punitive sanctions that would concentrate the mind of any unsuccessful head. In one Monty Python sketch you could actually pay someone to shout insults at you, so perhaps that sort of service could become a reality.

If the professional shouter fails, then the equivalent of Orwell's Room 101 could be a library packed with national curriculum and vocational qualification literature. Heads would be forced to read about performance criteria, range statements and flangified breezlebums until they hammered on the window and promised to reform.

Like those computer games, where you eventually have to do battle with the monsters to be found in the higher tiers of the Kingdom of Thargon, there could be a final stage. The sanctions would be ranked in order of awesomeness, culminating in the ultimate.

The top four punishments, guaranteed to rescue even the greatest lost cause, would start with, in fourth place, being put in charge of someone else's failing school. This might not be too bad, as you could always tell morning assembly the story about Robert the Bruce, without everyone groaning, "Not that one again".

In third place would be a week trying to teach national curriculum design and technology to a non-examination Year 10 class, followed by, in second place, having to explain "competitive tendering" to some hand-picked dim governors.

The ultimate sanction would be a conducted tour of the OFSTED headquarters, followed by tea and scones with Chris Woodhead. Paradise regained, as Milton put it. They'd soon come off special measures.

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