Wild about real respect

16th September 2005 at 01:00
There is a problem when anyone, teacher, headteacher, or politician, reaches what I call the "obituary writing" stage of their career. It is the home straight when people review their track record, anxious what someone might say about them in their leaving speeches.

The ultimate nightmare is to receive weedy praise ("She was always good with the paperwork"), or the sort of terse but dismissive epitaph that Kenneth Clarke earned after being Secretary of State in the 1990s ("He came, he went"). Worst of all is to be given the "marmalade jar" treatment, offered the instruction given on the lid - "Turn slowly and push off".

The bad news is that the Prime Minister has now reached that crucial stage of his political career. Mindful that his slogan "education, education, education" will doubtless be thrown at him when he goes, he will increasingly interrupt his intergalactic trips to board up the hole in the ozone layer, or eliminate lassa fever, to make headline-grabbing statements about education.

This exaggerated personality approach is exactly what happens in sport. No longer do two football teams simply play each other. Instead Ferguson's United take on Wenger's Arsenal or Mourinho's Chelsea. In education, image invariably becomes more important than substance - with devastating consequences.

Every announcement from the spin machine will, in future, have "Blair" at the front: Blair's city academy programme a phenomenal success, Blair's respect agenda launched, Blair personally cooks nourishing school lunch for eight million pupils, Blair scratches his bum and 100 per cent pass A-level.

All the image-enhancing language will be wheeled out with key words like "tough" to the fore. Incidentally, the best therapy I know is to take a DfES press release and do a "find" and "re-place" on the key words, substituting, for example, "namby-pamby" for "tough".

Childish, I know, but there is a certain satisfaction to reading "Tony Blair today launched his namby-pamby respect agenda, introducing a whole series of namby-pamby measures aimed at eradicating the yob culture in schools".

At least the Prime Minister is consulting experienced teachers about classroom discipline, but the real question is whether their advice will take precedence over spin doctors' soundbites.

For the past few months I have been working with a group of badly-behaved 14-year-olds for a series of four programmes, The Unteachables, to be broadcast on Channel 4 from the end of September. Few people outside a school truly understand the problems and their possible solutions.

If you want a "respect" agenda, I have nothing but respect for the teachers who work day after day with challenging children. Politicians cannot begin to understand these realities, any more than we can grasp the complexities of the problems they have to face on a regular basis.

A few millennia ago adolescents on the threshold of adulthood would be out catching, skinning and cooking a mammoth. Today such challenges barely exist, though I can think of one of the girls in our programmes who could probably catch and cook the beast on her own.

Instead they have to sit still, while hormones rage around their bodies, sprouting large hands and feet and growing three to six inches taller in a single year. Their brains are programmed to rebel, but against what?

In the end, having been regularly entertained by a diet of cartoons, where the average shot length is three seconds, they rebel against the grind of becoming league-table fodder.

There is nothing spectacular in the five strategies we try out in the Channel 4 programmes: get some superb teachers to try to make the curriculum interesting and challenging, lay down boundaries and rules, establish positive relationships, keep parents and teachers informed and try to work in partnership, because that is where the real work is done.

The Government's respect agenda, driven by a politician looking for a headline and a ticket to immortality, is more likely to involve a sledgehammer, a cosh, thumbscrews and a bag of broken glass.

Yet what is inescapable is that true respect is mutual: children respect their best teachers, be-cause their best teachers in turn treat them as human beings. This does not mean that they are never firm, or that they are afraid of confrontation, just that they are fair and well-motivated.

I won't spoil the Channel 4 series by telling what happens, but I have rarely been so exasperated, nor so ecstatic, at different events. Any politician with a would-be respect agenda should get a bit closer to the actualities faced by many teachers every day before pontificating.

He might be given the traditional invitation to procreate in a direction away from the speaker, but he might also discover what has a sporting chance of actually working.

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