Saturday, 10 July 2010

Spare the rod to promote learning.

Sit up straight! Stop sniggering at the back of the room! Head teachers in England are to be given greater powers to search pupils suspected of bringing weapons into school and given clearer guidance on restraining disruptive students as part of a government drive to improve behaviour.

They’ve certainly got their work cut out, according to Ofstead behaviour in one in six schools is no better than ‘satisfactory’, last year 8130 students were permanently excluded from school, 2230 of those were excluded for violent assault on a teacher or another student. Bad behaviour, it seems, isn’t just a problem; it’s a full blown epidemic.

Announcing the plans Schools Minister Nick Gibb said there was too much ‘low level disruption’ in schools and that his aim was to ensure that parents were able to feel ‘the classroom to which they send their children is a safe place where that can learn.’

Alan Steer, a former education advisor to the Labour government, welcomed the proposals, including granting anonymity to teachers against whom allegations of assault have been made, but described elements of the programme such as the use of after school detentions as ‘fluff.’ The real way to improve student behaviour was, he said, ‘to continually raise the standards of teaching.’

Chris Keates of teaching union NASUWT also expressed concern about the use of ‘reasonable’ force to restrain disruptive students, saying it might put teachers at risk if malicious allegations made by students who ‘know their rights but not their responsibilities.’

There is no question that discipline is an important part of the learning process, but in what appears to be an attempt to play to the gallery of popular opinion, the government risks making the mistake of thinking a ‘tough’ teacher and a ‘good’ teacher are one and the same. They aren’t, as anyone who didn’t go to Eton knows only too well.

We can all remember the tough teachers, every school however liberal had at least one, from our schooldays, martinets who ruled with a rod of iron, but were they the teachers from whom we learnt the most? Probably not, as Alan Steer points out discipline can make a students stay in their seats, but only good, meaning engaging, teaching can make them learn and want to go on doing so throughout their lifetime.

Sadly the sort of teaching that engages students imagination, often because it strays from, but never entirely abandons, the set curriculum and even, horror of horrors, encourages them to think for themselves has been the biggest casualty of the slow collapse of our education system over the past quarter century. Schools long ago stopped being seats of learning and became instead vast machines dedicated to churning out statistics for bureaucrats.

Bad behaviour is the most noticeable price we pay for allowing this to happen, particularly amongst boys for whom sitting cooped up in a classroom is a form of torture when what they most want to do is be active. Even the well behaved students lose out under the current system because rather than learning how to value knowledge and use it as a buttress for independent thought they learn instead how to regurgitate key words and pre digested answers. Useful skills if you’re going to be a junior minister, but not in any other field.

By all means give teachers the power to impose discipline in their classrooms, but if we really want to solve the problem of low level disruption the government has to take the bigger step of setting them free to engage their students in something more than just preparing for an endless round of exams.