I was incensed on Saturday by the remarks of Katharine Birbalsingh, the teacher who criticised the comprehensive school system at last year’s Tory Conference, on Any Questions. Birbalsingh, who’s always claimed state schools don’t do well because of indiscipline, blamed the riots we saw this month on the lack of discipline within schools, saying they happened because of ‘a loss of authority both in the home and in our schools’.
While discipline may benefit some pupils achieving high grades, the academies people like her support centred on discipline and strictness leave behind far more young people than they get to the top universities. No doubt, supporters of academies like Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney will point out that 7 students from a school in such a disadvantaged borough got a place at Cambridge (the Mail covered it with typical narrow-mindedness ). Yes, that’s great. But what about the many students who have been expelled from a school so notorious for its strictness? You never hear about them in the papers. Or do you? It’s my guess a few of them – some of the many kicked out of school for minor infractions - took part in the riots you saw in Hackney and all over the country.
It's no wonder schools like Mossbourne place so well in the league tables when they've excluded and in doing so abdicated all responsibility for the children they perceive as having behavioural problems rather than actually trying to solve them. Mossbourne et al place so much emphasis on academic achievement, too, that their kids – even those who do well grades-wise – miss out on a whole load of things. Exchanges and life experiences like the trip to Madagascar some of my friends at my own state school went on are things Mossbourne etc. wouldn’t dream of allowing pupils time off lessons for can be so much more important than two weeks of classes. They can help shape someone’s life choices or teach them valuable lessons in a way that activities in classes – however good the teacher – cannot.
Think about your best teachers. Did they always feel the need to reassert their authority and severely punish anyone misbehaving in class? Mine certainly didn’t. They didn’t need to. Everyone respected them. You know why? Because they respected their students and showed it. This is not to say they’d never tell anyone off, but they wouldn’t for the sake of it in lesson 1 in order to assert their authority, nor would they throw a student out or report him/her to the heads for one piece of disruption, as many do in Mossbourne, where kids have been sent home on the first day for wearing the wrong shoes. All pupils – including those who might sometimes cause disruption in classes with stricter teachers where there isn’t mutual respect – liked them, not because they were lenient (though they were) but because they encouraged their students, got everyone involved and got them good grades. Birbalsingh and her Tory friends are confusing being hard on your students with pushing them. There’s a difference between being strict, not accepting anything but exemplary behaviour and pushing your students to the limit and motivating them into working hard, which involves respecting and encouraging them.
Schools have the fundamental responsibility of avoiding putting kids in the position of Jamie’s Dream School children, where they’ve dropped out and there’s no way back (unless you’re one of the 20 to be picked for the programme, of course). Kids are often put in this position because of severe punishment. The vast majority of UK schools frequently expel pupils in the middle of a school year, giving them no second chance and leaving them in a very difficult position. Just because of one ill-advised piece of behaviour, they can be frozen out of the education system completely.
It can be scary enough starting at a new school at the start of the new year having done nothing wrong, let alone – I imagine – mid-term when you’ll be asked by teachers and peers alike what you did to get kicked out of your last school. Many kids never recover and never pick up qualifications they’d otherwise have attained if not for the draconian measures which saw them evicted from their school. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and to exclude a child completely in most cases is simply wrong. I’m not saying ruffle their hair and act like nothing happened, but don’t freeze them out of education for one misdemeanour. At least give them a second chance.
Just like in crime, people on the right like Birbalsingh will argue severe punishments are a deterrence. But if you look at what people like her would call ‘reoffending’ rates among pupils expelled from one school, you’ll see it clearly doesn’t work. Zero tolerance approaches can have quite the opposite effect, and make kids feel disillusioned and less likely to reform. Why would they want to pay back the system that’s failed and excluded them?
I was also aghast listening to the programme at the support among panellists for Michael Gove’s plan to bring back ‘traditional A-levels’ where all exams are in the second year. I could hardly think of a worse thing to do to the education system. Modular exams mean the first year isn’t ‘doss’, as several adults have told me it used to be when they were doing A-levels and keep students working hard throughout if they want good grades. Birbalsingh was saying students ‘should be rewarded for hard work and punished for bad behaviour’ yet was speaking against the modular system which precisely rewards hard work. I’m not saying the examination system is perfect – far from it. The exam boards – private companies, let’s not forget, making money from exam papers – make countless mistakes, in setting the papers as often as in marking. I’m one of the many to have suffered in the past from errors in marking and indeed my grades in two subjects were altered significantly after re-marks. Its modular nature is not one of the problems of the examination system, however.
Birbalsingh and co. seemed to be claiming that modular exams allow students to work harder in their AS exams to ‘get good grades/points in the bag’ so that they don't have to work hard in ‘harder’ A2 exams. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Did they seriously think we could just work hard at AS and not in the more difficult A2 exams? Even if we were to get near full marks at AS, we couldn’t get anywhere near an A or A* without doing well at A2.
Sometimes I wish Gove was expelled from the cabinet and Birbalsingh banned from the TV. There are enough right-wing nutters on there (David Starkey's not alone) - please don't let's allow them to mess up our education system.