So eight out of ten schools are good or outstanding, according to the annual Ofsted report from Sir Michael Wilshaw, while the publication of League Tables for primary schools today shows that hundreds of schools in England have failed to hit tougher literacy and numeracy targets brought in this year. Targets were missed by 767 of more than 15,000 schools in which final-year pupils took national SATs tests. Individual schools are now deemed to be below target in fewer than 60% of their pupils do not achieve Level 4 or higher in reading, writing and maths and pupils are not making the expected progress in these three subjects between the ages of seven and 11. Those falling below targets could be put under new leadership, turned into academies or closed down. There are large swathes of England where below 58% and between 58 and 62% of schools fail to achieve the national average of 63% especially in East Anglia and the South-East, Yorkshire and the North-East and along the Welsh Marches while London—previously regarded as an education ‘black spot’ scored above average in all but three boroughs. Sir Michael Wilshaw said the regional gap was like ‘two nations’.
For those teachers in the blighted areas, this will all be dispiriting and it is hardly surprising that schools in these areas have problems recruiting good staff. Sir Michael said there needed to be a fairer distribution of good teachers and school leaders across the country, with incentives to encourage the best teachers to move to the areas of greatest need. He also said on Newsnight yesterday evening that he felt that the probation period for teachers should be extended from the current year to three or even five years before full teacher status should be awarded. This may well be a good idea since many weak or failing teachers are ‘persuaded’ to leave one school by heads offering to write good references so they can get a job elsewhere—the evidence for this is apocryphal and its extent unclear though in my experience it does happen. I have never understood why teachers who fail with students year in year out and whose daily experience must be one of continual stress don’t make the decision to leave the profession anyway. In some cases I’ve seen, it’s simply a case of self-delusion—things can only get better—while for others they simply keep battling on and failing. Better for them and definitely for their students that they leave the profession as soon as possible and if Sir Michael’s proposal aids that process so much the better.
It seems that, although bad behaviour in schools is declining, low level disruption remains a critical issue for many teachers. When I started teaching I remember being told by a very successful senior teach that ‘if you think you have a class of absolute bastards in front of you, you’ll never be disappointed’. At the time I thought this was remarkably cynical but experience showed its truth. The vast majority of students want to learn but they can be held back by those students who chatter, go off task or won’t participate in the lesson. This means establishing clear and unequivocal rules within the classroom with known sanctions for those who breach those rules. When I was teaching I would, at the beginning of each term, lay down the rules that operated in my classroom—I also had them pinned to the wall—don’t talk unless I tell you to, do the work you’re asked to do to the best of your ability and ask for help if you need it, and contribute to discussions when asked and if you don’t know the answer say so. Clear and simple. Similarly the sanctions: extra help for those not working to the best of their ability during break or lunch for 15 minutes rising to 30 minutes for those with particular problems; zero tolerance of chatting with daily silent detention at lunchtime for up to 30 minutes. This was applied across my departments and within a term we had very few students in silent detention and, though there are always students with difficulties these decreased as well. Students knew where they stood, what was expected of them and what they could expect from us and it worked—outcomes in class improved, results improved, student self-esteem improved and lessons became what they should always be, a joint learning experience for teacher and student that was focused, enjoyable and led to student success. We also used student questionnaires at the end of each term to gauge student attitudes and identify areas where individual teachers or the department as a whole could do better and fed its conclusions back to the students. Giving students a voice and respecting that voice is central to any joint learning experience.
But what about those students for whom this didn’t work? Well, for a few it didn’t matter what you did, what sanctions you employed or threatened, they were always going to be a problem. I’ve put students in my office with the work to remove them from the class so that they did not disrupt others and sometimes this had the correct effect—no audience, no problem. My department moved students across classes to see whether they would be better with a different teacher, again with some success. However, you’re unlikely to win with every student and then your aim must be to minimise their effect on other students and hope that other teachers in other subjects will do better than you do. There is a point at which banging your head against the wall becomes enduringly painful!