I’ve been revisiting series four of The Wire (‘No Corner Left Behind’) – yes, the one about education and, statistically, one of the most viewed series ever. In one episode Howard Colvin, ex-cop, now mentor for 10 ‘corner’ kids (the so-called ‘unteachables’) has the following speech:
“You put a textbook in front of these kids, put a problem on the blackboard, teach them every problem in some statewide test, it won’t matter. None of it. ‘Cause they’re not learning for our world; they’re learning for theirs. They know exactly what it is they’re training for and what it is everyone expects them to be. It’s not about you or us or the test or the system. It’s what they expect of themselves. Every single one of them know they’re headed back to the corners. Their brothers and sisters, shit, their parents. They came through these same classrooms. We pretended to teach them, they pretended to learn and where’d they end up? Same damn corners. They’re not fools, these kids. They don’t know our world but they know their own. They see right through us.”
I was reminded of this when listening to our Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, recently make a speech on some of the most intractable problems facing teachers and schools. I’d recommend you read the entire speech and not just the tweeted version. There’s much in the speech to be applauded, and the fact that he’s tackling the problems of illiteracy, truancy, discipline and behaviour head on is, I guess, to be admired. But, therein lies the problem: Mr Gove can’t resist the controversial sound-bite – he refers to kids who leave primary school without the expected reading levels as an ‘educational underclass’ – and he appears, in this speech, to be in Rambo-mode (“there’s a merit in plain speaking”).
Anyone who’s been involved in schools appreciates that if there were easy solutions, to problems that have been around as long as schools themselves, someone would have found them by now. And he will no doubt realise this when his quick-fix solutions start to meet the harsh reality of implementation. I don’t doubt Mr Gove’s honest intentions in refusing to accept low expectations, but he only appears to talk about these kids, never to them, and therefore his proposed solutions never recognise that, what worked for him, might not work for everybody. It reminds me of the time I got lost driving in Ireland. I asked a passing farmer if I was on the right road for Kilrush. ‘You are’, he said, ‘but your car’s pointing the wrong way’. Mr Gove has the same aim in mind as most experienced teachers, but he keeps pointing the wrong way – determined to shape these kids to fit the system, than than acknowledge that we need to shift the way we teach, because they can’t learn anything if they’re not engaged, and what we’re doing simply isn’t engaging them.
So, before suggesting some other possible causes and fixes, let’s look at the detail of his concerns. First, credit where it’s due. Almost all teaching professionals have deplored the ways in which, over time, their hands have been increasingly tied and bound: tied by their inability to physically intervene when a student ‘loses it’ in class, and bound, by the demands of excessive paperwork. So, his removal of the ‘hands off’ strategy, in the case of physically aggressive students, and the abolition of lengthy reportage of such instances, has been broadly welcomed by the profession. Less popular has been his desire to instil discipline in the underclass, by bringing in the military and cadet forces.
As he correctly reminds us, we can only teach kids who are actually attending, (but conveniently ignores the fact that they can still learn, even when not in school!). So, he has a host of solutions for those excluded from school and those who are truanting. Estimating that over 1 million kids are missing between 10-20% of school, he draws a highly contentious link between attendance and passing exams (only 1/3rd of those missing 10-20% of lessons get the required 5 good exam passes, compared with half of kids attending all the time). Does he really think that kids, who are so bored or unsuited to conventional schooling that they withdraw themselves, are going to do any better if forced to attend?
And his assertion that ‘if they’re not in school when they’re 16… they’ll be on benefits, in gangs and on their way to young offenders institutions’ is ludicrous – tell that to Simon Cowell, Richard Branson, Sir Phillip Green, Ray Croc (founder of McDonalds), Frank Lloyd Wright, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney and Henry Ford – none of whom were in school at the age of 16, and many of them never attended school.
But Rambo needs to catch the bad guys, so, (biff!) there will now be ‘no notice’ inspections of schools with poor attendance records and (bash!) increased fines for the parents of young truants.
Oh Dear. Rather than find ways to increase fines for parents of truanting kids (because they are spending their money on satellite tv, alcohol and cigarettes, according to Mr Gove) perhaps we should look at how to adjust pedagogies so that these kids will want to be in school?
But pedagogy seems to be the least of Mr Gove’s interests. His preferred teaching style seems to be ‘sit ’em down, and make ’em have it’, so his criticism of Pupil Referral Units centres around the fact that ‘there is often no academic learning’. If he’d spent any time with kids who get excluded, he’d realise that it’s often precisely because of the transmissive delivery (whether that’s lecturing, copying from the board or rote memorisation) that these kids ended up in the PRU in the first place. Simply giving them more of the same isn’t going to work.
As we saw in ‘The Wire’ (and indeed in Jamie’s Dreamschool), it’s insulting to describe these kids as an educational underclass, and they are most definitely not stupid. Put them in real-life learning situations (for example, alongside the corner dealers on the streets of Baltimore) and they’ll show that they can calculate, negotiate and arbitrate with the best of them.
Mark Moorhouse is a deputy headteacher at Matthew Moss High School in Rochdale, one of our Learning Futures schools. The school is located in a difficult area, yet their discipline issues are considerably lower than most inner-city schools, partly because Mark believes that ‘95% of discipline issues are really pedagogical issues’. The fault isn’t always laid at the door of the student mis-behaving. All kids study transactional analysis and neuro-linguistic programming while in their first year of high-school. Literacy and numeracy is, of course, of paramount importance in the school. But so is project-based learning, learning how to learn, and valuing and respecting a learning community where kids respect adults because they themselves are treated in an adult manner, and their views given equal merit.
There may well be, as Mr Gove asserts, ‘an ironclad link between illiteracy, disruption, truancy, exclusion and crime which we need to break’. But there’s just as strong a link between boredom and disruption, and Mr Gove needs to appreciate that schools that are forced into drilling-and-killing a love of learning in their students, in order to game the system and thus escape censure, need to be encouraged to promote a values-based curriculum and be given the freedom to find the teaching methods that work best for all of their students, not just the academically inclined.
The Secretary of State is overly-fond of citing another of the Learning Futures participating schools, the Harris Academies, in South-East London, claiming their successes are down to ‘strict discipline, smart uniforms and respect for your elders’. Whilst there may be some truth in this, it’s only part of the story. For the Harris Academies instigated a student-led investigation into what makes great learning, and how their schools can become more democratic environments. They knew that sitting them down and making them have it would get you so far, but, they also knew that if students aren’t equal partners in their own learning, and co-designing innovative programmes, things will start to fall apart again.
Mr Gove may feel much better now that he’s apportioned blame (Pupil Referral Units, mobile phones and social media, a vicious, immoral minority, and irresponsible parents), and the right-wing tabloids momentarily vindicated. But, if Spinoza was right to say ‘the more we understand, the less we blame’, it’s also true that the more intractable the problem, the more we need to understand it – and bugger the political soundbite.