Knowing How Bad It Is

downloadLike many others, I’ve been reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers lately, and it is a wonderfully invigorating experience. I am quite familiar with the ideas and practices of Michaela Community School, and warmly supportive, as my regular readers will know. But there are still many points in the book that provoke further thought and reflection.

Lia Martin’s essay contains a fascinating account of what it took to convince her fully of the necessity for a no excuses culture, and an unapologetic emphasis on high academic achievement. Like many others in the teaching profession, she was burdened with the idea that insisting on high standards of behaviour and academic excellence for everyone would mean that some were unfairly treated. Shouldn’t their personal circumstances and challenges be taken into account?

The turning point was when Lia visited other schools, and saw in practice what the ‘some excuses’ culture was doing for pupils, especially those with the most difficulties. Lowering expectations for them became a self-fulfilling prophecy, condemning them to following their emotions and impulses and failing to acquire knowledge. They were being deprived of exactly what they needed: people who believed that they were capable of behaving and capable of learning, and systems that would train them in the habits needed to make progress.

Lia had not realised until that point how pervasive and how damaging the excuses culture is across the education system. Having attended a grammar school herself, she had not had first hand experience of the low expectations and poor behaviour that are so widespread.

It is really important to know how bad it is. This is something for which Michaela are often criticised. They are accused of being divisive because they point out that they are different from most schools, that they achieve far higher standards of behaviour and learning because of their relentless, practical, detailed focus on discipline, habits and memory. But I am glad that they make this distinction. I don’t think education reform is going to come from those who are comfortable and complacent with the standards achieved by the majority of schools. It is going to come from those who face up to how bad things are.

This is one of the reasons I am glad that I went to a comprehensive school myself, although I didn’t learn very much there, apart from in the sixth form, which was of course academically selective. I’m glad I experienced a hellish NQT year in a comprehensive, being blamed for the poor behaviour of pupils in a school with no proper systems of discipline. I’m glad I experienced the nightmarish helplessness of being branded ‘satisfactory’ in another comprehensive where management were obsessed with achieving ‘outstanding’ by following the fads approved of by Ofsted inspectors.

But most of all, I’m glad there are brave and thoughtful people who have written books and founded schools and helped me to make sense of all these experiences, and the burden of bad ideas which has caused them, for me and countless other teachers and pupils. Getting to know these people, online, through books and in person, has opened up the possibility of dedicating my professional career to building something better. I’ve suffered, but I’ve found redemption.

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6 thoughts on “Knowing How Bad It Is

  1. I think you are spot on. I went to really good state schools although the majority (60-70%) were middle class. I am glad that I wasn’t the only child in the school with my background because my experience was not novel. I spent my whole childhood watching teachers maintaining sky high behaviour and learning expectations from all children regardless of class, gender, race, ethnicity, etc.

    It is the difference between my experience and that of the children I have taught in inner-city schools that is my issue with the current education system. I’m not going to be told now that I have to ignore my lived experience to accept that x, y and z circumstances automatically mean lowering standards for certain children.

    Moreover, the progressive camp argue for schools like the one I attended in principle but then place barrier after barrier towards it being made real for others. I don’t accept it and I don’t see why I should.

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  2. Completely agree with your last paragraph; I have spent a long time listening to senior teachers espouse how great their marking policy is or how everyone should take on their style of questioning. All the time I am thinking, this makes no difference and adds more time onto an already busy day. Methods at Michaela and others sharing via blogs and other means make a huge amount of sense. I am very appreciative of those that make the effort for common sense to prevail.

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  3. This sums up what I am experiencing at the moment. I feel frustrated by the reasons and excuses and ‘support’ that denies children to make real progress and take responsibility for their lives. Teaching in a comp at the moment is hard and I often feel like the loan voice surrounded by managers who think getting by is enough. Who believe SEN pupils will be ok on nothing tangible and where I need to be kind. Kindness is not always courageous.

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  4. I am afraid “systems” don’t train young people, “people” train young people. I would have to agree that there are significant benefits to a no excuses culture, but there are also significant costs.

    I would never wish my children or grandchildren to attend Michaela. My children and now my grandchildren all attended UK comprehensive schools. They are all well balanced and happy. They all have a like (I couldnt go as far as love with all) for learning .

    I have taught in tough UK schools, in fact I enjoyed teaching at the toughest so much I stayed there for 8 years. Your caracture of the UK education system seems a little hysterical. The vast majority of schools in the England experience good behaviour and see their pupils making good progress. I have never met a teacher who has anything but high expectations.

    I saw this week a well known edu blogger who said that they have done a day supply teaching and they could confirm that the crisis in UK schools is still very real. Based on a day in one school.

    I do start to wonder whether this phenomenon is partly one of teacher competence and experiences. In the worst schools I can see that a teacher could well find it impossible to teach due to the culture and lack of consistency etc

    My experience has however been that in most schools I have been to, a good teacher is able to deal with learners by developing positive professional relationships irrespective of whether SMT were a bunch of tossers or not. Those who speak most vocally about a “crisis” seem to be those who tend to leave the classroom. I am starting to think that this may be natural selection at work. Those who can teach, those who can’t don’t.

    I suspect that Michaela is a school where those who can’t but wish to stay in teaching go to work in a no excuses environment. They may be better teachers they may be worse teachers I have no idea, but I think some need and environment where “systems” keep control because as people they cannot

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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