Latest postcard – the problem with schools

I was in London for a few weeks before flying back to Africa, to Uganda then Zimbabwe. I met a friend of mine for lunch in Carnaby Street.  (I don’t know when it got so media-trendy, wasn’t it once all DM boots?)  My friend was a teacher with me and is now working as a consultant for the financial sector.  Sure it’s fast-paced and sure there’s money in it, I said, but isn’t it a hard slog, isn’t it stressful?  No it wasn’t.  Not when you compare with it with our lives as teachers, she said.Now that doesn’t make sense does it?  Consulting for the finance sector, in arguably the world’s premier financial centre, at a time when the financial markets are roaring, is altogether better remunerated and less stressful than being a teacher?  How can we hope to recruit teachers, how can we ever expect to maintain a decent education system, when the choice for bright graduates is as stark as that?  Because, we will always need vastly more teachers than financial consultants.  And teaching should be an attractive career.  It can’t rely, like the priesthood, on an altruistic ‘calling’ to fill its ranks.

The problem is that we’re sending new recruits into structures that are utterly unsupportive.

I’m co-leading a chapter of a Teach First policy document to be presented to the House of Lords in November.  The chapter looks at the organisational structures of schools and attempts to find solutions to four key problems we’ve identified.  Please take a look at Jacobkestner.wordpress.com to see these problems explained, and take me to task on whether or not we’ve identified them correctly, and if our solutions stand up to scrutiny.

The fug of learning (…and the need to think horizontally)

In most schools teachers are incentivised to think principally in terms of, and held accountable primarily via, departments.  We can call this a vertical organisational structure.  There is little time for meaningful cross-departmental analysis of pupil progress or to coordinate teaching strategies.  This, combined with the failure to make explicit the ‘big picture’, means that pupils are too easily and too often lost in a fug of learning.

The ammunition run (…why relationships matter 1)

The ammunition run was the name given to the several-times-a-day dash my History corridor colleagues and I had to make from our classrooms to the photocopying room on the other side of the school.  Inevitably the dash would result in our being embroiled in all manner of low level disruption.  Involving relatively little hassle if you happened to teach the perpetrator, an inordinate amount of time was wasted if we happened to confront one of the rest of the school who remained strangers to us (and us to them).

Crushed by numbers (…why relationships matter 2)

One of the problems with the structuring of urban complex schools is that they do not take into account the central importance of relationships for effective learning and meaningful accountability.  Quite simply teachers are jointly responsible for too many pupils.  Pastoral responsibility is dispersed and so diluted between too many adults.  Joint responsibility, shared between so many people, too often equals no responsibility.

The hoodie problem

Urban comprehensives, particularly, are blighted by a critical mass of students ill prepared for education.  Too many schools have allowed the negative influence of a minority to prevail, drawing in others, and resulting in the extremely high incidence of low-level disruption that we see today.  A tipping point has been reached – antisocial behaviour has been allowed to become the norm.

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5 thoughts on “Latest postcard – the problem with schools”

  1. The problem with schools

    The current model is problematic. It’s like the components of a mechanical pulley working in reverse. Rather than working to multiply the effort of the operator, urban complex comprehensives require enormous effort just to maintain a trickle of an output. Teachers are burnt out and exhausted and the fruits of their efforts are that the world just about doesn’t fall down around their ears – not too many fights occur, not too many expulsions and just enough GCSE A*-Cs. The current urban complex model results in four key failings.

    The fug of learning (…and the need to think horizontally)

    Most schools are organised on the basis of departments; teachers are incentivised to think principally in terms of, and held accountable primarily via, departments. We can call this a vertical organisational structure. Yet the real measure of a successful school is whether each year its pupils leave having progressed through, and achieved success in, a balanced curriculum (i.e. ‘output’ is really measured horizontally). In the current vertical model there is little time for meaningful cross-departmental analysis of pupil progress, indeed the organisational structure is antipathetical to it, and it is too easy to write-off a pupil’s failure in essay writing in Geography but success in History (perhaps because of the History teacher’s use of a more effective learning strategy) as due to that pupil ‘not liking Geography’. What’s more, the lack of a coordinated approach across subjects and the failure to make explicit the ‘big picture’ means that pupils are too easily and too often lost in a fug of learning. This organisational structure is disjointed because it considers departmental (vertical) accountability to take precedence over cohort or year group (horizontal) accountability.

    The ammunition run (…why relationships matter)

    The History classrooms in the school I used to teach at are at the opposite end of the building to the photocopying room. The dash between the two we called the ammunition run. You had to approach this several-times-a-day run with one of two attitudes. The most popular was to pretend you hadn’t seen the litter dropping and the fighting and hope you avoided the flak. The other, nobler, approach involved (much like the allies in parts of Iraq) attempting to quell and resolve every incident and engage every insurgent. If you happened to teach a pupil caught in the act of pouring his drink down the stairs you had a good chance of knowing his name and, because he already knew you didn’t take much nonsense and because at the start of each lesson you’d joke with him about his football team, of dealing with the problem with relatively little hassle. For the rest of the school whose names or football teams you didn’t know, and who in their turn remained ignorant of your reputation, choosing not to ignore the drink pouring required a disproportionate time commitment and inordinate disruption. The moral here is that knowing your pupils matters. Relationships matter. Relationships are the fundamental drivers of social development with the greatest transformative potential, yet our schools allow the majority to remain strangers to each other.

    Crushed by numbers (…and why relationships matter 2)

    One of the problems with the structuring of urban complex schools is that they do not take into account the central importance of relationships for effective learning and meaningful accountability. Quite simply teachers are jointly responsible for too many pupils. For example, a humanities teacher with an additional responsibility, say as a Deputy Head of Year, will be indirectly responsible for around 400 pupils. If they misbehave or don’t make any progress he’ll share responsibility for dealing with them with those pupils’ other subject teachers, several Form Tutors (who are teachers like him, with the addition of a twenty minute a day registration period), Heads of Year and Department Heads, probably Attendance Coordinators and School Counsellors and if things get serious the Special Needs department, the Assistant Heads and Head, and even the Educational Psychologist. There are two problems here. Firstly our teacher is simply responsible for too many pupils. Yet even for those teachers without an additional responsibility teaching subjects that allow them to see far fewer pupils, there is a problem. That is that the pastoral responsibility for pupils is dispersed and so diluted between too many adults. Joint responsibility, shared between so many people, too often equals no responsibility.

    The hoodie problem

    At the heart of much current debate on the importance of schools developing a strong ethos is an acknowledgement that schools must do more to counter the prevailing anti-education culture prevalent among too many young people. Urban comprehensives, particularly, are blighted by a critical mass of students ill prepared for education and resistant to authority. We could call this the hoodie problem. It is not to say that kids are necessarily far worse than they have been in the past. Rather that too many schools have allowed the negative influence of a minority to prevail, drawing in others, and resulting in the extremely high incidence of low-level disruption that we see today. A tipping point has been reached – antisocial behaviour has been allowed to become the norm.

  2. From jmb via email:

    Yes the problem is complex and multiple answers will be needed…do teachers
    salaries need to be linked to MPs salaries, it is arguably going to change as
    many people’s lives, perhaps even over a longer time span.

    the problem with the curriculum is that it is irrelevant to 70% of the kids
    who suffer it. It is not tackiling the things which kids are interested
    in/preoccupied by…their relationshsips with vriends/famil and authority, it
    is not about their developing concept of self and individuality, it is not
    about the technologies which fascinate them and not about the worries about
    the future which worry them in their more serious moments. Neither is it
    taught generally by people who care first about establishing a secure and warm
    respectful relationships with kids. many of these 70% are already badly
    damaged by education itself and by life….Bowlby estimated 30% in 1980 I
    would hazard a guess at perhaps even 50% now who have little sense of meaning
    and fulfilment about their lives.

    the problems of mistrust, anger, sadness and disillusionment in large sections
    of society may stem at least partly from the fact that most babies and young
    kids have a large number of carers. many do not have the (probably
    biologically needed) two parents at home with one particular parent who is
    always and reliably there….a secure base. Our economy has become so driven
    by both parents (if the child is lucky) having to work to pay the rent or
    mortgage, longer hours than any other country in Europe and less holidays and
    a culture that insists on everything now. Compare the emotional and cultural
    insecurities of the 14 year olds life here in England with the situation in
    Uganda where (unless it has changed considerably since AIDS and Amin) the
    majority of children at least feel part of a family, an identifiable culture
    and probably feel loved despite the fact that their material needs are not
    sufficiently met.

    Schools here are the only agency which can address the issues of insecurity,
    anger and disappointment shared by many of our kids. Smaller classes (20 max)
    a meaningful curriculum, warm and secure relationships, flexible days and
    spaces for learning and as you say a dedicated. well paid and well educated
    (educated not trained) teaching force is what we need.

  3. ‘Neither is it taught generally by people who care first about establishing a secure and warm respectful relationships with kids’. The research is worrying isn’t it?!

    I am increasingly thinking that just as important is the structure in which we are trying to promote ‘good’. I heard on radio 4, I think, the guy responsible for the Stanford Prison Experiment, who spoke for one/some of the defendants in the abu ghraib trials. There is little doubt in my mind that current urban complex school structures too often promote alienation, anxiety and, I don’t think it’s too strong to say, brutality. The advocation of ‘human scale’ schools (from EF Schumacher’s units of production being appropriate to their purpose) is supported by the data that tells us that in units of much more than 150 relationships are prohibitively difficult to construct. There is similarity between the evidence that when a murder happens in the courtyard of a huge estate everybody assumes somebody else has called the police, and the diffusing of responsibility to the point of non-existence in large schools.

    It is refreshing too, to hear an advocation that schools are the place in which we have the best chance of changing society and of tackling the consequences (and stemming the causes) of the various negative elements of our society.

  4. Plus c’est la meme chose, plus ça change.
    When I began teaching in the 1970s, vertical v horizontal was a big issue. Am I too cynical to suggest that these issues are made by careerists wishing to make their mark. There is no real debate on the theory: it is clear that vertical and horizontal must operate simultaneously. What is needed are the practitioners to make it work!

    “Relationships matter”! Is there a society on Earth that does not know this. Again, the theory is well known. Now implement it.

    The current debate on hoodies is the same as the current debate on long hair of the 1960s not to mention the current debate on the legth of the toga in the 2nd century BC. And the anti-education culture is probably less common now than in the past when the whole aim of the system in many parts of the UK was to create an economic and social cream. Until the 1970s almost all students left school without any useful qualification and so this is one area where as things have changed, things have not remained the same.

    Brutality is not new. Abu Graib is not new. Brutality is certainly more common in some societies than in others but I think that the most important variable is not the size of schools

    And if Uganda is really being held up as a model this would suggest that class size should be between 60 & 80 and teacher salaries should be reduced to $2/day

  5. We should have structures that best support our teachers and pupils. Currently they don’t, and part of the reason is a vague acceptance that “vertical and horizontal must operate simultaneously.” Organisational structure fundamentally affects how teachers work; how they are incentivised and held accountable. It is absolutely vital to properly consider whether or not the organizational structure is appropriate. It is not simply a case of saying we need more or better teachers. When a lack of clarity surrounding organisational structure results in systemic failings we need to clarify the structure. The appropriate organizational structure for schools is the one which aligns staff incentives and accountability with its desired output.

    And the question of implementing such truths as ‘relationships matter’ is exactly what considering the organizational structures of schools is all about. You have to create the environment in which relationships are allowed to matter.

    Of course the hoodies debate, to a greater or lesser extent, is as old as youth itself. Although, I suppose it’s a shame that as a society we are in an unprecedented position of wealth and civilization and yet still can’t really tackle the problem. And I accept your point that in general in society we probably have less of an anti-education culture than in many previous generations. What is new-ish, and worrying, is that the institutions we have for educating our youth allow themselves to be driven by minority anti-education viewpoints. In fact they allow those minority viewpoints to become, in many cases, the dominant culture.

    When I talk about brutality, this is what I’m talking about. British society is not brutal. Schools which have relinquished their ability to define their own culture and so positively affect the experience of their students, are often brutal. They are often and needlessly places of extreme anxiety.

    And, Ugandan education certainly shouldn’t be held up as a model!

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