Hawks, doves and the art of leadership

Watching the TV programme ‘Educating the East End’ on the day that Ofsted published its well trailed views on discipline in schools was illuminating, not so much for what happened on camera as for what was happening around the framed shots. If you put together that evidence with other programmes such as ‘tough young teachers’ and both ‘Educating Essex’ and Educating Yorkshire’ a pattern begins to emerge of what it is like teaching in these schools, especially for some teachers.

Overall one has to say that edited highlights of hours of filming that are need to fill a brief to entertain, inform and educate in that order may not be entirely reflective of the norms of a school. Nevertheless, the lack of graffiti, clean, mostly litter free corridors, and open spaces and classroom where displays can exist without being totally trashed suggest that there is an overall sense of order in these schools, with leaders knowing having a clear sense of direction and understanding what is expected of them. These are not ‘blackboard jungles’ in the fictional sense of the term or as depicted in the 1960s and 1970s by TV series and films such as Please Sir and St Trinians films. But, they are places with large numbers of adolescents starting the change from childhood to adulthood in a society where respect for authority is rarely a feature of everyday life outside of school.

Each lesson witnesses the battle of the soap opera that exists in many classrooms and this is evident in the TV programmes. The average pupil still too often tunes in at the start, tunes out once they know the plot of the lesson that continues to run in the background and only tunes back in at the end, especially if homework is being set. In the meantime whether they participate effectively or do their own thing depends upon how well the teacher handles the most disaffected elements in the class.

What I hope the Chief Inspector is saying is that time on task, and hence learning, is closely related to the classroom environment and that in turn is set by the level of control over the lesson that the teacher exercises. In a school, the tone is set from the top. This is especially important in those parts of the country where we now have large numbers of relatively inexperienced teachers. The number of such teachers will grow over the next few years as pupil numbers expand and assuming funding remains stable.

Creating learning environments for all pupils took me five years to achieve as an untrained teacher in the 1970s. These days we should expect better results from the preparation courses as we know so much more about learning and society than in the 1970s when teachers were coping with the new world of non-selective secondary schools. My field these days is not teacher preparation, so I don’t feel qualified to say how we should prepare our teachers or even really how we would run schools on a daily basis, but I suspect the moving line between authority and anarchy still exists in many schools. Creating learning for all while not stifling individualism is a tough ask and I respect those leaders that achieve it whether by being hawks or doves.

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